Set in a war-torn Iran in the 1980s, Under The Shadow follows a mother called Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) as they struggle to survive the terrors of the war outside, but also a supernatural presence they believe is inside their home.
Under The Shadow is a stunning slow-burner that eases its audience in quietly, before its final act explodes into a firework of fear filled with familiar, but undeniably effective horror set pieces. That isn’t to say there isn’t any horror until the finale, because there is an immediately frightening atmosphere conjured by the film’s location and time period. You don’t have to be familiar with the 1980s’ Iran-Iraq war to understand the young family’s right to be fearful. They live in Tehran where the threat of missiles from Iraq looms over the family’s head like a ghost; an invisible presence that tortures them very visibly when it is manifested in the evil that enters their home. Writer-director Babak Anvari has a clear desire to depict a very real portrait of war, but under the guise of a haunted house film and he does so effortlessly. The family is under the shadow of a physical war, but also a familial one where conflict is felt between all the family members.
The mother is at the film’s core as she continually attempts to prove that she can be a strong woman, as well as a good parent. Portrayed beautifully by Rashidi, Shideh is unlike her women friends and owns a VCR, enjoys exercise videos from the West and even refrains from dressing in the attire traditionally expected by an Iranian woman. The internal struggles she faces translate fantastically to the screen through Rashidi’s subtle, but sometimes aggressive behaviour that tells us exactly how her character is feeling. She has been directed perfectly and gives a devastatingly striking performance. We easily empathise with her character as she fights to cling to her womanhood – most importantly, her role as a mother – which become fascinating insights into the complexities of gender in this country. The battle she faces inside becomes physical when a missile crashes into her house and remains there as a constant reminder of the personal war that she is facing. As with home invasion thrillers, her domestic space is invaded; cracks appear in the ceiling that easily represent the shattering of her relationship with her daughter as they struggle with the raging war, but also with the entity that is contributing to their fractured relations. Her complex and credible characterisation is a sure sign of Under The Shadow’s brilliance and its director’s confident flair for handling difficult, relevant and thought-provoking subject matters.
The war at the film’s centre is never forgotten. Under The Shadow does not abandon this layer of its story in favour of the imminent ghostly threat, but blends both the natural and the supernatural equally to create a film that explores both real and spectral terror. It is a refreshingly emotive and startling decision that allows the film to slip easily into a position where it is one of the strongest and most effective horror films of the year. Rather than preach about the negativities of war, Under The Shadow opts for this subtle, but obvious, comparison to an evil presence which speaks a thousand words. The natural and the supernatural remain together in the film’s camera work and production design; the earthy tones of the film’s colour palette work as a jarring reminder of the film’s desire to ground its story in reality and not be an entire work of fiction. The fluid handling of the camera is quite remarkable and confirms that Anvari wants to create a beautiful work of art with insidious edges, an experience that strives with its simplicity and purity. The preoccupation with realism makes it all the scarier, because you believe what is happening. It’s a credible feeling of fright where the jump scares aren’t cheesy, because they are introduced by a subtle, slow and ominous build-up before being executed at the precise time to petrify. The quiet whispering of the wind becomes a sound to fear and an ominous sign that something sinister is about to happen. Occasional jolting shifts in the film’s shooting style become indications of the incoming uncanny and a flash of the film’s firm placement in the horror genre. Under The Shadow brims with thematic depth, but it is a horror film through and through, and we aren’t to forget it.
There are times when Under The Shadow reaches genuinely terrifying heights as the audience are treated to unnerving suspense while Shideh slowly comes to terms with her haunted home. The father is forced to leave the two unmanned to take up his doctor’s post elsewhere, their neighbours slowly leave to escape the violence, so they are left alone and vulnerable; the perfect prey for a paranormal presence. The silence in the house becomes deafening and the opportunities to terrify the audience are grasped as the sounds upstairs get frighteningly louder and louder as Shideh and Dorsa are driven further apart. It’s a pure nail-biter that will have its audience in its cinematic hands like putty, at the mercy of the film’s flawless ability to deliver shocks at the opportune moment.
Under The Shadow a beautifully constructed and touching portrait of a family in war-torn Iran that will startle, scare and shock with its appropriately dark portrait of two very different types of horror. As a showcase of perfectly paced scares, Under The Shadow succeeds at being a genuinely haunting tale of a home possessed that will linger long after its credits role. It truly is unmissable.
Words: Jessy Williams (@JessyCritical)