Sundance breakthrough Under The Shadow was a late, but hugely welcome addition to Frightfest 2016 that quickly became one of the hottest tickets of the weekend. Babak Anvari’s debut feature, which he also wrote, follows in the footsteps of The Babadook, a flick that stunned crowds when it screened late-night at the festival last year. Anvari’s film has drawn major comparisons to the Australian shocker, but thankfully, for those of us who found The Babadook near-intolerable, it’s a far stronger, more cohesive, and ultimately scarier offering.
The setting is war-torn Tehran, during the Iran-Iraq conflict, where a mother and daughter are faced with mounting paranormal activity in their apartment block while the fight rages on outside. With her husband busy working the front-line as a medic, Shideh (Narges Rashidi, excellent) is left to fend for herself with ill, nightmare-plagued Dorsa (Avin Manshadi, equalling if not bettering the performances of her older co-stars) along for the ride.
It’s certainly an interesting backdrop for a horror movie, because we’re never quite sure whether the apparitions are really Djinn as Dorsa emphatically argues, or if it’s just her fever (and later, her mother’s mounting paranoia) talking. Wisely, Anvari keeps his creatures under wraps until well into the second act, choosing to keep us guessing until a couple of well-judged, suitably shocking reveals.
The mythology of the monsters is also, cleverly, left mostly to hearsay. Shideh is told by a nosy neighbour that a creepy young family member may be the cause, while it’s also heavily implied that the creature feeds off anxiety and fear – so this is pretty much the ideal breeding ground for it. Meanwhile, a blackout ensues as the building is thrown into an emergency situation, the ceiling cracks and missiles are hurled right into unsuspecting living rooms.
Anvari was himself born in Iran during the war, and based Under The Shadow partly on his own experiences as a child. Although the movie wasn’t shot there, Anvari fought to have it made in Farsi (he was offered several, lucrative deals to film the story in English) to ensure his picture felt culturally authentic. His so-called gamble pays off hugely, the flick afforded an unavoidably realist, often disturbing footing amidst all the paranormal madness.
The writer-director clearly has a lot to say about the treatment of women in Iran, with a couple of key sequences–one which sees Shideh punished for daring to step outside without fully covering her body up–giving us a glimpse into how harsh life must have been, and no doubt still is, for females living there. Likewise, the mother-daughter conflict is well-handled, as is Shideh’s strained relationship with her absent, maybe even uncaring husband.
Under The Shadow‘s characters are what separate it so significantly from The Babadook. Not only is Dorsa an adorable, and reasonably tough little kid (as opposed to a bratty nightmare), but Shideh is an incredibly empathetic mother figure. Even when she’s hard on her daughter, she puts Dorsa’s safety above all else and does her utmost to protect her at all costs. This is especially evident when the block is abandoned and it’s just the two of them left trying to survive there.
And, when the Djinn finally materialises, Shideh relents and assures her daughter that she believes her, and that everything is going to be okay. This leads to some thrilling imagery with a massive, supernaturally-enlarged hijab through which mother must fight to rescue daughter. The symbolism is clear, but even taken just as straight horror, it’s stronger than arguably anything The Babadook had to offer.
This demon is also a more powerful, and much more present being than that titular creature. Capable of impersonating others, manipulating thoughts and perspectives and taking many terrifying shapes and forms, the Djinn featured here is a truly frightening prospect. Anvari ensures it’s a classy, respectful representation, in keeping with the film in general, which never once strays into the realms of religious fanaticism or fussy melodrama.
Much like last year’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, this a proudly, culturally authentic Iranian horror movie that, unlike Ana Lily Amirpour’s dreamy, romantic gothic fantasy, establishes itself in the horrifying reality of a real-world conflict, with characters we can really get behind and believe in. Comparisons to The Babadook may be unavoidable, given some of the subject matter, but Under The Shadow is its own monster.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Babak Anvari
Writer(s): Babak Anvari
Stars: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshidi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian
Release: October 7th, 2016
Studio/ Production Co: Wigwam Films
Length: 84 minutes