When writer-director Babak Anvari’s film Under the Shadow premiered at Sundance back in January, it quickly became one of the most talked-about films of the festival. The buzz quickly grew as it was being called The Babadook by way of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Comparisons to each of these films are apparent, as the film is the second Iranian horror film to make a splash in the festival circuit (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) and features a mother coming to terms with the repercussions of having a child (similar to The Babadook, only with a much less annoying child). In his feature film directorial debut, Anvari has crafted a wonderful horror story about the fears of growing up and learning to accept the mistakes of our past.
Set in 1988 Tehran at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Under the Shadow tells the story of Shideh (Narges Rashidi), who must come to terms with the fact that her dreams of becoming a doctor have been ruined after she is accused of subversive behavior for joining an activist group when she was younger. Because of these accusations, she has entered a state of depression. Furthermore, her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is at war tending to the wounded (he succeeded in becoming a doctor), leaving her alone to protect their young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). When a missile hits their apartment building and doesn’t explode, Dorsa then falls ill and her behavior becomes increasingly disturbed. A superstitious neighbor tells Sideh that the missile has brought a Djinn (evil spirits that travel on the wind) into their midst, and may be trying to possess Dorsa.
Anvari has done a fantastic world of rebuilding 1988 Tehran. I make no attempt to pretend that I know much about the history and culture of Iran (history wasn’t exactly my forte), but Anvari makes Under the Shadow feel like somewhat of a time capsule, enfolding the cultural anxieties and fears at the time. The film will probably come across as scarier to an American audience who didn’t have to endure daily tasks like taping up windows to prevent them from shattering in case a blast occurred, hiding VCRs from your neighbors since owning one was a punishable offense or wearing a hijab in public (this particular tradition is the center of one of the film’s most unnerving setpieces).
While Under the Shadow does take a good while to get going (the aforementioned missile crash doesn’t happen until roughly the 30-minute mark, and it’s an 84-minute movie), Anvari is able to keep a steady level of unease present throughout the duration of the film. The sound design is one of the most memorable things about the film. Never has the sound of breathing been used to such great effect. Performances are strong all across the board, but it is Rashidi who owns the film, with Manshadi proving to be one of the more adept child actresses seen on screen in recent memory.
Under the Shadow is a horror film, though the scares are not what the film cares about. While many of the scare tactics Anvari employs are jump scares, which is disappointing (though one particular jump scare reminiscent of The Descent had the entire audience screaming), it is the more subtle touches of horror that Anvari utilizes that make the strongest impact. The sudden appearances of the Djinn may startle, but it is the theme of learning to accept your mistakes and let go of your dreams that ring the most true in the film. Anyone who has graduated college and has suffered either an identity crisis (and I certainly belong in that group), will be able to connect with the film on a more personal level.
Comparisons to The Babadook will be unavoidable, and your affinity for Under the Shadow will really depend on how much its central theme resonates with you. This is not a film with easy answers, and some viewers may be turned off by the ambiguity of the ending, though those paying attention will no doubt walk away feeling satisfied. There is a catharsis present here that many didn’t feel with that other film. Advertisements will most likely make the film out to be a ghost story and while it is partly that, there is so much more to the film than that one aspect. Anvari has gifted us with a timeless story about accepting the mistakes of our past and uses the Djinn as a framework around that theme. This is absolutely one of 2016’s must-see films, horror or otherwise.