At the start of Under The Shadow we see a young woman, Shideh, being told in no uncertain terms that she will not be allowed to complete her medical studies, and that she should pursue other goals in life. The man tells her that this is due to her left-wing activism as a teenager, in Iran’s so-called Green Revolution; a period in the country’s recent history under which strict Islamic laws and conservatism took over the country. This comes as a crushing blow, and leaves Shideh in a state of subdued melancholy.
She, her husband Iraj and their young daughter Dorsa live in an ordinary Tehran apartment in 1988. The Iran-Iraq war is in full swing, the occasional air-raid siren punctuating an otherwise mundane domestic setting. Early in the film Iraj is drafted to fight in the war, leaving Shideh to look after their daughter on her own. Before he leaves and subsequently via phone from the front lines, he implores her to take Dorsa to a place of relative safety, out of the capital. Rumours abound that Iraq intends to flatten Tehran with a bombardment of missile attacks; attacks which unlike the air-raids to which the family are accustomed, give no time to seek shelter.
Sure enough, an Iraqi missile soon strikes the apartment block. It doesn’t explode on impact, but the shock of it takes the life of an elderly neighbour, whom Shideh tries to resuscitate. From this point on in the film, we see a conflict arise in Shideh. Namely, how much of what happens to her and Dorsa can be chalked up to the stress brought about by her domestic situation, and how much is due to some unexplainable phenomena. Dorsa has been told by another child in the building that ‘djinns’ (mythical and malevolent spirits in ancient Arabic culture) are present. Shideh hears similar things from her religiously conservative neighbour, but being a woman of science, dismisses this as superstitious nonsense. However, she is plagued by disturbing dreams and as the frequency and severity of these increase, she becomes less certain.
An unnerving air of oppression is present throughout the film; that of Iran’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, of the looming threat of further missile attacks and indeed of the supernatural. In the privacy of her own home, Shideh exercises to Jane Fonda workout videos but tellingly, she immediately covers up with a headscarf and rapidly hides the VHS player when a glazier arrives to fix a broken window.
Thematically, comparisons have been drawn to Jennifer Kent’s film The Babadook, in which a single mother’s credulity is similarly put under strain by the paranormal delusions (or not as the case may be), of her troubled child. Like that film, Under The Shadow does a lot with scant resources, and by harnessing the power of suggestion. Some of the films more ambitious FX sequences in its final act betray its low budget, but by and large the supernatural elements are handled effectively in a ‘less is more’ manner, with merely a flash of fabric in the corner of the screen being enough to raise the pulse.
The end credits sequence aside, there is no music aside from the occasional diagetic song. Instead, sound design is used to great effect to ramp up tension. There is the occasional sudden jump-scare (as is ubiquitous in modern horror), but the most chilling scenes of the film are underpinned by menacing, atonal drones and hums; not dissimilar to the sound work in some of David Lynch’s films.
To its immense credit, the djinn (and by extension the film itself) can be interpreted in a number of ways. Is it a metaphor for the oppression of women under the Iranian regime, for the looming threat of death from above or indeed for Shideh’s growing insecurities about her failure as a mother? The film treats its audience as adults and we are left to make up our own minds about what we’ve seen. The performances (most notably Narges Rashidi as Shideh), are well judged and nuanced, and Babak Anvari’s assured direction marks him as a director from whom we can expect great things.
The disc is to say the least, no-frills. There are no extras, and there are only the standard options for scene selection, audio and subtitle configurations.
Intelligently written and bolstered by fantastic performances, Under The Shadow is a gripping and effective horror gem which offers a great deal more than generic chills.