There are two different types of horror in “Under the Shadow”. One comes from a stark, harrowing allegory based on one harsh, gloomy historical background. The other comes from a creepy, insidious tale about the possibility of some unknown evil influence. As they resonate with each other in their grim juxtaposition, the movie tightly grips us with the increasing sense of dread and anxiety, and then it strikes us hard with several tense, scary moments to remember.
The movie takes place in Tehran during the late 1980s, when the Iraq-Iran War was going through the phase of “the War of the Cities”. As the city is frequently shaken by air raid or missile attack, things seem to be getting only worse with no end in sight, and the repressive mood of the post-revolution era adds more gloom to this unstable situation.
In the opening scene, we meet a young married woman named Shideh (Narges Rashidi). Probably motivated by her mother’s recent death, she wants to resume her study at the medical university she quitted several years ago, but her aspiration is quickly dashed when she talks with a university administrator. The administrator points out her left-wing activities during the revolution, and he makes it clear to her that there will not be any chance for her in the future.
Quite frustrated about this, Shideh returns to her apartment where she lives with her doctor husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Iraj initially shows some compassion to his wife, but he does not fully understand how exasperated she is. It is evident that she has felt suffocated by her surroundings, and we observe how ferociously she does her private home exercise with a Jane Fond workout video, which seems to be the only way to ventilate her anger and frustration.
When Iraj is about to be sent away to the front line, he suggests that his wife and daughter should go to his family living outside Tehran, but Shideh does not want to go there, and she thinks she can take care of herself and Dorsa at their home. After he leaves, she continues her usual daily life with Dorsa, and it looks like they will be mostly fine together although the war feels closer to them and other people in the apartment building day by day.
And then strange things begin to happen around Shideh and Dorsa. Dorsa has a night terror during one night, and she later tells her mother that she is scared of an evil spirit called ‘djinn’. She said that a mute boy living with the landlord’s family told her about djinn, and, as briefly shown during an earlier scene, he even gave her a tiny talisman for protection. Shideh simply dismisses what her daughter tells her, but then she finds herself frequently getting nervous and disturbed after one terrifying incident which shocks everyone in the apartment building with devastating effects, and it seems increasingly possible to her that there is indeed something wicked lurking around her apartment.
Via his skillful handling of space and mood, the director/writer Babak Anvari patiently dials up the level of tension. His cinematographer Kit Fraser’s camera is initially stable and unobtrusive as we get accustomed to the interior of Shideh’s apartment, but then it gradually shifts to a more agitated mode as generating a dark, claustrophobic atmosphere on the screen. Supposedly mundane details including the constant sound of wind come to feel more sinister as Shideh and Dorsa become more isolated and terrified later in the story, and the movie also serves us with several effective moments to jolt us while never interrupting its steady narrative pace.
Since it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, “Under the Shadow” has been compared with “The Babadook” (2014), and that is not so surprising considering that both of them couple problematic motherhood with frightening supernatural elements. Like the heroine of “The Babadook”, Shideh is full of anxiety and frustration with many mental buttons to be pushed, and she come to be more reminded of her inadequacies as a mother as feeling more threatened by the unseen force of evil. The movie wisely lets us interpret its story for ourselves; we can simply regard it as a psychological horror movie reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965) and “The Tenant” (1976), and we can also appreciate how it metaphorically reflects the destructive social/historical reality coming into her apartment from outside.
The final act of the movie pushes us further to the apparently unhinged viewpoint of its two main characters, and we naturally come to question what exactly happens during this part, but the movie is firmly held by the stellar performance from its two lead performers. Narges Rashidi is believable in every step of her neurotic character’s gradual psychological transition along the plot, and her performance eventually becomes the emotional anchor we can hold onto throughout the film. Avin Manshadi is equally good in her natural performance, and her character comes to us as another active part of the story while she effortlessly moves around different emotional states.
Overall, “Under the Shadow” is a small but smart horror movie equipped with spooky ambience, solid performance, and interesting subjects, and Anvari made a successful debut here with his first feature film. Like any good fillmakers, he understands well the value of mood and storytelling, and the result is one of the scariest movies I saw in this year.