Under the Shadow review — A satisfyingly spooky Iranian ghost story

Under the Shadow gives a unique spin on the ghost story genre by setting it in a time and city where horror movies don’t often take place.

The horror genre was taken by storm in 2014 when Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook debuted to incredible acclaim. It’s deep dive take on the ghost story not only felt fresh and new but it also just affirmed the fact that we are in a golden age of horror. And though Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow certainly bears a resemblance to Kent’s film — both concern mother and child under assault by a malevolent force — it infuses it with a unique political allegory that just begs the industry to start giving us more horror movies from diverse directors. If not for the sake of exciting voices, then for the unique perspective that we don’t often see in the suburbs of Anytown, USA where most ghost stories take place.

Under the Shadow already takes a bold step in the genre by taking place against the backdrop of 1988 Tehran during the height of the Iran-Iraq war. Iranian society and the Iraqi bombs that seem to endlessly pummel the capital play as much of a role in the film as the monster at the center. Nights with sirens driving families to underground bunkers are a part of daily life as is the tape on the windows preventing them from shattering. And constantly, progressive women like Shideh (Narges Rashidi — her performance is a revelation) are constantly suppressed by their society. The film opens with Shideh being barred from continuing her studies in medical school because of her involvement in leftist political groups. Moments of female oppression are littered throughout the film. When she returns home, she throws out all of her medical books except for a book of terminologies that her deceased mother gave her. Her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi), a doctor, does his best to assuage her disappointment over medical school, but it seems that he is just another reminder of her failure — she had to put her studies on hold to raise their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi).

Soon after, Iraj is called to the battlefront leaving Shideh — she refused to leave their apartment building to escape to her in-laws’ house — alone with Dorsa. While he’s gone, the missile sirens seem to be going off more frequently sending Shideh and her neighbors into the makeshift bomb shelter in the basement of their apartment building. One day, a missile crashes through the roof of the building and lodges itself in the floor of the apartment above the family, but doesn’t detonate. However, other than fear and shattered windows, the missile may have ushered in something more sinister. As mysterious occurrences become more and more frequent — classic “go bump in the night” phenomenon and a case of a stolen Jane Fonda workout tape — Shideh’s neighbor points to the possibility that a djinn may be responsible. In Middle Eastern culture, a djinn is an evil spirit similar to a demon in Western culture. However, for it to possess a victim, it must steal an item of theirs. So when Dorsa’s doll goes missing, a dark mood takes over the house.

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Soon after, families start abandoning the apartment complex to flee to safer cities. However, Shideh stubbornly stays put as one last defiance to her circumstances. But as time goes on and fewer people are adding life to the complex, a sense of dread takes over instead. Anvari uses the building’s dark corridors and home’s dark corners and hallways to create a labyrinth that never truly feels safe. However, Under the Shadow‘s greatest virtue is its atmosphere. Even when nothing is happening, there is tension in the air. In one memorable scene, Shideh does her workout routine — one that she usually does to a Jane Fonda workout tape from the time — in front of the blank television. It’s absent of score or real plot significance. Still, that scene stuck with me because of the feelings it inspires — dread, horror, sadness, desperation. In less than a minute, Anvari gives you an emotional update on the characters without a single line of dialogue. It gives you the sense that he could be a real auteur.

Similarly to Essie Davis’ troubled protagonist at the center of The Babadook, Shideh is a mother who is afraid of her capabilities (or incapabilities) as a mother. However, Anvari adds an extra layer of political allegory. She’s living in a society where women are oppressed and that weight is palpable throughout the movie and that wears on Rashidi’s exceptional performance. Her character’s slow descent into madness is assured and adds to the terror. It’s hard to separate your feelings from hers. When she runs through the street at night to escape the nightmare in her home, you have a sense of relief because she made the decision that you wanted her to make. Of course, that relief is short-lived and again her society abuses her.

Though Under the Shadow is steeped in symbolism, it doesn’t drown under the weight of it. There are clear themes of female oppression, motherhood, and the anxiety of war. But refreshingly, it doesn’t feel self-important or like those themes drive the movie. First and foremost, this is a well-directed horror movie that has just the right mix of atmosphere and old-fashioned scares to delight the mainstream audiences. When you look deeper, though, there are treats for cinephiles to unpack. It’s this balancing act that makes Under the Shadow such a successful movie. Anvari makes the most of every minute of the movie — at 84 minutes, it’s a quick watch — and makes you feel satisfied in the process. Under the Shadow is a perfect example of what can come from giving filmmakers from a diverse background the opportunity to exercise their craft. By just changing the perspective, you get a movie that is more complex and interesting than anything a studio can put out with the same plot and scares. Listen up, Hollywood.

★★★★ out of 5

Under the Shadow is now streaming on Netflix and is available on Digital HD on Amazon!