Set in war-torn Iran, Under the Shadow executes satisfying scares against the backdrop of an intelligent social drama.
Under the ShadowDirector: Babak Anvari
Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Studio: Wigwam Films
US Release Date: Later this year (Theatrical/Streaming)
In Under the Shadow (2016), Shideh (Narges Rashidi) plops a VHS tape in and exercises in front of the television, and jerks from side to side to the sounds of Jane Fonda’s affirmations against dancy ‘80s music. Not too long after, a familiar piercing groan is heard. Air-raid sirens. Shideh snatches up her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), and the two retreat to the basement of their Tehran apartment building, where a small group of neighbors huddle together in the dark. When it’s over, they move back upstairs, acting as if nothing happened. This is the status quo.
Screened at the Independent Film Festival Boston 2016, the world of Babak Anvari’s debut feature is Iran in the ‘80s, after the Islamic Revolution and during the lengthy Iran-Iraq war. The shadow in the title could mean many things: the looming specter of war and death, the long shadow of post-revolution Islamic conservatism. The latter, in fact, is most important to our heroine, Shideh, a liberal housewife whose participation in leftist groups during university led to her expulsion and torpedoed her chance to return and pursue medical studies. When we meet her, she is told by a school official that “he wanted her to hear this: she will never be admitted back.”
Shideh is a woman at odds with her surroundings. She leaves the house after a particularly horrific moment and is immediately accosted by police who detain her for not wearing a hijab. She reprimands her daughter for mentioning their VHS player in the company of another person. “What did I tell you about mentioning it?” she scolds, with a hint of fear behind the urgency in her voice -- knowing that being caught with anything Western would put her in danger.
What first-time director Anvari has done with Under the Shadow is, perhaps, the best way to utilize horror. He has built a solid social drama first and overlaid it with allegory and fear. The ever-present threat of aerial bombardment is horrific enough, but when Dorsa begins to talk of djinn and mysterious women in her bedroom, the horror expands to terrifying proportions.
Anvari never loses track of the film’s socially aware elements, nor does he compromise on character or thrill. Shideh is a fully-realized character: a woman with hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Her strained relationship with her husband is both emotionally gripping and indicative of the social attitudes towards women that the film cuts apart and examines.
It’s a complex film about a complex situation that avoids getting lost in explanations and musing. Under the Shadow’s plot moves along spryly, the film’s commentary on the role of women in an Islamic Iran is never heavy-handed. The fact that the film is so grounded in a specific spatiotemporal reality and invested in its characters pays off. The tension is so thick and so constant that the experience of watching the film is exactly what a horror film should feel like: dread and anxiety are punctuated with bloodcurdling scares.
This effectiveness comes from a very straightforward place. Shideh and Dorsa are, most importantly, developed characters that we care about. The plot of Under the Shadow may invite comparisons to the also-excellent The Babadook (2014), but the spirit-sensitive child is an old horror trope, and one that Under the Shadow executes well, being light on the cliché, heavy on the scares, and invested in portraying its own characters both honestly and sympathetically.
Good horror films are making a resurgence, fighting back the tide of mass-market, teen scare horror. While Under the Shadow can be criticized for its inclination towards the oft-derided jump scare, it should be noted that it more than makes up for it in the execution of fear through vulnerable characters and oppressive atmosphere. If the string of recent critically and commercial successful art-house horror films indicate a rebirth of the kind of character-driven atmospheric horror that audiences clamor for, Under the Shadow is the next big movie that demonstrates horror’s potential to challenge important topics and thought-provoking themes via the age-old method of instilling fear in the audience.