Here is an Iranian horror-thriller that takes many of the standard tropes of haunted-house cinema and makes a good fist of refreshing them with to its good performances, strong sense of place, and understated political commentary.
The film is set in Tehran in the late 1980s, during the final part of the Iran-Iraq War, in an apartment building in which Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives with her husband (Bobby Naderi) and young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Director Babak Anvari, in his debut feature, takes his time in the first act to set up the gist of the situation: we begin as Shideh is refused re-entry to medical school because of her previous involvement in political activism. The film suggests, and we believe, that this is a harsh mistreatment. Shideh’s husband, who is a practicing doctor, is then sent to the front lines of the war, leaving her and Dorsa alone in the flat, while increasingly creepy goings on appear to be happening around them. Dorsa is convinced that something supernatural has entered the building, and one of the neighbours suggests it may be a Djinn – a creature from Arabian mythology.
What follows is a tense, if familiar, series of sequences in which things get progressively more creepy, until the point where Shideh starts to believe that there may indeed be something very wrong. Anvari’s film does use jump scares to puncture the tension he skilfully creates, and while jump scares can often feel a little cheap, the ones here are well orchestrated and used sparingly enough that the film doesn’t lose focus.
What’s more interesting about Under the Shadow is the spectre of war that always lingers in the background, be it the air raid sirens that frequently summon the protagonists to the basement of their building, or the terrifying shaking of the building when distant rockets are detonated. As in the best horror-inflected stories, the film invites us to think about the nature of the evil that is plaguing its characters, and the context in which it is happening. Although the war is kept in the background, I have no doubt it is the ‘shadow’ described in the film’s title, and there is also a subtle undercurrent of commentary on the oppression of women, which begins in the film’s opening scenes and runs beneath the surface. In one sequence, Shideh is apprehended by the police for appearing outside without her chador, even though she had little choice in the matter, while her tormentor’s appearance eerily resembles the garment.
Anvari directs the action convincingly, his camera movements becoming more hurried and inventive as the film enters its increasingly hysterical final movement. There isn’t a great deal new in here in terms of how the film deals with its barely seen antag onist, but the tension builds pretty successfully and the characters are drawn well enough that we care what happens to them, which is more than can be said of a great many chillers.