The horrors of war are nothing compared to Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow, set against the desolate backdrop of an 80s Iraq-Iran conflict that tore Middle Eastern landscapes apart. Anvari uses this time of political unrest to tell a doom-and-gloom ghost story, pinning a mother between Iraq’s constant barrage of warheads and something impossibly worse. Upon first glance, there’s nothing to fear but bombing raids. Long periods pass as we watch families cope with aerial threats. Little do we know, Anvari is constantly cooking up a spooky story of Djinn inhabitants who begin popping up with more and more frequency. Patience is converted into anxiety, and silence into aggressive shrieks. This is a year full of first-time filmmakers confidently outshining most mainstream duds, and Anvari’s traumatic wartime wrath is yet another shining example.
Narges Rashidi stars as mother and wife Shideh, who calls a battlezone apartment in Tehran “home.” Her doctor husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is drafted to perform medical services on wounded Iran soldiers, leaving Shideh to care for their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone. As the bombings increase around Tehran, most of Shideh’s neighbors flee for safer countries. Soon, only Shideh and her daughter populate their dilapidated apartment building – or so they think. Dorsa keeps bringing up a “woman” who converses with her, and soon after, Shideh starts having visions of her own. Surrounded by danger and haunted by paranoia, Shideh tries to protect her child from a world of exhausting unrest – if she can save herself first.
Anvari marries historical volatility with a legend of cursed Djinn creatures in this isolation-fueled bite of terror, even if it takes some time for horrors to truly kick in. A large portion of Under The Shadow is spent building an unpredictable time-frame for bombing runs to strike, which – in itself – provides inherent tension. Characters might be mid-conversation, only to be interrupted by flickering lights and a blaring alarm siren. Admittedly, it takes longer than expected for genre ferocity to flash because of Anvari’s calculated atmosphere establishment. Fears do manifest, but only after human elements like stress, insomnia and battlefield trauma build a thick skin around Shideh first.
There’s no denying how much of a standout Rashidi ends up being throughout every scene of Under The Shadow. Not only is she forced to protect her daughter from Djinn spirits and raining death, but Shideh’s representation is also a comment on religious female oppression. While fleeing from certain demonic doom, Shideh is arrested and scolded for not covering herself as a “respectable” woman of the period would. She’s almost lashed for barely escaping horrific torments with a little exposed skin, which only blurs the lines of reality even further. Rashidi’s performance is strong and stubborn for so long – refusing any help from in-laws while staying regimented to her daily Jane Fonda television workout – and evocative of repression in all its forms (religious, gender, social). Shideh’s constant breakdown is fought so mightily by the fiery actress, and makes for a culturally relevant exploitation of horrors far beyond a few jumps and ghouls.
What’s even more impressive is young Avin Manshadi playing against Rashidi and her father figure (actor Bobby Naderi). Rashidi’s own successes would not be as noteworthy without Dorsa feeding of her mother’s emotional state, whether it be apologetic or distraught. Manshadi’s childlike ambivalence is necessary in gauging whether or not these Djinn mean business (or if there even ARE any Djinn), much like how Dorsa’s offset gazes are needed to measure Shideh’s own sanity. The ever-fluctuating climate of Dorsa and Shideh’s relationship works to enhance the possible Djinn scourge crawling through their ceiling hole, while Anvari looks like a genius for uniting such a charismatic and tumultuous duo.
Complexities are the devil in Under The Shadow‘s details, as Anvari plots out tremors that shake Shideh’s world from multiple angles of dread. Dreams and reality exist as one and the same, Iraqi imposition threatens through attack, Djinn beings come and go as they please, family bonds are tested – there are many monsters that tear through Under The Shadow. For a long time, Shideh’s biggest conflict is finding her daughter’s favorite dolly (seriously). Dorsa goes on and on about her missing toy, but this seemingly small to-do is just one example of how every plotted bump exists with finality in mind. There is a payoff, and Anvari delivers what we’re expecting. Slow-burn aesthetics bubble over with black Djinn goo, and things that go “bump in the night” get their chance to shine – once you’ve been teased well-long enough.
Under The Shadow might sound like a film that’s primed to test any horror fan’s patience, but there’s artistry in Babak Anvari’s withholding of full-throttle haunted house effects. It’s a brutal combination of terror and historical significance, finding even more dreariness in a period already rife with suffering. In-tune performances guide audiences through a less aggressively paced first two-thirds, only to bring a nightmarish final burst of Djinn-tastic chaos that we so hope Anvari will ensure. Patience is paid off in jolts and gasps, until we’re fully enveloped by a shadow far darker than anything we might have imagined – all from a first-time filmmaker, no less.
Under The Shadow marries haunted horrors with period-piece importance for a deliciously dark ghost story.