Under the Shadow
British-Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari’s debut feature is a rich medley of tightly woven political, cultural, and psychological elements culminating into a gripping horror. Before it introduces supernatural elements, the movie establishes itself as a valuable social critique with a strong feminist message, and this solid foundation makes the paranormal aspects all the more powerful.
Set in Tehran during the 1980s war between Iran and Iraq, Under the Shadow is the story of Shideh, a young mother who is prevented from completing her medical studies due to past political activism. Her husband, a qualified doctor, offers sympathy but does not fully understand her frustration. When he is sent to work in a conflict zone, Shideh is left alone with their daughter Dorsa, whose behaviour becomes more and more erratic until she claims to see djinn, the ethereal evil spirits carried by the wind.
Under the Shadow is thoroughly satisfying as a horror feature as it respects the rules of the genre without overdoing the fear-inducing elements nor relying on them to make the story interesting. The tempo becomes relentless as the tension escalates steeply half way into the film. While it generates fear even to the point of provoking screams, however, if the scary dimension were removed the storyline underneath would still be appealing in its own right.
The psychological terror is present on several levels as Shideh must defend herself from an oppressive, superstitious society that confines and judges her and, beyond that, a country crumbling around her while evil spirits, as well as missiles, invade her space. The feminist allegory is loud and clear but never banal. It highlights the pressures and frustrations that women like Shideh are subjected to, without ever compromising the characteristic features of a horror film.
Narges Rashidi gives an excellent performance as the protagonist and the rest of the cast are equally convincing as their characters fluctuate between deep anxiety and attempts to lead a normal life.The camerawork plays a crucial part in blurring the borders between reality, dreams and fears personified. As the camera shakes and spirals, the sense of unease increases exponentially.
Combining women’s cultural struggles and the collective social trauma with the supernatural proves to be the winning card for this emotionally charged, thought-provoking film. As a horror movie, Under the Shadow hits all the marks, but it also offers much more beyond the expected.
Under the Shadow is released nationwide on 30th September 2016.
Watch the trailer for Under the Shadow here: