Under the Shadow really throws down the gauntlet for the Midnight movies at Sundance. It puts the mythology of another culture center stage and explores the horrors of a different society. Under the Shadow is this year’s The Babadook.
After the Iranian Cultural Revolution, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is disqualified from University for her involvement in the revolution. Her desire to continue studies, impossible in that climate, cause friction with her husband. So that’s the perfect time for a spirit called the Djinn to plague her and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi).
The best part of this Iranian horror movie is how the tropes we take for granted play differently in a different culture. Horror generally features female protagonists, but in Iran a woman is already held back by a patriarchal society. We always like to scream at the scream, “Just get out of the house,” but when Shideh flees from the haunted house without a burka, the consequences could be even worse than staying to face the Djinn.
Writer/director Babak Anvari stages really effective jump scares. They work because they’re built up tactfully, and he’s responsible with them. They’re not lazy jump scares. Each one actually informs the character, when Shideh is at her most uncertain. It’s also a good old jolt that’s earned because the Djinn is interesting and we’re involved with the characters. Rashidi is so compelling, we root for her empowerment and fear for both society and the Djinn persecuting her harder for being so strong.
The Djinn looks great. There is CGI but it’s based on a practical, in camera source so it has a tangible feel. It bears some traits in common with our good old American ghosts, including the idea of a floating sheet, but with twists that make it unique. I hope we see some people dressed as the Djinn for Halloween. Actually, that sounds like a costume I would do. I always pick something no more than 5% of people at a party would know. Unless Under the Shadow becomes the next Paranormal Activity, which I hope it does, and then I’ll be embarrassed to be at a party with so many Djinn.
The horror has a lot to do with perceived personal failings, exacerbated by a social dynamic that favors men, but universal. Every mother worries she’s not a good enough parent, but when Shideh is alone caring for Dorsa against her husband and her country, it’s far more acute. She and her husband have a great talk in the first act where he doesn’t back down but he’s not oppressive. He’s simply realistic that the choices of her past have consequences in their country. Her greatest fear is that he doesn’t support and rejects her. The Djinn play on that, and mess with her, turning her daughter against her too.
Under the Shadow has everything that makes great horror: a unique mythology that plagues us psychologically as well as viscerally, a confined setting (in this case culturally mandated confinement as well as physical) and good old scary monsters. I hope we get a Djinn franchise with a new Under the Shadow every October.