Under the Shadow
Directed by: Babak Anvari.
Written by: Babak Anvari.
Starring: Narges Rashidi (Shideh), Avin Manshadi (Dorsa), Bobby Naderi (Iraj), Ray Haratian (Mr. Ebrahimi), Arash Marandi (Dr. Reza), Bijan Daneshmand (Director), Sajjad Delafrooz (Secretary), Behi Djanati Atai (Pargol), Hamid Djavadan (Mr. Fakur), Soussan Farrokhnia (Mrs. Fakur), Aram Ghasemy (Mrs. Ebrahimi), Nabil Koni (Mr. Bijari).
Under the Shadow is a slow build horror movie, which would work almost as well as a drama had the film decided to eliminate the horror elements altogether. It takes place in Tehran in 1988 – during the decade long war between Iran and Iraq, and almost all of the movie takes place in one apartment building. It’s there where Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives with her doctor husband, and their young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Shideh wanted to be a doctor as well – and got far along in her schooling, but was eventually expelled because of political activity during the Revolution. She tries to continue her studies, but is rejected – and her husband isn’t overly sympathetic. When he is forced to relocate to help in the war effort, Shideh stubbornly refuses to leave the apartment with Dorsa to move in with his parents in a safer location – Tehran is being bombed daily, but she’s determined to stick it out.
This is pretty much the story of the first hour of the film – writer/director Babak Anvari slowly ratchets up the tension in the film, when Dorsa loses her beloved doll, and is told by another child in that building is haunted by djinn. That child, a little boy, is staying with another family in the building because his parents have been killed in the war – and according to his new guardians, hasn’t said a word since he got there. But something is haunting Dorsa right – and eventually Shideh, right? After all, Dorsa’s doll is missing, and Shideh’s Jane Fonda workout tape was destroyed and put into the garbage. And there’s other creepy things going on throughout the film.
One of the strengths of Anvari’s film is that he never really pulls back the curtain to have the big reveal. Right to the end of the film, it’s possible that the mother and daughter are really being haunted, and also that it is the delusions of the mother, fed by her daughters (relatively) normal childhood fears. The film has garnered, and earned, comparisons to Jennifer Kent’s brilliant The Babadook – even if I think Kent’s film is more accomplished, scarier and overall just a better film. But Under the Shadow is still able to wonderful convey the paranoia of Shideh – as he drives herself crazy with all the pressure that is mounting around her.
Under the Shadow is my favorite type of horror film, because it grounds its fears in real life. Ultimately, the source of the horror doesn’t really matter – ghost stories often do not scare me on their face, because I don’t logically believe in ghosts. Yet, in the case of something like Under the Shadow and its djinn – the horror works because it’s built into the characters. It helps a great deal that Anvari is a gifted stylist as well – yes, like most horror filmmakers, he isn’t above a good jump scare every once in a while, but for the most part, he builds up the terror naturally. In particular, he uses sound incredibly effective – this is a film full of constant noise – but it’s the kind of mundane, background noise we often do not notice. That makes the few moments in the film where everything goes quiet even spookier than they otherwise would be.
Under the Shadow is Anvari’s first feature as a director – and it certainly shows a lot of potential for a great career to come. The way he mixes realism with horror is something most experienced directors could not do. I cannot wait to see what he does next.