Film review | Under the Shadow: The true horrors of history writ supernatural

For better or for worse, we are all framed by our fears and the horror genre is perfectly poised to express this fact of human existence • 4/5

Mum anxiety: Narges Rashidi’s Shideh already had a lot on her plate even before the Djinn showed up, in Babak Anvari’s Iran-Iraq war-set horror allegory Under the Shadow
Mum anxiety: Narges Rashidi’s Shideh already had a lot on her plate even before the Djinn showed up, in Babak Anvari’s Iran-Iraq war-set horror allegory Under the Shadow

Few things are more potent than a horror movie with a compelling psychological through-line for its characters, along with an equally sensitive handling of the social context in which the story is set. For better or for worse, we are all framed by our fears – what we’re afraid of defines how we organise our lives so that we may avoid the very same things that keep us up at night – and for obvious reasons, the horror genre is perfectly poised to express this fact of human existence.

Naturally, because we’re also hare brained, money-grubbing and prone to compromise out of laziness, a lot of horror movies often give up on this more elevated mission to indulge in low-level scares and cheesy tropes, instead of delivering something truly invigorating, even vital.

Thankfully, Iranian-born director Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow valiantly avoids these pitfalls in a debut feature that is both an impressive genre showcase and a powder keg of intelligence and righteous anger.

The international co-production – produced by UK’s Wigwam Films with the helping hand of both Qatar and Jordan – focuses on Shideh (Narges Rashidi), mother to Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) and wife to the doctor Iraj (Bobby Naderi) who is barred from pursuing her own medical studies owing to her involvement with left-wing groups during the Iranian Revolution, whose fallout is still fresh for both the authorities and her surrounding society. With the family’s Tehran apartment block always teetering on the brink of a missile attack, Shideh grows resigned to their precarious state of being, clouded as she is by her anger for not being allowed to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. After Iraj is called in by the army to an area of heavy fighting, he tries to convince Shideh to relocate – Dorsa in tow – to his parents’ house outside of the city; which Shideh flatly refuses to do owing to her recently wounded professional pride.

Dolly dearest: Avin Manshadi
Dolly dearest: Avin Manshadi

But when Dorsa’s ominous conversations with a new neighbouring kid – a mute and “creepy” cousin to the apartment block landlord’s children – prove to be more than just superstitious folly, Shideh truly begins to feel that the situation is too much for her to handle. Because while institutional injustice and the crushing oppression of gender roles – coupled with actual bombs being dropped over your roof – are terrible in and of themselves, they’re at least measurable fears that a scientifically-inclined Shideh can understand. The threat of malevolent Djinn, however, falls into an entirely different category.

So yes, we’ve got a potent mix here. The greatest merit of this shockingly tight and disciplined debut film from Anvari is its canny folding together of real-life concerns and supernatural elements. One could argue that a film with this kind of set-up already has more than enough dramatic potential to sustain itself without the added layer of malevolent ghosts pushing the proceedings into even darker territory. But ghosts make for fantastic metaphors, and the Djinn that haunt Shideh are there to make the experience of the film even more universal. They are a literal manifestation of her fears of being a bad mother – specifically, the fears that a sexist and overbearing society places on her.

This is a challenge she has to face with all of her available faculties, and her young daughter will also need to pull her weight if they are to succeed.

Set largely within the confines of the apartment and shot with a disciplined colour palette whose earthy, shadowy hues heighten the sense of dread that permeates the piece, Anvari’s film is a full-bodied experience that never drops the ball on any of its – many and varied – fronts: as an allegory for arbitrary power dynamics in post-war Iran and the turmoil a (temporarily) single mother faces during wartime, as well as being a pin-sharp and perfectly paced slice of tasteful supernatural horror.

Under the Shadow is currently streaming on Netflix

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