Director: Babak Anvari
Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi
Plot: An Iranian mother (Rashidi) protects her child (Manshadi) from a collapsing family unit, a war-torn block of apartments and a malevolent spirit who attaches itself to the pair of them.
There is no doubt about it: Under the Shadow is a very interesting and intelligent movie. For one, it latches itself on to one of the more popular genres (if a tad diluted by a few duff entries in 2016), and discusses a theme that needs to reach a wider audience, wrapping it around a horror movie premise, so a whole new audience, that wouldn’t necessarily be interested in the Iranian/Israeli conflict of 1980s, has access to it. Under the Shadow plonks us right down into the life of a Iranian mother whose life is falling to pieces. Her application into nursing college is turned down due to her rebellious teenage years. Her block of flats is regularly bombed by the Israelis, forcing her family and neighbours to bunker down in a bomb shelter. However, while she quietly rages at her despair, director Anvari makes it clear that everyone else is going through the same misery, so the mother, Shideh, is forced to bitterly swallow her pain and endure it. Her life is a disaster, even before her child encounters a terrifyingly persistent entity, known as the Djinn. The most enjoyable factor of Anvari’s directional debut is the fact that, while being set in the Middle-East and making us see the horrors of life as a Iranian woman, it never comes across as a movie that aims to preach. It makes its bigger points in sparing scenes. Shideh, running from the ghost, is picked up by authorities and threatened with lashes, because she left her home without her hijab. The family hide their VCR from strangers in fear of having it confiscated. Otherwise, Anvari leaves this political statements ticking away in the background, never shoving it down the audience’s throat. This is really clever, especially in the final act. As the Djinn ups its evil-doings, the more barbaric sides to Iranian culture feel so much more petty. There are far more important things to be worrying about that a woman not covering herself up properly. You forget about Shideh’s anxieties outside of the current ghost problem, so when they do crop up, it hits us like a punch to the gut. This is arguably stronger that an OSCAR piece which revels in the misery of it all, putting a strong case of horrors like these not just being a guilty pleasure, but a solid means of conveying social issues.
As a horror, it doesn’t really like to show its hand too much. In fact, large portions of this movie go by without even trying to make the audience jump. It burns away like an intriguing character piece, giving the wonderful Narges Rashidi lots to do as an actress. She is both the victim, but too stubborn and fiery to be treated as one. As a likeable husband figure tries to help, he is often met with verbal abuse. It is all very enjoyable, but horror aficionados will find their patience tested, as we hit the half hour mark and whispers of a ghost are strangely absent. However, what this does mean is that when the scares do creep in, they are far more hard-hitting due to their infrequency. It starts with Shideh’s daughter starting conversations with imaginary friends and household objects going missing. The Djinn latches itself onto people, by stealing a prized possession and fuelling itself from the victim’s desire to get it back. Even as the Djinn begins its possession, its appearances are sparing. What this does mean is that when we get glimpses of an out of focus figure peering at the family in the shadows, the jolt is genuinely there. Even when the movie resorts to cheap tricks and red herring dream sequences, they are so well orchestrated, it is difficult to feel cheated. Perhaps the only time the horror angle comes off the wheels is in a bonkers third act, when the Djinn’s final assault occurs. Much like the Babadook, it goes for a surreal tone and its desire to leave any form of grounded reality or plausible occurrence will either delight or frustrate the viewer. As a result, claims of Under The Shadow being Film of 2017 are probably knee-jerk reactions rather than truthful honesty, although the perhaps misjudged landing cannot steal from a very enjoyable feature that both scares and gives you food for thought.
Final Verdict: Both a thought-provoking insight into Middle-Eastern culture and a gripping horror piece, Under the Shadow is a strong directional debut.