Review: UNDER THE SHADOW (2016){0}

Djinn – mother’s ruin

How many horror films have you seen that were set during the Iran-Iraq war? The surprising answer is “quite a few” – the war lasted from 1980 to 1988, so pretty much every ‘80s horror film you’ve seen took place in that period – but how many were actually set in Iran? Come to think of it, how many Iranian horror films have you actually seen? My money’s on A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night being the only one, assuming you’ve seen that. Now here’s Under the Shadow, a startling new film written and directed by Babak Anvari, set in Tehran during the Iraqi missile bombardment of the Iranian capital, as a mother, Shideh (Narges Rashidi), tries to protect her daughter, Dorsi (Avin Manshadi), from an apparently supernatural threat, while her husband is away on the frontline. Shideh initially scoffs at Dorsi’s fears that a demonic spirit, or ‘Djinn’, has entered the house following the crash-landing of an unexploded Iraqi missile a few floors above, believing that it’s the loss of her beloved doll that is stressing Dorsi out. But when Shideh herself is troubled by terrifying dreams and visions, she begins to wonder whether the dud Scud has somehow let in a malevolent spirit.

Fans of The Babadook will feel an instant affinity with Under the Shadow, although in the case of Anvari’s film, the devil is partly in the details of life in post-revolution Iran. Shideh’s dismissal from university for some revolutionary ideas she held as a student; the threat of flogging when she runs, terrified, from the house during one of her waking nightmares, her head thoughtlessly uncovered; her forbidden fondness for working out to a bootlegged Jane Fonda video; and so on. Of course, we’re here for a horror film, not a documentary about life in 1980s Iran, so you’ll likely be wondering whether Under the Shadow delivers the scares. The answer is a resounding bale (that’s Persian for ‘yes’). With a clear understanding that psychological horror films are engineered by the turn of a screw, Anvari establishes a fairly typical family set-up, albeit within a war-torn city under constant threat of deadly bombardment, with a wife and mother who has no time for “fairy tales” about demonic forces that walk in the air. She’s anxious about the bombings, and suffering latent grief about the death of her own mother six months earlier, but unlike the mother in The Babadook, Shideh is no woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She may not believe in the “people of the air”, but she could probably kick one’s ass.

Under the Shadow is a slow burn, rewarding the patient viewer with every colour in the horror director’s paintbox: disturbing tableaux, eerie sound effects (the sound should be studied in film school), cleverly minimalistic special effects, and even the odd jump scare. (So successful is Anvari in drip-feeding a slowly mounting sense of dread that I jumped a full inch when two pieces of toast popped from a toaster.) Scary, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, but for me, Under the Shadow might just be the slow-burn horror movie of the year.


David Hughes

Under the Shadow is in selected UK cinemas now.