| As a mother and daughter struggle to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war-torn Tehran of the 1980s, a mysterious evil begins to haunt their home.
Following on the heels of The Babadook, and to a lesser extent The Witch, Under the Shadow is another entry in the recent trend of highbrow indie horror. It’s the type where the slow-burning tension completely flies in the face of jump scares and loud noises. I wasn’t entirely aware of what I was getting into when I went to see it, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found that this movie is thoughtful allegory about a oppressed woman in 1980s Iran, brought to realization with its performances and soundscape.
The sympathetic manner in which Anvari balances empathy and paranoia to articulate Shideh’s suffocation owes much to the measured approach to narrative, but don’t be fooled, it soon becomes apparent Anvari is playing with audience expectations and quietly laying the foundations for a truly terrifying second act. For a debut film Babak Anvari demonstrates a more-than-sturdy directorial hand. The most obvious comparison to make of Anvari’s work – a comparison everybody is making – is to Jennifer Kent’s 2014 hit, The Babadook, with both films featuring a central relationship between a mother and her child. The comparisons between the two films run much deeper than a story that revolves around a mother and a child, however, as each shares an ambiguity surrounding the mental health of their female characters.
One of the things that made this one really stand out for me was the historical setting and social context that came with that. While on the one hand this is a claustrophobic apartment-based horror film, there are also very real terrors outside the home too. In fact, the apartment is a haven for the mother in many ways. Beyond this safe sanctuary she has to deal with a repressive regime who may violently punish her if her clothing is not correct or if they even hear she owns a VCR. The restrictive lives of women during the Cultural Revolution is the real life horror that the protagonist experiences out with the home, while the supernatural Djinn entity is the horror she and her daughter endure within the home. At the same time there are the horrors of war constantly occurring without warning and with potential deadly consequences.
The problems with Under the Shadow stem from its pacing, which, while largely effective in the grand scheme of things, makes for some slow moments towards the middle. It doesn’t teeter into boring territory, but a sense of unjust repetition does start to become noticeable in some scenes. It isn’t the nature of what’s being shown that’s the issue; it’s that what’s being shown has more or less already been shown before.
In short, this movie has very strong performances, a believable dilemma set in a troubling period and a plot that doesn’t leave you hanging with even more questions by the end or a twist-ending, like how many/most films usually do nowadays. Babak Anvari is definitely on my list of people to keep an eye out for, especially when you consider that this was his first feature film.
‘Under The Shadow’ gets a 7.6/10.
Shot on 35's rating sheet: 9.5 – 10.0: Excellent! 8.5 – 9.5: Fantastic, but with minor flaws 7.5 – 8.5: Great, but with issues 6.5 – 7.5: Okay, but with major issues 5.5 – 6.5: Had potential, but falls flat hard. 4.5 – 5.5: Disaster!