Under the Shadow
Written and Directed by Babak Anvari
United Kingdom/Jordan/Qatar, 2016
The supernatural horror of Under the Shadow doesn’t set in for quite some time, but that’s no problem because there’s a much more physical horror hanging over the characters in writer/director Babak Anvari’s directorial debut. The opening scene finds young mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) pleading for the chance to resume her medical studies to an official who is indifferent to her plight. The time is the 1980s, and the place Tehran, Iran. It’s been a few years since the cultural revolution ended, and due to Shideh’s political activity during the time, she is deemed an outcast. As Shideh and the official converse, Anvari cuts to a wide frame that shows the window to the side of them. A missile strikes down somewhere in the city in the distance. It doesn’t really phase either of them, this is simply their reality as frequent missile strikes from Iraq sink into regular life. Under the Shadow already exists in a state of constant fear and anxiety, and that’s even before a demonic presence becomes involved.
Shideh’s husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is forced to go serve his obligatory time in the army, though this time he’s stationed right in the thick of the Iran-Iraq war. This leaves Shideh and their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment. One day, a dud missile lands on the top floor, and Dorsa is convinced that an evil spirit, a Djinn, has been brought with it. Shideh does her best to console her daughter, but soon comes to the frightening realization that something is haunting their apartment.
The horror genre is a pretty thankless one in regards to industry praise for actresses, though so many incredible female performances come from the genre – Just two years ago, two of the best female performances of the year came from horror films – Essie Davis in The Babadook and Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes. You can add Narges Rashidi to the pantheon of iconic female performances in the genre. Rashidi is completely authentic in portraying Shideh’s growing anxieties of the prospect of something evil in her home. It’s an emotionally charged performance as Rashidi channels a genuine portrayal of trialed motherhood and surrounding pressure. Avin Manshadi is a non-actor, and maybe that’s why she’s able to give such an authentic, natural performance as Shideh’s daughter Dorsa. Her fear is believable, her dialogue and behavior seeming natural. Manshadi and Rashidi have a terrific connection, giving the feeling they really are mother and daughter.
Under the Shadow is a film that wonderfully overlays terror both supernatural and physical onto one another, as the Djinn serves as a sort of manifestation of Shideh’s eroding confidence in her abilities as a mother and a threat to her relationship with Dorsa. Dorsa sees invisible people and is tormented when the Djinn steals her favorite doll, while Shideh is haunted by nightmares that Anvari presents in similar cinematic fashion as his scenes set in reality, and the tension in these scenes rises as you approach them unsure of whether the threat is immediate or just lurking. Anvari does rely on a lot of jump scares, but they work surprisingly well as he creates the requisite emotional attachment to these characters so that you are as equally threatened as they are. He understands that horror only works if you are invested in the characters beset by terror, his script and cast making this investment a worthy one to make. The horror, however supernatural and wild it gets, is always rooted in a very human emotion, and that’s why the film is able to achieve such truly terrifying peaks.
The sound design is one of the film’s greatest traits, doing a significant job of subtly amplifying a vice of dread. There is a score by Gavin Cullen, and it’s admirable, but the greatest tension comes from an underlying buzzy ambience that plays below scenes of horror. The effect is nerve-wracking, the ambience gives a constant sense of unease that you can’t quite pin down, you just instinctively know something is wrong. The unsettling feeling is a large part of what sells the jump scares, providing a release from the jumbling nerves of the moment.
One of the most magnificent, potent images from Anvari and cinematographer Kit Fraser comes when Shideh is trying to resuscitate an upstairs neighbor, with the dud missile lodged in the ceiling directly behind her. The threat of the missile going off hangs over the scene, looming over as she performs CPR. Adding the knowledge that the Djinn arrives with the missile, the image is a marvelous work of foreshadowing loaded with socio-political subtext. One of the interesting aspects of Under the Shadow is how much it invites you to want to learn more about this period in history, acting as both a horror film and a period examination successfully.
The visuals from Anvari and Fraser wonderfully captures the feeling of inescapable dread of Under the Shadow’s setting. Each frame is tinged with dread and foreboding, creating a slow burn of anxiety that rises to a boil in the film’s marvelous climax, straddling a bold and terrifying line between the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war and the horrors of the Djinn. The rising tension creeps under your skin, eventually just about every shot that features the camera moving feels threatening due to the fear of what could be lying just out of frame. During this, I realized that I was having genuine, legitimate chills from just how terrifying Under the Shadow gets. As far as debuts go, Under the Shadow is an exciting, terrifying and emotional film that marks Babak Anvari as a new voice in cinema to pay close attention to.