Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Babak Anvari
Stars: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi.
We don’t see many horror films from Iran, as their cinema is mainly centred around domestic dramas and social realism that subtly critique the repressive regime and its patriarchal nature and religious zealotry. Last year we had the low budget A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, a low key and understated horror film that eschewed splashy, big budget special effects and buckets of gore. It was also shot in black and white, which added to its unsettling mood and atmosphere. And now we get Under The Shadow, another similarly slow burn thriller from Iran that ramps up the tension towards its climax.
The film is set in an apartment block in Tehran in the late 1980s, during the height of the Iran-Iraq war. But there is more to fear here than just the threat of bombs or missiles. There is also a malevolent ancient evil spirit known as a Djinn which gradually makes its presence felt.
For the educated Shideh (played by Narges Rashidi, an Iranian actress who usually works in Germany and has appeared in Speed Racer, Aeon Flux, etc) her life is full of disappointments. She has a degree from university but because of her radical politics during the Cultural Revolution she is unable to gain employment. She is a stay at home mother raising her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Shideh has a more western outlook and also enjoys working out to Jane Fonda videos. At the height of the conflict her doctor husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi, from Argo, etc) is drafted into the army and sent off to the front, leaving Shideh and Dorsa alone in their apartment block. Due to the ongoing conflict, most of the apartment’s residents have fled, apart from an elderly man upstairs. And when an unexploded missile crashes through the roof of the upstairs apartment the danger is apparent. Driven by extreme superstition, one of her neighbours starts claiming that the missile was cursed and released a Middle Eastern spirit Djinn.
But Dorsa is also having mysterious conversations with an unseen woman, and her favourite doll keeps going missing. Events slowly get out of hand as it becomes clear that there is a supernatural force at work in the apartment block.
Under The Shadow is an assured feature film debut from writer/director Babak Anvari, who adopts an old school approach to the horror genre, eschewing the usual gore and blood and jump scares in favour of slow burn suspense and gradual air of paranoia. Anvari has drawn upon his own childhood experiences growing up during the conflict to shape the material. But it is also obvious that he has watched some of the classic ghost stories of yesteryear that relied on atmosphere for their chills.
Under The Shadow runs a brisk 83 minutes and there is little padding or flab on the screenplay. It is a slow burn thriller, but it gradually escalates into an effective and unsettling climax. Cinematographer Kit Fraser has shot the film using muted tones to give the material a heightened sense of claustrophobia, and the film is steeped in mystery and an air of dread. Fraser also uses wideshots for the interiors effectively to give us a sense of scope. Editor Chris Barwell establishes a good rhythm and paces the scares effectively.
Anvari draws a strong performance from Rashidi, and she gives the film a strong focus and holds our attention as the strong willed and determined heroine. And newcomer Manshadi also delivers a strong performance as the young girl seemingly possessed by an evil spirit and her performance seems grounded and natural.
Under The Shadow is more of an art house horror film, and it also offers up a potent social commentary and explores the usual themes of female oppression, the inequality between the sexes, religion, society, class, mythology, and superstition. The film has a strong feminist perspective that also subtly explores the role of women in this patriarchal society. With the success of both A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Under The Shadow on the festival circuit we can only hope that more Iranian filmmakers tackle the horror genre in future.