This atmospheric, increasingly-creepy horror is ostensibly an Iranian film, though like last year’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night it’s actually a more multinational affair than such a phrase suggests. The dialogue is in Farsi and it’s set in late-80s war-torn Tehran, but Under The Shadow is a joint United Kingdom/Qatar/Jordan production, with a German-Iranian lead actor (Narges Rashidi) and an Iran-born, UK-based director (Babak Anvari) helming proceedings. It was shot in Jordan, thereby avoiding the censorship of the Iranian authorities, and is the UK’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for next year’s Academy Awards.
The story largely takes place within one Tehran apartment, in 1988; this is after the Iranian Cultural Revolution but during the Iran-Iraq war. A family of three is split up when the father – a doctor – is conscripted into the army; meanwhile, the man’s wife, medical student Shideh (Rashidi), stays at home to look after her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). In an overt comment about Iran’s differing treatment of men and women, an early scene shows Shideh being informed that she will not be allowed to continue her own studies, as she has been associated with radical left-wing politics in the past. This undermining and rejection of her skills is a catalyst, and winds up being crucial to her behaviour throughout the rest of the story. Unable to attend university, she works around the house and works out to (illegal) Jane Fonda videos. When Shideh’s mental well-being starts to become a cause for concern it’s possible that the absence of her husband, or the fact that he is on the front line, is a contributing factor. The war is to blame in other ways, especially when Saddam’s forces score a direct hit on the building Shideh and Dorsa live in; though the shock of the shell coming through the roof kills a neighbour, luckily the warhead does not explode.
This bomb seems to bring with it an evil force – the djinn of Arabian literature and Islamic mythology more generally. I’m not keen on describing such things in terms of ‘western’ equivalents, but I’m aware that most people reading this blog live in Europe, Australasia or North America, so for anyone who doesn’t already know I guess I should point out that djinn are genies, but the way that one is represented here is similar to the concept of poltergeist: it’s a malevolent spirit that haunts and causes turmoil in the family home. The question the narrative asks is whether it even exists at all: Dorsa believes in djinn because a local boy – who is supposedly mute – tells her about them; but Dorsa is a child, and children are prone to flights of fancy. Her life, due to circumstances, is in as much turmoil as anyone else’s. Shideh is a religious skeptic, but as possessions start to go missing and a chādor-clad figure appears in and outside the apartment, she is forced to accept that something strange is happening. For the viewer it’s less certain: weird events seem to happen at night, while Shideh is asleep. Are the djinn’s appearances simply vivid dreams or waking visions? She does sleepwalk, after all. Does her fragile mental state explain away the sudden manifestation of this strange, ghostly presence? Why does Dorsa see them, too?
The film starts slowly, and for the first hour it’s more low-key social realist drama than horror. However, a series of effective jump scares and a frazzled Babadook-style psyche narrative combine for an unsettling second half, in which the apartment becomes ever more claustrophobic: it’s spacious but there’s just one exit and entrance door. The two main characters are rarely seen leaving together; each time sirens go off and the pair have to go to the basement shelter (where the numbers of sheltering neighbours dwindle as the film progresses and more and more people flee Tehran), one of them will invariably go back for something that has been forgotten. In Dorsa’s case it’s her doll, which would seem to be the key to the whole mystery. Windows in the flat are repeatedly taped up as a security measure, the x-shaped patterns of the masking tape serving to remind us of the constant threat of Hussein’s missiles. Yet despite attempts to keep the household safe it’s impossible for Shideh to do so, and her own stubbornness at not wanting to leave for the countryside puts her and her daughter at great risk (though her defiance of others in doing so is also rather admirable, oddly enough). After the bomb hits the building Shideh’s ceiling has an ominous crack in it, too – another constant reminder of the war and its inherent dangers. Is this how the djinn has managed to get in?
Under The Shadow is one of those horror films where – like Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish Civil War-set movies – the real-life threat is greater than the supernatural menace. The djinn is scary, sure, and Anvari has a talent for spooking the audience, but is it as frightening a concept as a genuine unexploded missile hanging delicately over the lounge? Is it as scary as the armed soldiers or the hardline cleric Shideh encounters as she flees the apartment in the wake of one terrifying episode? I don’t think so, and I like the conept a lot, though one wonders whether there’s much mileage left in it. Anyway, the film straddles these twin threats – one very real, one possibly real – with ease and subtlety, and its writer-director is certainly worth watching over the coming years; this is a confidently-made debut, for sure.
Directed by: Babak Anvari.
Written by: Babak Anvari.
Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi.
Cinematography: Kit Fraser.
Editing: Christopher Barwell.
Music: Gavin Cullen.
Running Time: 84 minutes.