The Iran/Iraq conflict forms the backdrop for an exceptional chiller in Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow
UK, Jordan, Qatar, 2016/ Cert. 15/ 84 mins
Director: Babak Anvari
Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin, Manshadi, Bobby Najeri, Ray Haratian, Aram Ghasemy
From the British independent film company Wigwam Films comes the UK, Qatar and Jordan co-production Under the Shadow, written and directed by Babak Anvari. Set in Tehran in 1988 during the Iran/Iraq war, Anvari’s debut feature was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has been deservedly well received by critics. The film succeeds on a generic level, providing genuine jump-in-your seats moments demanded from a horror audience. It also succeeds in utilising the horror genre to comment upon the nature of war and the status of women in post-revolution Iran after the Ayatollah Khomeini came into power.
The film’s plot centres upon Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) who are living in a Tehran tenement building struggling to cope with the chaos of the conflict. Her husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is a doctor who has been enlisted to join the military and has been assigned to the front and Shideh has opted to remain in the city rather than stay with his parents in the country. At the beginning of the film we discover that Shideh wishes to continue with her medical studies but she is bluntly informed by the Director of the University (Bijan Daneshmand) that as she was active in a left-wing organisation during the revolution her application has been denied. Shideh becomes depressed by the decision and the curtailment of her ambition to become a doctor and this leads to tension in the marriage which is further exacerbated by her decision to remain in Tehran. With her husband away, the shelling of the city intensifies and the tenants of the block are forced to gather in the basement for safety until an unexploded missile crashes into the building’s roof. Gradually the rest of the occupants leave the tenement block until only Shideh and her daughter remain, with Dorsa increasingly disturbed by visions and convinced that as the missile burst through the roof it has let in a malevolent spirit- a Djinn in Islamic folklore-into the building.
Under the Shadow’s Iranian setting immediately brings to mind Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night although the two films are considerably different in tone and form as Amirpour’s horror is heavily stylised and far more idiosyncratic than Anvari’s more conventional chiller. A more valid comparison can be found with Jennifer Kent’s psychological horror The Babadook (2014) as both films deal with the isolation of a mother and child and deal with horrors- either real or imagined- suggestive of mental anguish or breakdown. Much of the film’s impact owes a great deal to its domestic setting and how it manages- to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock- to bring terror back into the home. Its suspense is derived from the fact that we really care about the characters and the reality of their situation as Under the Shadow, like The Babadook, has a mother left alone to cope with a young, highly imaginative and fearful child, concerned for her own sanity and child’s safety. When she is informed that there is an evil presence in the tenement block by Mrs Ebrahimi, an elderly and devout Muslim, who states that the djinni ‘travel on the wind, they always know how to find you’, Shideh’s rationality leads her to dismiss her neighbour’s warning. But when Dorsa’s favourite doll inexplicably disappears and Shideh is told that the spirits steal a favourite item in order to take possession of its owner, she can no longer ignore the possibility of the paranormal. Shideh eventually comes around to believing her daughter’s assertion that an evil spirit lurks in the building and, increasingly plagued by her own nightmares and visions, agrees to leave for her husband’s parents as soon as the doll is found.
In a similar manner to Kent’s film, the spirit attempts to drive a wedge between mother and child. Both The Babadook and Under the Shadow locate their psychological dread in the real and there is a theological struggle in both films between rationality and a belief in the supernatural. The Babadook’s threat emerges from the grief of the mother at the loss of her husband and the repressed resentment this causes her to feel towards her son. Under the Shadow’s terror originates in Shideh’s thwarted ambition to practise medicine, the devastation of the war and the increasing repression imposed upon women living under the revolutionary regime- the “shadow”- implied by the title.
Shideh has a modern feminist outlook on life which contradicts the edicts of the Islamic regime. We see her exercising in the living room to a Jane Fonda Workout video and as video players are frowned upon as anti-Islamic she has to warn her daughter not to mention the fact that they own a VCR to their neighbours. At one point in the film Shideh and her daughter flee the tenement in terror and they are picked up by the military police. In the haste to escape the entity that dwells in their apartment, Shideh has forgotten to wear her veil in public- a punishable offence for women under Sharia law- and they are forced to spend the night in a police cell until Shideh is cautioned by an official the next morning.
With Under the Shadow, Anvari emerges as new directorial talent and his debut promises much for the future. Rather than pound the audience with special effects, the film shows admirable restraint with Chris Barnwell’s editing and Kit Fraser’s cinematography complementing, rather than intruding upon, the narrative which avoids explicit violence and gore for a more cerebral, psychologically disquieting atmosphere. The point-of-view cuts during Shideh’s terrifying hallucinations are effective, as are the rotated camera angles of her lying upon her bed which demonstrate her apprehensive state of mind and skilfully signpost the beginning of her waking nightmares. Similarly, Under the Shadow promotes the edict that a little is enough in its portrayal of the djinn which is, for the most part, fleetingly glimpsed and is much more sinister for being so. Both intelligent and genuinely scary, Under the Shadow adroitly manages to unsettle, sending several satisfactory chills down your spine whilst successfully weaving a socio-political comment on Iran during the period into its horror narrative You will still be shaking from its psychological terror and engaging with its nuanced subtexts long after the credits roll.