Under the Shadow (2016)
Written & Directed by Babak Anvari
It should come as no surprise that, being a Westerner, I know very little about the Iran-Iraq War. The opening prologue of this film explains that it went on for almost a decade, the 1980s. I would suspect most ignorant Americans like myself, not helped in any way by the media, consider Iraq and Iran the same in most ways. However, the Middle East is a more complex region than most in the West give much credence too and if anything comes of watching this film I’ve already found a well-reviewed text on the Iran-Iraq War to read and educate myself on. That opening prologue was most definitely added for audiences outside of the region, and the rest of the film doesn’t spend time expositing the details of the conflict, which is precisely as it should be. The human element becomes the focus, and primal emotions help us connect with the characters.
Shideh is a wife and mother in Tehran. She is a daughter, albeit one whose mother has passed away recently. Shideh was also a medical student, but during the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s, she aligned herself with a leftist student group. Reapplying to her medical school years later, she finds they are unwilling to readmit her because of her past affiliations. Her dreams of being a doctor, which were championed by her mother are gone. Then news comes that her husband, who finished medical school and now practices, has been pulled by the nationwide draft to head into a wartorn area of Iran. This lives Shideh and their daughter Dorsa alone in the apartment as neighbors flee due to increasing bombings.
One particular day of bombing leaves an undetonated missile in the roof of the building, a crack forming in the ceiling of Shideh’s apartment. Her daughter simultaneously claims that her favorite doll has gone missing and gets increasingly sicker and sicker. The tension builds, and Shideh finds herself losing touch with reality and dreams, becoming convinced an evil presence has entered the building and wants to take Dorsa from her.
I’m very picky about horror films, and this one ends up being pretty good. The evil entity is done very with around four different forms; some of them genuinely terrifying. There’s a great moment where Shideh chases a manifestation into her living room, and we’re shown just enough to be disturbed but so little that we’re not quite sure what she’s dealing with. The director does a great job making the mundane feel horrific. Phone calls use the voice of loved ones to mock Shideh. There’s the tape on the windows being moved when she wakes in the morning. A book appears in a place where it shouldn’t, and this small detail will make you feel shivers.
What makes Under the Shadow better than the majority of horror coming out in theaters is that it understands how to blend the phantasmagoric with the every day. As a woman in Iran, Shideh doesn’t have many options open to her, so wife and mother are about all that is left. As external forces, like the bombings and this growing monstrous threat, bear down on her, and she faces her internal doubts about fulfilling the only roles she’s allowed to have you can see her mind cracking. When she does flee from the home to seek help in the middle of the night, she’s hauled into a police station for being outside without her head covered and given a stern warning by a judge. As neighbors move out to safer areas of the country, Shideh is increasingly isolated both physically and emotionally. Good horror manages to make us just as frightened, if not more so, than the supernatural. Hereditary is a film where the breakdown and dysfunction of that particular family are more emotionally devastating than the external forces against them.
Under the Shadow isn’t a perfect film and it does have some tonal issues. I never got a strong aesthetic of dread until the third act. There are so truly disturbing images in that last third, but for most of the movie, things are shot in a very bland, uninteresting way. I would love to have seen a more precise touch of cinematography to play up the looming horror, pacing those scenes a little slower and using brief glimpses to drive up the unease. Not a bad movie, and it puts much American factory churned out horror to shame.