★★★★ out of ★★★★★
About a 10 out of 25 on the Scary Meter.
Directed by Babak Anvari
An exotic spin on a familiar tale. It’s a Persian Poltergeist! This genie is not here to grant any wishes.
A mother under pressure cooker, just add supernatural spirits, and you have a recipe for a tight horror movie. The Babadook, The Exorcist, Poltergeist, and Hereditary all have at their core a mother struggling to protect her family under the duress of something evil. Under the Shadow is such a movie, and it is in the fascinating context of the Iran vs. Iraq war which dragged on for almost the entire decade of the 80’s, out of sight and out of mind of most westerners as the two countries lay waste to each other. Add to that, the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian revolution, and you have a woman who is trapped in the cultural confines of religious doctrine… and you get our heroine, Shideh (The lovely and talented Narges Rashidi, a new favorite of mine!)
The movie starts with Shideh trying to re-enter medical school after time away while raising her young daughter. The trouble is, she also was part of a left-wing counter-revolution group, and the government is punishing her for her past associations, refusing her re-admission. Her life gets further confined as her husband Araj (Bobby Naderi) is summoned to military medical service, leaving her alone in their apartment with her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) right when Iraqi missiles begin to rain down on Tehran. So she is physically, emotionally, and professionally trapped.
Her relationship with her daughter is strained, as Dorsa clearly is a daddy’s girl, but as he leaves, he reminds her that he has left her a doll to keep her company. A creepy boy moves into the apartment building and starts telling Dorsa that there are djinn, evil air spirits, who have also taken up residence in the apartment building. Dorsa tells Shideh, and mom consoles daughter that djinn aren’t real. (Jinx!) However, Simple little things begin to suggest the presence of the spirits. Things go missing. Dorsa’s doll. Shideh’s contraband Jane Fonda Workout tape (Sinful!) The apartment building is soon thereafter struck by a missile, which fortunately does not detonate, but sends most of the tenants fleeing the building for safer locations away from the City.
The spirits begin manifesting themselves more aggressively, and eventually, when it is just Dorsa and Shideh in the building, they really assert themselves. As is the case in many films of this type, the initial signs are manifested in near-dreams, or hallucinations… or are they? Like almost all ghost movies, the buildup is slow and has an exponential curve applied to it. As a result, the entire first half of the film plays out as a drama, with only the slightest hint of the mysterious. The intensity of the closing stanza is a fantastic and intense panicky rush, and the scary certainly pay off down the stretch.
All of the intensity of the finale would have been a waste, had not the drama in the beginning been so compelling. Under the Shadow succeeds mightily in Eric’s rule #1. I cared about the protagonists. Sure, Shideh and Dorsa were occasionally frustrating, but they were very humanly so. They were entirely empathetic, and your heart breaks for Shideh’s plight. Ultimately, this is a film about frustration and oppression. Shideh’s dreams in ashes, her home crumbling around her, her husband away, and her daughter frightfully ill for no good reason. The inability to leave the house without being stopped by armed soldiers. Rashidi is hugely compelling in this role, and Anvari gave her a meaty role to dive into.
I do love how they portray the djinn too. Spooky, almost classic ghosts… but these are genies, creatures of the air, and the most fabulous way to show them manifest is with the blowing of cloth… and interspersed with creepy stalker-like beings that are just out of view. Other movies trying to do the same thing have made their Djinn almost too demonic. No need. The constant trickery of these spirits is enough to provide the scares.
The film was shot in Amman, Jordan, and I wonder if this film will ever show in Iran. It has a strong cultural subtext, about the suppression of the individual spirit by the Theocracy, with little nods to wearing the hijab and female modesty. I am also now compelled to see A Girl Walk Home Alone at Night, another Iranian horror movie of much acclaim. (Though, again, not filmed in Iran… but in Taft, California) and a third film, Zar, which was another well-received horror flick from 2017. Also, it is hard not to think of the plight of Syria when watching this movie. The horrors of war in a djinn’s wrapper.
Under the Shadow is Rated PG-13, and is available for rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Netflix, and Vudu.