During the first 10 minutes, you’d be forgiven for wondering if you were mis-sold Under the Shadow. Because while, yes, it is a supernatural horror movie about evil djinn, it starts out looking an awful lot like a drama about a family living in a warzone.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a young mother living in 1980s Tehran and she’s trying to hold her life together as the Iran-Iraq war destroys everything around her. Once a promising medical student, Shideh was forced out of university by Iran’s Cultural Revolution; having taken part in leftist political rallies, she’s effectively barred from finishing her degree, which leaves her little option other than to stay home and look after her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). And as if the encroaching conflict for which her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) had been drafted into service weren’t bad enough, Shideh must also face the possibility that something evil is lurking in the building. Something with its sights set firmly on Dorsa.
Writer/director Babak Anvari uses his setting to great effect, drawing on his own childhood memories of the conflict to build an authentically frightening backdrop for his story. Like all the best horror movies, Under the Shadow is compelling even before the monsters show up. Shideh is already living a nightmare, the world around her changing so quickly and so horribly that she finds herself constantly admonished for doing things she used to take for granted – things we’d take for granted now, like watching a favorite film on video, driving a car, or running out of the house in terror without stopping to put on a headscarf. What’s a djinni or two on top of that?
Because of the care that’s been taken over the film’s setting and character-building, it’s easy to see Under the Shadow as a metaphor for the horrors of war; you could choose to think of it as a story about a woman losing her grip on reality while under enormous pressure, rather than as a straightforward supernatural shocker. The film works just as well whether you believe the monsters are real or not, and the script never confirms anything either way. Let’s just say horror fans won’t be disappointed if they’re hoping for scares – there are several jump-out-of-your-seat, hope-your-heart-hasn’t-actually-stopped-beating moments of pure fear along the way.
But there’s a lot more going on here than in your average ghost train-style spookfest. Anvari uses the imagery of war to prop up the horror, and vice versa; there are recognizable horror tropes present, but they’re made unfamiliar by the setting, or because they’ve been turned inside out.
Most haunted house stories involve families moving into abandoned places where something violent has happened in the past. In Under the Shadow, Shideh and Dorsa are in their own home when the violence comes to them, and while they started off surrounded by people, their neighbors flee as the fighting grows closer, leaving them in a crumbling building all alone. In those circumstances, you’d probably start believing in the boogeyman too.
Shot in just 21 days, and on a limited budget, Under the Shadow isn’t the glossiest horror film you’ll see this year. But those constraints only really serve to enhance the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere. Anvari is an assured filmmaker who makes the most of all the tools at his disposal, conjuring pure dread from clever sound design and the odd bit of tricksy camerawork. (And anyway, no special effects budget can beat the terror of a small child pointing into the dark and insisting that something is lurking there, ready to pounce.)
It likewise that his cast is so strong. Narges Rashidi is captivating, the kind of heroine you can’t help but root for despite her flaws, while first-time actress Avin Manshadi totally sells her role as a child faced with incomprehensible evil. The supporting cast are all pretty great too, but it’s the relationship between mother and child that’s the heart of the film, and the two actresses capture something that feels utterly convincing.
If comparisons must be made, Under the Shadow falls under the same kind of psychological horror umbrella as films like Repulsion, The Babadook, The Haunting, and The Others. But it’s not the kind of film that requires you to do your homework before watching it; it’s very much its own beast, and it’s one that can hold its own against any horror classic you care to name. Intelligent and terrifying, poignant and pointed, Under the Shadow is unmissable. See it.
Under the Shadow opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, Oct. 7.