With the world becoming a gigantic burning skip, horror filmmakers have really had to up their game to compete with the existential horror 24-hour news coverage can provide for free. Sure, you still get a load that thinks dumping a metric shittone of blood and jump scares is enough to count for horror and call it a day. But we still have to admit that the last ten years has provided us with a horror film renaissance that has produced some terrifying and thought-provoking films. But after a while, they tend to fall into their own tropes and formats. So they have to do something new to break it out. Such is the case with Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow (2016), out now on DVD/Blu-Ray.
Set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, we follow Shiedh (Narges Rashidi), a former medical student, barred from returning to the university due to her involvement with Leftist groups during the Iranian Revolution. Living with husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), Shiedh’s distress is exacerbated when Iraj is called up for annual military service. When Iraqi missiles target the city, with non-detonating one striking their apartment building, Iraj begs Shiedh to leave the city with her neighbours. But with an increasingly ill Dorsa, Shiedh finds herself living under siege when rumours of a new threat emerge. Not a military one, but a supernatural one as Dorsa confides that she has been visited a djinn. Left alone in an empty building, Shiedh finds herself beset on all sides by forces she can’t imagine.
Under the Shadow is hardly a unique film and others have linked to movies like The Babadook (2014). It’s easy to see why. An unknown evil menaces a mother and her young child. It has become a subgenre of its own. We have a mother, a child and with a supernatural threat that the mother at firsts ignores then later abused by. And like Babdook, this is not what the film is about. The supernatural is just there to grab our attention while it deals with physiological and emotional issues. Where Babadook dealt with repressed grief, Shadow is the mental trauma of war on civilians and the legacy of the past.
And in that regard, it’s a bloody brilliant movie.
I can neither stress this nor watch this, enough. And you can’t just watch it once. Each time, something new shows up, a little detail that you missed. This isn’t something to have on it the background; each frame is a painting, each line of dialogue a clue to something greater. An offhand comment about possession and lost personal item takes a darker turn later, but get distracted for just an instant and its poof, you’ve missed it.
Anvari can build up the pressure, slowly and methodically, until you can’t take much more of it. You feel the existential terror closing in, losing all control over your world from the nightmare of the war and the djinn. It even has, quite possibly, the only affective jumpscare I’ve seen to date. For Sheidh, both are intangible terrors that she cannot fight against, and as you watch, you share her panic and feel the tightening in your own chest as panic sets in. As Sheidh starts questions if it is all the work of a djinn, you start questioning if it’s just in Sheidh’s mind. Everything has a rational, everyday explanation, but when anxiety kicks in, normal every day becomes putting your head through a windowpane because it made sense at the time. We don’t even get to see the djinn head-on, it’s always just out of shot or hidden behind something, giving it an M.R. James vibe. I would say it’s more akin to an M.R. James story and The Devils Backbone (2001) in many respects. It is creating both a material and an immaterial threat.
I wish I could go into more detail about this film. Take it apart at every level. A psychological study, a traditional style ghost story, and a social commentary with great acting from Rashidi and Manshadi, Shadow bridges the gap between supernatural and secular horror.
Dir: Babak Anvari
Scr: Corin Hardy, Felipe Marino
Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi
Prd: Emily Leo, Oliver Roskill, Lucan Toh
DOP: Kit Fraser
Music: Gavin Cullen
Country: UK/Jordan/ Qatar
Runtime: 84 minutes
Under the Shadow is available on Blu-Ray now