Under the Shadow
As a mother and daughter struggle to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war-torn Tehran of the 1980s, a mysterious evil begins to haunt their home.
Under the Shadow is a supernatural period piece (and a stunning feature film debut from writer/director Babak Anvari) – set against the backdrop of a war-torn Iran in the late ‘80s.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) live in Tehran. As the Iraqis move closer to the city with their destructive bombing, many residents begin to flee. Shideh’s husband is a doctor who has been drafted into the military, and since he’s away, he continually attempts to convince Shideh to take Dorsa and move to his parent’s home elsewhere in the country. She refuses. But as the apartment building they occupy begins to empty and the newly-paranormal activity starts up (centered around Dorsa and her beloved doll Kimia) the mother/daughter duo quickly begins to run out of options.
It is the fabled and supernatural Djinn who may or may not be after little Dorsa. Per the film, the Djinn travel on the wind, and find situations and places where there is already great pain and unrest – and will then settle on that location and prey on the people. In this place and with this fragmented family, it’s found a perfect home.
The film is basically a one location piece, and if these types of films are worth their weight in gold, that one location begins to transform and shrink, as the characters fall deeper and deeper into the danger. Once the other residents of this mid-rise building start to vacate – the audience feels the pressure. With all of Shideh’s friends and allies leaving, those aforementioned options diminish – and you will experience that disturbing loneliness and helplessness as Shideh does. Under the Shadow is a shining example of a perfectly constructed eerie atmosphere – one which will oppress you and enthrall you. With the war in the background – this film takes a toll on the characters and the audience. You’re on edge from the get-go. The image of Shideh and Dorsa alone in the bomb shelter/basement – where previously we saw several other families – is quite chilling.
The film also succeeds in giving the audience a great deal of backstory to Shideh – without wasting too much time to get to the meat of the story. It’s just enough so that you’ll properly sympathize with the character. These early moments of exposition also help to illustrate the time and situation this family lives in. The fact that this family must hide that they have a VCR is pricelessly bizarre, but telling. Shideh’s Jane Fonda workout tape plays a role in the film as well.
The performances from Rashidi and Manshadi as the mother/daughter duo are effective from the get-go. It’s set up pretty early that Dorsa is a “daddy’s girl”, so there’s a bit of estrangement between mother and daughter, and in this case – that adds some excellent drama. But motherhood and its strength kicks in and works wonders (of course). I believed the actors’ back and forth and there was an innate chemistry when they portrayed this family unit. And as is necessary in a horror film, reactions to the creepiness and terror around you – are key to selling the illusion. Both actors keep up the emotion of the situation, and there are no missteps to be found. Rahidi’s best moment is when she’s on the phone with her husband late in the film (oh how I’d like to tell you about it, but I won’t ruin it). Strong and believable choices from both actresses guarantee high marks in this category.
The film sets up plenty of bits which will come into play later. None of them were particularly subtle. You can generally tell when the shot of a location or object and how it is made to feel “important”; that you’re being given a clue that something will happen which makes that location or object the center of attention. This story-telling trick is always a tight-rope for filmmakers. It’s pretty obvious here, but I always prefer a bit of mystery – something which comes back later, but which was never highlighted enough to make it obvious. But then you get that “aha” moment later. Audiences like to feel smart – and spoon-feeding doesn’t accomplish that.
There’s no gore in the film, but on the technical side of things, several visual effects are seamlessly added to some of the more fantastical scenes (the Djinn is a magical creature after all). A particular scene in the basement/bomb shelter (which is visited several times throughout the film) in the climax is visually stunning (and is pleasantly reminiscent of a scene out of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare).
The ending is quite a downer. I’ll say no more, but the opportunity has been left open for a sequel. And since that probably won’t happen – we’ll just have to wonder how long before there’s an English-language remake which will dirty the memory of this fantastic, frightening and thought-provoking film.
And now… even after all of these years watching horror films, I can still manage to let myself go and really fall into the “scare-traps” (I’m copyrighting that phrase) of a well-done horror film. But there are those moments which so frighten me, it will honestly take a few minutes following the “boo” moment, for my body to recover and the goosebumps to finally subside. There are a couple of doozies in Under the Shadow, but one particular one really took me by surprise. How can I put this delicately? I didn’t wet myself, but I debated on whether or not I should check.
With the power of this film still lingering in my mind over a week later, I think it goes without saying that it will find a place in my own film collection. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing it again.
And finally, the lesson learned from Under the Shadow – keep inventory of your children’s most beloved toys. It could save you a lot of time and heartache.
Terrific performances, frightening atmosphere for days, an inspired backdrop and some of the best “boo” moments this side of Haddonfield – all await you when you sit down and take in this film which was a Best Foreign Language film contender (for the UK) for this year’s Oscars. Absolutely worth your time and your dime.
This film wrangled the #7 spot on my recent Best of Horror Feature Films 2016 article (follow the link here). Highly deserving of that placement, as well as all of the critical praise still being heaped on the piece.
Under the Shadow is now available on VOD.