Directorial debuts don’t get much more assured than writer-director Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, a tonally perfect and atmospheric psychological horror film that blends a genuinely scary otherworldly presence with an intelligent look into Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Set in Tehran, Anvari tells the story of a family in turmoil for various reasons, ranging from the sociopolitical to the marital, before the arrival of the potential supernatural entity, a dichotomy that he explores really well as each added element of stress only adds to the psychological anguish faced by the main characters.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a former medical student who is eager to restart her studies, but her previous association with left-wing activist groups means that the university is reluctant to let her return and brushes her off when she goes to plead her case. Upset at their apathy to her arguments, she returns to her apartment, where she lives with her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Since they are functionally trapped there as a result of the war and Tehran is an obvious target for shelling, Iraj wants her to leave the city with Dorsa while he is away on military service, but she is resolute in her desire to stay. Eventually, all of these stress factors come together and deeply affect Shideh’s mental state, especially while she attempts to take care of Dorsa on her own, which results in a collection of strange events that seem to connect Dorsa’s doll Kimia with a djinn that appears to stalk them from that point onwards. This all happens while more and more of Shideh’s neighbours leave the city due to increasing air raids, damaging Shideh’s psyche even further as she is confronted with several big decisions.
Anvari does a fantastic job of blending the narrative into the tension. This is not a film that uses camera trickery or well-timed music to provide simple scares, but one that blends that feeling of fear into a story that feels authentic, emotions that are human at their core. There is a feeling of intense claustrophobia throughout the film’s compact 84-minute runtime and things that may not be scary individually here exacerbate the sense of chilling escalation that pervades every frame. As things collapse around Shideh, both figuratively and literally, the camera is rarely far away from her reactions, and her growing sense of unease that eventually turns into full-blown panic.
These events are felt on a personal level. Tehran is a massive city, but Shideh and Dorsa’s apartment block feels cramped, almost inescapably so despite the fact that they seem able to walk or drive away at any time. Shideh’s stubbornness about leaving, in denial as she is about quite how large the effect of living in a wartorn city has been on her, is matched by her growing paranoia about what it is that seems to have invaded the whole building, especially since Dorsa is so emphatically set on its existence. This is another contrast that Anvari brilliantly explores as Shideh wrestles with her convictions and what she thinks is best, that internal turmoil adding yet another string to the film’s bow as the tension builds exponentially.
Performances are uniformly excellent, and Rashidi is superb as Shideh. Particularly worthy of mention is Avin Manshadi as Dorsa who gives an incredible performance, not only for a child actor but for any actor. The level of believability she brings to the role makes that central relationship feel incredibly genuine as mother and daughter struggle to overcome the horror together, whether it be supernatural or otherwise.
That twisting of the horror genre, the blending of it with the very palpable horror and tension of war, is among Anvari’s greatest triumphs. Sure, the supernatural side of it all is scary and the tension builds as Shideh attempts to convince herself it cannot possibly be real, but those moments of quintessential horror coming alongside and making key use of its setting is a great achievement. Anvari is always aware that he is telling an Iranian story and the trauma here is just as much about the subtext of the war and Iran’s sociopolitical situation at that time as it is about the spookiness of a spirit inhabiting the darkness, but it’s also a deeply personal one about family and the strength of a parent’s relationship with their child. Ultimately, he crafts a superbly intelligent horror film that will make you think as much as it makes you experience the increasingly agonising tension and fear that he engineers so well.