Last week’s Film Friday looked at underrated zombie flick The Girl With All the Gifts (2017), and this week in a similar vain let’s turn our eyes to lesser-known and equally underrated Iranian horror movie Under the Shadow (2016).
Babak Anvari’s directing debut, Under the Shadow is a chilling, atmospheric slow-burner that harks back to the classic concept of the haunted house whilst managing to breathe new life into the supernatural genre.
Set in Terhan, Iran, in the 1980’s, the film takes place in the backdrop of a country plagued by an ongoing war with Iraq. The opening scene introduces our leading lady, Shideh, played brilliantly by Narges Rashidi, who is barred from continuing her medical studies due to her prior political involvement in the Iranian Revolution. Immediately, the film effortlessly and intelligently establishes the political background and overarching themes to the main plot, without once appearing pretentious or forcing exposition down the viewers throats.
The plot from thereon can be summarised in short as the ‘typical’ formula for a film involving a haunted house: Dorsa, Shideh’s little girl, begins talking about ghosts and sinister goings-on ensue. Yet the film feels anything but ‘typical’, and the plot, though following the ghost story we as audiences are all too familiar with, never feels stale or predictable. In fact, for almost the entire first half of the film, nothing particularly ‘supernatural’ even occurs. This initial slow pacing of the film never outstays its welcome, however, and instead leaves you constantly on edge and in fear for when the ghouls inevitably do make an appearance.
The budget for the film was reportedly small, and although that may explain the relatively thin cast and limited set changes, any low production value really doesn’t show much. It even works in the film’s favour; the slimmed down cast ensemble allows for far more effective character development and a real focus on the mother and daughter relationship. Similarly, as the vast majority of the film takes place in the one apartment block, the viewer truly feels the character’s claustrophobia, isolation and ultimate helplessness.
This sense of uselessness is a common theme throughout, and is a feeling I think anyone can relate to. In some ways, Anvari preys upon this inherent human fear of failure through the mother character Shideh, who feels she is an unfit mother and is a disappointment to her own deceased mother who wanted her to be a doctor. This feeling of stagnation, and of being trapped in an unsafe city amid a war, creates a palpable feeling of disquiet before the supernatural threat even makes an appearance.
Under the Shadow has received numerous comparisons to The Babadook (2016), which although may be complimentary as The Babadook is for course a marvellous addition to the horror genre in it’s own right, is rather unjust to Anvari. Though broad similarities can be drawn between the two films general themes: struggling single mothers dealing with supernatural nasties, Under the Shadow cannot be fairly compared to any other films of the genre. The ingenuity with which slow building tension is used, and the nuanced relationship between mother and daughter, teamed with the underlying historical and political turbulence present throughout, establishes the film in a league of it’s own.
Overall rating: 8.9/10