Unfolding in the final years of the Iraq-Iran war, Babak Anvari’s debut feature is a cleverly crafted genre piece that’s a strong contender for horror of the year.
Now beginning to reveal itself to a wider audience, this years standout Sundance horror hit Under The Shadow tells the story of a mother and daughter terrorised, not only by threat of dropping bombs but by an uncanny and malevolent force. When husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) receives the call to duty, he must go offer his medical practices to the intensifying fight, leaving Sideh (Narges Rashihi) and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) to look after each other.
A sense of uncertainty is quickly seeded as both setting and character craftily merge to build a tension that beds its roots until long after the film. The first act showcases Anvari’s effective script writing talent by developing a compelling family drama evocative of the films backdrop. A bomb could, both figuratively and literally, drop at any moment. The themes explored; oppression, feminism and conservatism are well guided, it’s frustrating to see husband Iraj ignorant to Sideh’s desire to continue her studies and become a doctor herself, but she’s also trapped by her past runnings with a left wing political group. It’s these well established motives that elevate Under The Shadow beyond a conventional horror film and really make you feel for Sideh and her daughter Dorsa, especially when the supernatural occurrences begin.
The brilliant direction was equally matched with some superb cinematography, my eyes would frantically scan the well blocked frames in search of something seemingly out of the ordinary that might be lurking its way onto the screen. The empty spaces in rooms felt occupied and hung up coats gave the illusion of something watching over. Tension builds further as Dorsa is convinced her favourite doll has been stolen by an intruding, veiled old woman. Conversations with neighbours regarding the evil spirit, Djinn, are unexpectedly interrupted by black outs and wailing air raid sirens, plunging the film into moments of taut panic. It’s during these moments that Anvari really plays with your sense of security. Eventually the impending threat of a missile strike is the last thing on both Sideh’s mind, and your own.
Even without the presence of the Djinn, the anxious atmosphere woven is enough to agitate your trust but when the shadow does begin its reign of terror on Sideh and Dorsa the scares will really test your nerves. They arrive suddenly and shockingly. Often jump scares are low blows and a cheap attempts to get a response from an audience but Under The Shadow earns the right to tease you with cardiac arrest. Regardless of being somewhat cliche to the genre the jumps are well placed and designed with a purpose. They manifest themselves as reminders to the real fears in the world of the story.
Some may be disappointed to find that the final act is devised to get under the skin, to leave the you with something to think about after the credits roll. Rather than just a climax involving a skulking creature from the shadows, you’re left to consider that the horror is parable to Sideh’s plight. Her struggle within a strained and conservative political regime and the constant peril of falling bombs, threatening to tear the family and home apart is a horror that is very prevalent today and is an altogether more tragic and terrifying thing than that of a ghost story.