Under the Shadow

Release: Friday, October 7, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Babak Anvari

Directed by: Babak Anvari

For the better part of the 1980s tension between Iran and Iraq had been escalating into large-scale armed conflict, an eight-year period of violence recognized today as the Iran-Iraq War. Then-president Saddam Hussein, hoping to pounce on Iran in post-Islamic Revolution turmoil, invaded without warning in September of 1980. Cut to four years in: Iraqi forces, at best at a stalemate on the ground and increasingly on the defensive, began strategically targeting Iranian cities and civilians in a series of concentrated air strikes, but not without opposition.

This ensuing chaos, dubbed ‘The War of the Cities,’ serves as the backdrop against which Babak Anvari sets his directorial debut Under the Shadow, a quietly disturbing horror film that tells of a mother and her daughter defending themselves against malicious spirits in their apartment as the outside world crumbles around them. The film takes place in war-torn Tehran, the Iranian capital and one of the heaviest-hit areas during the conflict. This nightmarish reality meshes with aspects of ancient Arabian mythology to form a uniquely chilly, claustrophobic atmosphere.

The film opens with Shideh (Narges Rashidi) being denied an opportunity to resume her medical studies given her pre-war affiliation with politically active students. This is devastating news for her, especially since her recently deceased mother had been so supportive and had given her books to study. She returns home to an unsympathetic husband (Bobby Naderi) who bluntly tells her to get over it. Being a doctor himself, he is soon called away by the military, and advises Shideh to leave the city with their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) for his parents’ house in a safer part of the country.

Embittered by her husband’s reaction, Shideh of course doesn’t take the advice. She’d prefer to weather the storm in the comfort of their home, often taking to the building’s makeshift bomb shelter along with several other terrified tenants. After a particularly close encounter with an undetonated missile that lodges itself in the upper part of the building, the exodus begins in earnest. But Shideh and her daughter are still hanging back when young Dorsa’s favorite doll, the thing that is supposed to keep her feeling safe, goes missing.

Once Anvari guts the film of its extraneous parts he allows the true horror to settle in. A sudden ghost town turns into a breeding ground for the menacing “djinn” — supernatural creatures of Islamic theology believed to have the same capacity for good and evil as man, though in this context it’s plain to see what kind we are dealing with. Especially as their presence begins to have adverse effects on both mother and child. Nightmares, visions, inexplicable behavior — many of the hallmarks of the classic American supernatural thriller Poltergeist are on display here.

All throughout Anvari’s approach treads a fine line between being economic and becoming tedious. Under the Shadow is an understated horror that will likely frustrate viewers who demand more stimuli. Regrettably, Anvari seems unwilling to, maybe even incapable of committing to his high-concept vision all the way through, resorting to the Rule Book far more often in the waning moments. It’s not enough to completely undo what the rest of the film manages to accomplish, and yet it’s enough to make Under the Shadow just that much more forgettable.

Recommendation: A lot of buildup for minimal payoff makes Under the Shadow a little underwhelming. That said, the combination of social/political commentary with supernatural elements compels me to suggest this to anyone looking for a horror film that’s just a little different. (The version available on Netflix is an English-language overdub, which I need to mention because the incongruity of the character’s mouths with the words being spoken also considerably impacted my experience.) 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 84 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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