When considering a cinema visit and questioned if I liked Iranian Horror, my answer was a resounding, “Who doesn’t?”
However, with curiosity suitably piqued and an eagerness to shirk any sense of Western self-importance, off to cinema I did go.
Set in 80s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, Director Babak Anvari wrenches Iraj away from his wife (and disallowed doctor) Shideh and daughter Dorsa on a medical military posting. When an unexploded missile buries itself in the building, it brings with it a danger that is far-less tangible and altogether otherworldly.
After scaring the shiz out of Sundance, the reputation that precedes Under the Shadow seems sure that it will stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow foreign seminal horror films Ringu, Let The Right One In and Rec. True enough, Under the Shadow shares the same horror staples: A possibly possessed child, jumps that are literally scream-inducing, and character actions which are almost as scream-inducing (as in “Seriously, leave the doll behind!!”). However, the biggest let down is the big bad itself: a mythical Djinn which unravels your videotapes, dismembers the aforementioned dolls and ok, admittedly, channels your deepest, darkest fears (in Shideh’s case, maternal inadequacy). It’s just that whereas TV static still has me worried that Samara will crawl through the flat screen, and I still only dare say “Candyman” in the mirror four times, once the Under the Shadow’s over, you’re back to re-winding those same VHS tapes with a two pence piece like it never happened.
That the film still succeeds is testament to two things: the cast and the setting. Lead actor Narges Rashidi holds the screen skilfully for the full 84 minute run time whilst Avin Manshadi achieves the near-impossible: portraying a child who actually manages to elicit empathy rather than exasperation. I hope Spielberg’s watching. However, it’s the setting that ultimately engages the audience from the off. The idea that here, death could come at any time, if not by the Djinn then by man is truly terrifying (especially to a self-important Westerner) and has the audience wondering if Shideh is safer in the war-torn streets or in her haunted house. The female oppression onscreen is never more poignant than when she is threatened with lashes after escaping the house without her hijab and this is where Under the Shadow’s true strength lies.
Although somewhat tenuous, thoughts strayed to comments that a dear colleague made regarding 80s-set Stranger Things: would it be as good if the setting changed? Perhaps the most pertinent point to make is that in each case, the setting is a device that’s as important as the plot: just as Star Wars would simply be Wars if not in space, situate Under the Shadow in New York (wait for it) and it would eventually sit nicely next to Sinister and Insidious and be forgotten about once the popcorn’s cold. Instead, we get a thought-provoking piece which stands apart from its Hollywood contemporaries.
Are we doing stars? If so, Under the Shadow gets 3.5 out of 5. If not, none.