It’s not uncommon for horror films to feature subtext amid the terror, but that commentary is typically a side note to the prevailing carnage and scares. Sometimes though that subtext moves beyond its constraints to become the true weight of the nightmare before us. Films like the recent It Follows and The Babadook succeed as pure genre exercises complete with spooky thrills, but their power rests in the fear of an uncertain future or the devastating effect of grief – thoughts that move off screen to follow audiences home into the real world.
Writer/director Babak Anvari’s feature debut, Under the Shadow, belongs in their company and in that conversation.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) left medical school during Iran’s Cultural Revolution to protest and work for a better country, but five years later she’s still paying the price. The university tells her in no uncertain terms that her history means she will never be allowed to continue her studies. Housewife and mother seem to be her only options, and it’s a frustrating existence marred further by the distant bombings that have been steadily inching closer to Tehran since the start of the Iran/Iraq war. When her husband Iraj, a successful doctor, is drafted into service closer to the fighting, Shideh is left to care for her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), but soon a new nightmare arrives with the wind.
A bomb pierces the roof of the apartment above them, and while it fails to detonate it succeeds in letting something else in. A neighbor warns Shideh that a Djinn has taken up residence and that the spirits mark their victims by stealing something of value, but as the building’s occupants evacuate over the next few days Shideh is forced to stay because Dorsa’s favorite doll has gone missing and something has made its way into their home.
Under the Shadow’s supernatural element is executed with great restraint at first, only blossoming fully in the third act, and Anvari explores that terror in various ways. There are the typical jump scares here complete with loud noises, and some work better than others, but the far more effective sequences are terrifyingly revealing and beautifully composed. It’s easy to make viewers jump, but more than once this is a film that gives you serious chills.
What makes this more than “just a scary movie” though is its exploration of life in 1980’s Iran. It’s a frightening place for all – they even have to hide their VCR and Jane Fonda workout tapes from neighbors so they don’t get reported – but for women each day is something a restrictive nightmare. The supernatural terror is one thing, but Shideh must also contend with a male-dominated religious state. One scene sees her fleeing the apartment with Dorsa in her arms but no hijab on her head, and she’s quickly arrested instead of helped. “A woman should be scared of exposing herself more than anything else,” she’s told, and it’s clear that Djinn or not, she’s slowly being forced into a corner by terror. The idea of a spirit that takes possession of your soul translates easily to a theocracy claiming ownership of your body and mind.
The evil spirits come on the wind, and as Shideh learns, where there’s fear and anxiety the winds blow. Her world is nothing but fear and anxiety – stress, marital friction, and the image of a literal bomb hang over her head – and Rashidi’s performance exudes a women constantly struggling between fight or flight. She’s already been punished for trying to change the system, and now her efforts to protect her daughter seem fruitless yet again. Rashidi shows us that conflict in what to believe and what to do, and you can’t help but fear for her and her daughter’s well-being. Manshadi proves to be a compelling and capable child actor too and challenges her mother without ever reaching the point of annoyance for viewers.
Under the Shadow gives us something to fear and something to think about, and that’s two more things than most horror films can claim.
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