Director – Babak Anvari
Cast – Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi, Behi Djanati Atai, Aram Ghasemy
Release Year – 2016
Reviewed by John of the Dead
I grew an interest for this film after seeing it on most top 10 horror lists for 2016. From what I read it felt like Iran’s equivalent to The Babadook – a low budget atmospheric supernatural horror film with undertones of psychological horror. For the most part it is, and it left me riddled in goose bumps just like the good ole’ Babadook…dook…dook. Its simple story comes loaded with genuine chills, strong character performances, and the socio-political undertones associated with early 1980s Iran.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi), her husband Iraj, and her daughter Dorsa are an average family faced with the chaos of the Iran-Iraq war during The War of the Cities period. The post-Revolution government has not been kind to Shideh, who showed leftist subversion in the years prior. This has left her blacklisted from the medical college she was attending, shattering her dreams of fulfilling her late mother’s wishes to become a doctor. Their home city of Tehran has remained mostly safe during the conflict, but when her doctor husband is drafted to serve on the frontlines, she and Dorsa are left alone. Her husband’s pleas for her to leave the city and stay with her in-laws go ignored, and soon enough their apartment complex is rattled by an Iraqi warhead that failed to detonate. The seemingly fortunate incident proves to be the opposite, as strange occurrences begin plaguing the complex. Struggling to maintain a level head amidst the chaos, Shideh learns from a superstitious neighbor that the missile opened the door to a Djinn – a malevolent spirit that travels with the wind. As a woman of science she refuses to believe in such things, but with her daughter’s worsening condition, the realistic nightmares, and things going bump in the night, she faces an uphill battle against a demon taking full advantage of her disbelief…and her daughter.
Writer/director Babak Anvari makes waves with his debut feature film and he does so by keeping things simple yet expertly executed. His story begins with insight into Shideh’s life and struggles. Her desire to be more than the typical Iranian housewife, hence the reason she is the only woman in the complex who drives, is shot down thanks to decisions she made during the revolution. This same desire is what leads to something different regarding the usual mother/daughter bond we see in films. While a loving mother, she isn’t quite a nurturing mother. At times it feels like she blames her family life for holding back her dreams, and it doesn’t help that her husband gets to practice as a doctor as well. It is obvious she is a bold woman with aspirations, and because of the culture she lives in she is constantly faced with adversity anytime she flexes in the slightest. This adversity plays into the psychological state, as constant setbacks appear to tear away at her mental strength. Her desire for strength, while admirable, also proves to be an Achilles heel as it is also why she refused to leave the city and opened the door to the Djinn. It is a simple story, but at the same time there is much more than what meets the eye. Thanks to this, you’ll find yourself questioning the supernatural events taking place, just like Shideh is. You won’t know until later on whether these events are real or just taking place in her head, leaving you just as lost and confused as she is.
The first moment of horror hits about 35 minutes in, which occurs during the first night after the warhead hits. Anvari makes you aware that there is a supernatural presence embedding itself in the complex. It has its sights set on Dorsa, and subsequently, Shideh as well. The initial horror is a bit tame, but it grows insidiously as the story carries on. What impressed me with the horror is how effective it is despite Anvari not taking things too far. It doesn’t get too frontal, but I was still left with goosebumps running down my legs on at least two occasions. This is the result of good execution. There are some jump scares here and there (which I always find a bit cheap), but with a good number of legitimate spooks these jump scares don’t delegitimize the horror. Along with great execution of these scares comes solid atmosphere. The sets used for the apartment are great and provide the right amount of shadows to keep you on edge, waiting for the next jolt. Anvari excels in every fashion, finishing off with achieving solid acting performances from Narges Rashidi as Shideh and Avin Manshadi as Dorsa. Shideh goes through emotional extremes in this effort and Rashidi is excellent in bringing her character to life. I was equally impressed with Avin’s performance as Dorsa also went through a character transformation, and when you consider her age you should be more than impressed. This marks the second significant Iran-based horror film in two years, following A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, and I am happy to see good material coming from the area.
Overall, Under the Shadow is en experience I highly recommend to those who enjoy supernatural burners. Great execution of every element results in genuine chills that will leave you glad you gave this a shot.
If watching via Netflix streaming I suggest hitting the settings tab and changing the always-terrible English dub to the original Persian language with English subs.