In a genre that has a reputation for endlessly pursuing gore, using violence and bloodshed as shortcuts for real scares, Under the Shadow is a welcome surprise. Across the film’s scant 84 minutes there’s hardly a drop of blood shed, and nobody is dismembered, maimed, or separated from their innards. There’s just one death, and it’s an off-screen heart attack. Yet despite all that, Under the Shadow might just end up one of the best horror films of the year.
The debut feature of British director Babak Anvari, the film takes for its inspiration his own childhood in Tehran during the decade-long Iran-Iraq war. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a young mother, left to raise her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment after her husband, a doctor, is conscripted for a mandatory month of military medical service. Neither her nor Dorsa are sleeping well, and when the young girl begins to talk about seeing and hearing Djinn — malevolent spirits — their quiet life begins to unravel.
In a lot of ways, Under the Shadow plays as a British-Iranian answer to Australia’s The Babadook — much like that film, Anvari’s debut centres on a taut parental relationship, finds horror in children’s nightmares, and continually raises the spectre of mental health, though it ultimately settles for a less ambiguous approach than Jennifer Kent’s creepy delight.
The ‘80s Tehran setting proves a rich one, and in focussing on the supernatural Anvari finds a new angle into the war. We’ve seen the bombings and the misogyny before in the likes of Persepolis (not to mention the Jane Fonda workout videos that firmly place it in the decade), but by combining the threats of Iraqi missiles with Middle Eastern mythology, Under the Shadow finds new space to explore questions of belief against the backdrop of religious extremism.
Those looking for introspective, avant garde fare along the lines of last year’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night might find themselves disappointed though. There are interesting ideas and stylistic choices at play here (most of all a bravura nightmare sequence playing with perspective) but for the most part Anvari is content to aim for a simpler goal: scaring the absolute hell out of the audience. And from the first jump cut to the final harrowing escape, he pulls it off spectacularly.
Under the Shadow strips horror back to the basics, and proves you don’t need much to create total terror.
Words by Dominic Preston