What starts off as a family drama during war-time turns left into cold-blooded terror.
Set during Iran's war with Iraq in the 1980's, when air sirens announced death from above, this debut feature from writer-director Babak Anvari is a Middle Eastern Babadook, with clear social subtext instead of psychological. It might not be as frightening or as intense as a modern horror classic, but there is still something exciting about seeing familiar tropes placed in an unfamiliar context--in this case, a nation ravaged by conflict and stifled by fundamentalist law.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a young mother living in 1980s Tehran, trying to hold her life together as war destroys everything around her. She used to be a promising medical student, but Shideh was forced out of university apparently after having taken part in leftist political rallies, she's effectively banned from finishing her degree, which leaves her little option than to stay home and look after her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). As if the encroaching conflict weren't bad enough, as if it weren't terrifying enough that her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) had been drafted into service, Shideh must also face the possibility that something evil is lurking in the building - with its sights set firmly on Dorsa.
Despite all the warnings, all the foreshadowing and all the people around her fleeing, Shideh cannot leave her apartment building. Instead of the usual reasons for our horror protagonists to stay in an obviously haunted/dangerous place, Dorsa has lost her doll and Shideh must find it. I guess the doll is a symbolic protector, helping to prevent nightmares of loneliness or sudden death in the night. Amid all the mayhem, Shideh just needs to find the damn doll and then all will be well. Where could it have gone? Maybe the weird, superstitious rich family downstairs nicked it while everyone was shuffling down to the basement bunker? Or perhaps it's something else, something supernatural that's forcing its way in through the massive crack in the ceiling? I couldn't help but feel like some elements of this film were a little silly, dated or lacked sense. Although once you start looking for sense in horror films, you also have to start crossing out some classics, but I couldn't help feel a bit cheated at times when the setup and subtext of this film are so important and powerful, then the pay off's came out a bit damp. There's something naggingly formulaic about how the film plays out.
It's that old question that comes up in 'found footage' movies: why is someone filming this? In this case, why doesn't Shideh's basic survival instinct kick in? Why won't she accept her adult responsibility to remove her family from the path of mortal danger? However, the fact that I got spooked a few times by what was essentially a floral bedsheet is saying something. There's value here if you can look past a few weak plot points.
With sparse design and dressing, we're able to see a more stripped-back and raw home-life in the apartment, allowing a more intimate view of the family, which is sharply contrasted by the covered up, repressed and obedient way our characters behave once outside the walls of their apartment building. The use of dutch tilts, skewed shots and rolling camera movements play deeply into the building tension with every vision, dream and sighting of the sinister Djinn.
The camera - restlessly moving, rarely stationary - suggests listlessness, dread and destabilisation, which echoes the conflict both inside and outside the apartment. There's also some clever manipulation of the darkness. With ample light, Anvari turns thin hallways, empty stairwells, and messy living rooms into lucid nightmares. It's never a guarantee that we'll see something -- in fact, most of the time we don't -- but that doesn't matter, not in this story. This is something too many filmmakers of the genre forget: It's what we don't see that stays with us.
The appeal of Under the Shadow is not in finding out what the Djinn really is or what it might want, but what its "presence" reveals about the film's lead: wracked by doubt in her abilities as a mother and inherently distrustful of her own environment. Not to mention what it reveals about writer-director Anvari, whose life during this time wasn't hugely dissimilar from Dorsa's (he, like Dorsa, was largely raised by his mother in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq conflict).
It's a clearly feminist film: Shideh is cast as the tough heroine fighting back against greater hostile forces--a horror movie archetype that takes on even more power in this particular setting. In the end, though, I felt seeing Shideh defy the regime by watching a Jane Fonda workout video, banned by the state, almost more stirring than seeing her overcome her personal demons by protecting her child from a more literal one.