Horror works so well when tied to real and traumatic historical events. Guillermo del Toro is a master of this and you only need to watch the opening moments of THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE or PAN’S LABYRINTH for proof. UNDER THE SHADOW is low-key and effective Iranian take on the same, putting a supernatural twist on a very real tale of a mother and daughter in jeopardy.
As the Iran-Iraq war reaches its most destructive phase, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is left alone with her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) in a house crumbling from bomb blasts to the roof. First her husband (Bobby Naderi) is called away to treat injured soldiers and civilians, then her neighbours steadily start to flee from Tehran to smaller towns away from the fighting. Soon enough their apartment block is inhabited solely by Shideh, Dorsa, and something else that has just taken Dorsa’s doll…
It’s a film of little moments. A projectile exploding outside the window as Shideh loses her place at the university. Shideh ripping off her hijab as she breaks down in front of the babysitter. Her trying to keep it together for the sake of her family as she locks away her treasured medicine textbooks and reevaluates her life while her husband swans in from work and her daughter plays in the background.
Shideh is a thoroughly compelling character as portrayed by Rashidi. Branded as a clumsy and immodest woman who has the temerity to drive by her neighbours, and referred to as “shrapnel” by her in-laws, her independence as a student of medicine has all-but been quashed. She’s used to being on her own looking after her daughter though, so when her husband is sent away to fight not a lot will change. She has always been the one with strongly-held convictions. Political upheaval and the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war have been depicted on film before, in striking graphic style in PERSEPOLIS for instance, but rarely have we been in the thick of it to such an extent, so focussed on the impact the chaos and climate of fear has on a small family unit. Shideh and Dorsa have a great dynamic, utterly believable in their equal parts frustration with, and affection for, each other as mother and daughter. Shideh wants to be rational, to be strong, to believe that Dorsa’s stories and ailing health can be explained, but increasingly she must accept the strange goings on and hope that it’s not all in her head (as Dorsa chillingly points out, “you saw her too!”).
The film preys on very primal fears. The war outside may be deadly, your mother may be caring and competent, but when the lights go out and something seems to be moving around that shouldn’t be, you want your father to be around as well to feel safe. The plot is actively manufactured to make you uncomfortable, ready for the next scare as mother and daughter try to stay together and the djinn try and keep them apart. Creepy little details are dropped in too, things that don’t add up but make you feel uneasy.
The djinn are an unsettling creation; part poltergeist, part old-fashioned spectre taken to wearing (culturally appropriate) head-to-toe fabric. They go bump in the night, they appear to talk to little girls and through her friends, and though they seem to be able to fly outside windows and disappear at will, they also have a solid presence and an ability to affect the physical world around them and this, as well as their vaguely human disguises they adopt in the film is drawn from the manner of their appearances in the Quran.
As unsettling as the big shocks are when they come, writer-director Babak Anvari smartly leaves the viewer more scared for Shideh and Dorsa once they have escaped their supernatural tormentors. I almost wish we saw more of the djinn or that the the film allowed even more time to gather tension, but this isn’t just a ghost story. Once the paranormal threat is resolved, mother and daughter still have to find safety elsewhere as the war continues to erupt around them. Warfare and fear for your family always remains the real horror element here. Under the Shadow is a sharp and chilling treat, and well worth tracking down. SSP