As if living in a war-torn city in the aftermath of an uprising and having to regularly head to the basement because bombs are dropping all around isn’t terrifying enough, what do you do when a mysterious evil haunts you and your child? That sucks, and it’s also what happens to Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), in Babak Anvaris’ excellent new Iranian horror film Under the Shadow, which just screened at SIFF.
Picked up by Netflix, Under the Shadow lit audiences on fire at Sundance, and with good reason. This is tense, terrifying, slow-burn horror that works every last frayed nerve ending, ratcheting up the dread and pressure to near-unbearable levels. It’s gathered comparisons to recent genre killers It Follows and The Babadook, and though I don’t think it will hit quite as wide—the subtitles will turn of a more mainstream audience, though I’d love to be proven wrong—it’s every bit as good as those films. (Cards on the table, I’m apparently the only human alive who doesn’t adore The Babadook, make of that what you will.)
Following the Iranian Cultural Revolution in the 1980s, and in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, Shideh is banished from continuing her medical studies because of her prior political involvement. This impossible educational dream leads to friction with her understanding yet practical husband, himself a doctor who focused on school rather than politics. When his compulsory military service comes up, Shideh and Dorsa are left alone in their apartment building.
Before delving into the traditional genre elements, Under the Shadow paints a picture of the larger world outside, one with its own horrors to contend with. Death, very real, concrete death, surrounds them. The possibility of disaster looms large, and Anvaris puts in the time to create an authentic, lived-in feel. When the moment is right, into this already harrowing environment, an ideal stage for horror, come the djinn, ephemeral supernatural spirits from Islamic mythology who torment the mother and daughter.
The djinn don’t just pop out from around corners and yell, “Boo.” There are jump scares, incredibly effective ones—especially judging by the shrieks that rang out the theater—but Anvaris knows how to dole them out, keeping them in reserve and using the specters to punctuate the palpable terror and dread he creates.
A slew of familiar horror components—sinister ghosts, unexpected sounds in the dark, a contained setting—sift through an unusual cultural filter that brings a freshness and thematic depth to Under the Shadow. A female protagonist is nothing new for the genre, though the strict religious environment adds a tenuous twist to the formula—we witness firsthand how fleeing from the evil spirits with her head uncovered could have consequences every bit as drastic and severe as remaining behind. Even era-appropriate touches, like a Jane Fonda workout tape, take on unexpected significance as Dorsa is reminded not to mention having a VCR around a stranger.
Shideh’s struggle to survive and escape goes far beyond, and even precedes the horror story. She’s confined by social constructs and religious forces, faces fears that she’s a bad mother, and worries about the support of her husband. Under the Shadow toes the line of whether or not something supernatural is really happening longer than many similar films, and by the time the djinn finally manifest, they’re an extension of these external threats.
Under the Shadow has all of the makings of a new horror classic: a compelling protagonist to root for, a unique setting and mythology, visceral and psychological terror, and creepy, effective monsters. This is all the more impressive for being Babak Anvaris’ debut feature, and he uses a deft, unsettling touch to craft a tight, captivating, not to mention scary as hell, horror film. [Grade: B+/A-]