D: Babak Anvari / 84m
Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Arash Marandi, Aram Ghasemy, Soussan Farrokhnia, Ray Haratian, Hamid Djavadan
Tehran, the late Eighties. Shideh (Rashidi) is a former medical student who finds herself unable to resume her studies due to her prior involvement with left-wing political groups. She disposes of most of her old medical books but keeps one that was a gift from her mother. With the city under continual threat from random bomb attacks by Iraq, Shideh still wants to stay where she is with her daughter, Dorsa (Manshadi). Her husband, Iraj (Naderi), wants them to go and live with his parents away from the shelling, but Shideh refuses. When Iraj is conscripted, the matter becomes a moot point, but before he leaves, he tells Dorsa that her favourite doll, Kimia, will keep her safe from harm.
Soon after, neighbours the Ebrahimis take in an orphaned cousin, a young boy. During an air raid, he whispers something in Dorsa’s ear and hands her a charm meant to ward off evil spirits. Shideh finds it later in Dorsa’s room and throws it away. Afterwards, Dorsa develops a fever and begins having nightmares; Shideh has similar dreams as well. When a missile strikes the building they live in, causing a large crack in the ceiling, the impact also renders Dorsa unconscious; at the same time, Kimia goes missing. As a result, Dorsa’s behaviour becomes erratic, and she keeps trying to get into the flat on the floor above, insisting that Kimia is inside. She also tells Shideh that someone is moving around in their own flat, a mysterious woman that only she can see.
From one of their remaining neighbours, Shideh learns that a djinn can possess a person, and will steal a favourite item in their efforts to ensnare and take control of that person. Soon, Shideh and Dorsa are the only people left in the building. Shideh’s nightmares increase in both frequency and intensity, until she has no choice but to leave and go to Iraj’s parents. But Dorsa won’t leave unless she has Kimia back. Shideh makes one last desperate search for the doll, and in the process learns a horrifying truth: that the one last medical text book she kept is no longer in the locked drawer where she had hidden it, but has been replaced by Dorsa’s doll. Even more intent on leaving, the pair attempt to do so but find that it’s not so easy, and that the supernatural force Shideh has tried to deny, is determined to stop them.
Under the Shadow has proven to be a surprise hit since its first screening at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, what with a glowing critical reception, and audiences finding themselves entranced by the low-key, thoughtful approach adopted by writer/director Babak Anvari. Having recently won a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer, the movie is a subtle, menacing chiller that takes a simple premise and builds on it in such a way that when the terror of Shideh and Dorsa’s situation begins to form in earnest, the tension builds with it until it becomes almost unbearable. Anvari succeeds at this by keeping the scares to a minimum and using them to punctuate the narrative instead of making them the focus. As the tension mounts, each scare or shock adds to the overall effect, and increases the sense of dread that the movie has created.
It’s a movie where the atmosphere inside Shideh’s flat is stifling and claustrophobic right from the start. Her relationship with Iraj is strained, his lack of understanding of how she feels when her studies are curtailed a prime mover in her decision to remain in Tehran. But Shideh herself is equally lacking in empathy when Iraj is conscripted, more concerned that he’s kept it from her until the last moment. With her marriage on rocky ground, Shideh focuses on Dorsa, but finds that their relationship has become even more strained than it is with her husband. Dorsa’s insistence on finding Kimia and the presence of someone else in the flat challenges Shideh’s attempts at keeping order in both the flat and her life. As she becomes more and more affected by her nightmares, and the growing sense that Dorsa may be right – despite everything her practical mind tells her – Shideh’s ability to tell reality from fantasy becomes increasingly fraught.
Where a mother’s determination to protect her daughter from harm is a staple of dramas the world over, here it’s made all the more effective by Anvari’s considered approach to both Shideh and Dorsa and the unexpected relationship that develops between them as their situation becomes more and more imperilled. There are moments where Dorsa is fully in control and Shideh is behaving in thrall to her daughter’s obsessive needs over Kimia. Anvari makes these moments credible through Shideh’s own need to keep Dorsa safe at all costs, and while Shideh resists the idea that there’s a supernatural reason for her daughter’s “condition”, her struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy drives her to make concessions when necessary. She doesn’t necessarily agree with her daughter’s claims, but she does recognise that her daughter believes what’s she’s saying.
The effectiveness of Shideh and Dorsa’s relationship is a key component of Anvari’s script, but it’s also his development of the danger that threatens them that makes as much of an impact. The disintegration of their nuclear family gives way to a more serious threat, as the djinn’s presence in the building promotes fear and anxiety on a level that permeates the narrative, and which also allows the level of dread to grow and develop at a slow, deliberate pace that makes things all the more intimidating and terrifying. By the time they try to leave the building, Anvari has made the presence of the djinn – represented by the spookiest chador you’re ever likely to see – such a palpably unnerving entity that it’s very nature: ordinary yet intrinsically threatening, makes it a truly terrifying opponent.
The movie is also effective because of its background, a period of Iranian history where the country was experiencing constant strife thanks to the ongoing hostilities with Iraq. The missile that crashes into the building is seen as the means by which the djinn arrives, as if it were a chemical weapon attached to the shell and designed to spread confusion and terror amongst the Tehran populace. Shideh’s inappropriate political leanings also reflect the non-status of many women at the time, their role reduced to that of being a mother, and with all the social restrictions that apply (after a particularly vivid nightmare, Shideh escapes outside but is apprehended by the police for not being covered up in public; when she is brought home, she does her best to hide the shame she feels but doesn’t want to feel).
Kit Fraser’s deliberately drab, minimalistic cinematography highlights the uphill struggle experienced by Shideh in trying to keep Dorsa safe, and his use of shadow and light in certain shots evokes an uneasiness that Anvari exploits to the movie’s full advantage. Likewise, the score by Gavin Cullen and Will McGillivray is used to support the growing, unhealthy atmosphere inside Shideh’s flat, and to punctuate those moments when the djinn’s evil aura adds dismay and menace to the proceedings. It’s all wrapped up by Anvari neatly and convincingly, and at a modest running time, is easily one of the best horror movies of recent years.
Rating: 9/10 – expertly constructed by its writer/director (making his feature debut), Under the Shadow is a goosebump-inducing tale of paranoia and possession that makes the most of its limited resources; a refreshing take on the home invasion/urban terror sub-genre of horror movies, the movie succeeds by playing it straight, and by layering everything that happens with sincerity and a large helping of credibility.