Review: Under The Shadow

Director: Babak Anvari

Stars: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi

Horror films have been trying for years – decades even – to find convincing reasons for ordinarily sensible people to flee willingly into a dark and scary basement. By providing significant and thought-provoking context, Babak Anvari offers us the most believable one yet. But this is just a small aspect of this insidious little genre movie which quietly but irrefusably gets right under the skin.

It’s 1988 in Tehran. Iran and Iraq have been at war for eight grueling years and it has taken its toll on the city, which lives under increasing threat of missile bombings. Mother and aspiring doctor Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is introduced at the top of the film recovering from the loss of her own mother. To add to her woes, her dreams of a career in medicine appear dashed by her history of political activism. Already the pall of disappointment and failure hang over her, yet she keeps up her spirited role at home raising contrary daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi); a thoroughly believable little girl who is hopelessly attached to her doll Kimia.

Disquieting the status quo further is the news that her husband – qualified doctor Iraj (Bobby Naderi) – has been drafted into the army again and this time he is to be sent to the heart of the present conflict. Staying resolute and with a snatch of stubbornness, Shideh refuses to be thrown off-balance by these obstacles in her life; while others make plans to flee the city, the last thing she is prepared to do is leave her home.

This opening stretch is presented somewhat flatly as kitchen sink drama with little in the way of narrative or dramatic propulsion, and it’s easy to find Under The Shadow listless to begin with. The actors appear disengaged with one another (particularly Rashidi and Naderi). With it’s generic-as-they-come title and equally uninspired tagline (“fear will find you”), Anvari’s film threatens to prove to be just another disappointment following a summer of nondescript horror releases.

Things change remarkably as the film progresses. An unexploded missile tears a hole in the roof of the apartment building, and things gradually start escalating as insinuations of evil spirits carried on the wind – djinn – are circulated by the children living in the building. Dorsa’s prized doll Kimia goes missing – as does a treasured possession of Shideh’s. If the old stories are true, this represents a terrible omen for the mother and daughter; if these items have fallen into the hands of the djinn, then horror will prove inescapable.

The manner in which Anvari slowly, deliberately upscales the tension here is as impeccable as it is absorbing. The performances are all on point. Rashidi is immensely sympathetic as the increasingly strung-out Shideh, making some of her more irrational behaviours completely understandable. As the film boils down to just the two of them, young Manshadi avoids the intensely-annoying-child trap that even respected horror films fall foul of. Then there’s the equally measured sound design, which delicately wraps proceedings in an ominous swirl of howling wind and ratcheting disquiet. It becomes clear Anvari has been playing a game with us all along; opening with relatively mundane presentation only to contort it into something patiently nightmarish.

The film grows darker as it progresses; hope literally draining out of the colour scale until we’re left in the oppressive murk of the final act. Here, with the very real threat of further missile strikes, an air-raid siren propels our characters to charge into the basement. Hell, Anvari has already established that there’s no security to be found in their apartment.

So context is everything. Under The Shadow is entwined with a time and place very deliberately. While the supernatural threat is one thing, the film bristles with more overtly political ones. The ongoing warfare, sure, but there are other factors stitched into the unease. Shideh risks a lashing for running out of the apartment building without her head covered. The very fact that they own a VCR is something they need to hide. Societal norms we take for granted in the west are exposed as very real dangers in Iran and their inclusion speaks of an underlying hostility to intolerance that is still pertinent today.

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There are echoes of other horror films here. The growing crack in the living room ceiling is a blatant visual metaphor for Shideh’s rising anxiety, but it also recalls the damp stain that so troubled Hitomi Kuroki in Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (2002). A more recent connection can broadly be drawn to Jennifer Kent’s celebrated horror hit The Babadook, which travelled into similar realms, manifesting psychological traumas as an undefeatable domestic threat.

In practice, however, Anvari seems happier upending expectations established by the current crop of American mainstream horror filmmakers. The ‘set pieces’ (should you want to call them that) in Under The Shadow frequently ape the likes constructed by James Wan and co, right down to the framing. And on a couple of occasions Anvari follows through, providing us with the jump scare we were expecting. But more commonly – and far more unnervingly – he refuses to let us off the hook so simply. Under The Shadow starts to terrorise not because it exposes us to shocking images (the film coyly refuses to show us much of anything for a long while), but because it doesn’t allow us the release of a genuine tangible fright.

This makes it all the scarier. There’s precious little release, something further compounded by the frank denial of closure. The film’s final scenes undercut any sense of relief gained by a glimmer of sunlight with the insinuation that, really, nothing has been resolved at all. It leaves viewers exiting the cinema under a shadow themselves.

Regular readers will have perhaps noticed that I’m a sucker for a horror film and will make the trip for any and all that come my way. Few genuinely rattle me, but the suggested evils preying upon Shideh and Dorsa have followed me home; this in itself is a spine-tingling endorsement for what Anvari has achieved here. In terms of horror filmmaking, this is a high-brow diamond in the rough, one which will almost certainly be most impactful in the respectful dark of a cinema. Under The Shadow lingers. The Conjuring 2 may have been the year’s most enjoyable thrill ride, and The Witch takes the prize for overall mastery. But Under The Shadow is the year’s scariest film. Book your tickets accordingly.

Score:  5

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