Following on from the horror hit (in indie circles at least) of A Girl Walks Home Alone, Under The Shadow uses the success of the aforementioned film to boost itself into becoming one of the most hotly anticipated films among horror fans with positive buzz from Sundance and Frightfest only increasing the anticipation. Set during the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq war, Under the Shadow is about a mother and daughter terrorised by an evil spirit known as a Djinn. After her husband, a doctor, leaves to work in a dangerous military zone and her neighbours leave a war-torn capital Tehran, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) finds herself alone and isolated.
Under The Shadow is a film that takes its time before any supernatural events occur, up to that point the film works well as a family drama about a family of three living in Tehran whilst Iraq begins to level the Iranian capital with missiles. Such is the frequency; one explosion takes place outside the window where Shiden is trying to get back into university of which she was previously kicked out of for her political involvement in far-left groups. This causes friction between her and her husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), who believes she was foolish to engage in politics rather than focus on her studies.
The slow first act does do a good job at managing the drama and the rising tensions between Shideh and her husband. The film also takes time building a loving relationship between mother and daughter that would itself be under strain. However, the first act suffers in some regard as the repetitiveness of scenes where the volume of the suspenseful music builds up to nothing does begin to get a tad frustrating. However, when supernatural events occur, first time director Babak Anvari proves he is deft at bringing tension and genuine frights. There’s elements of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone in which supernatural events occur in a time of war, and, like Pan’s Labyrinth, Under the Shadow can easily be seen as a film where the Shiden’s mind is one damaged by the horrors of war.
Other films that Under the Shadow can be compared to include Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (mother and daughter terrorised by an evil spirit) and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook where a mother and her child’s relationship is tested by the invading evil force. The mother-daughter relationship is a moving one and it’s tough to watch it deteriorate as the falling missiles and invading spirits take their toll on the sanity of both mother and daughter. However, unlike The Babadook, director Babak Anvari keeps the existence of these Djinn ambiguous, essentially allowing you to take what you wish from the film.
Babak Anvari shows he’s more than happy to use the jump scares that are part and parcel of the genre as there are a number of well-timed and effective frights. However, there are other forces that heaps pressure on Shideh’s mind, such as the whistling of missiles and being forced to adhere to a strict Sharia Law where it is necessary to hide her VHS tapes and wear a burka otherwise face punishment of lashing. Also the fact that she is getting more and more isolated as her friends and neighbours leave gives the impression that help is not on the agenda, adding more stress on a mind already tested by both natural and supernatural forces.
Under the Shadow is an excellent, intelligent and well developed horror film with an intriguing and unfamiliar backdrop.