2016 has been something of a banner year for horror. The Witch was an early-year instant classic to reach these shores, whilst horror-western Bone Tomahawk was also an impressive piece of work that arrived around the same time. It’s not particularly scary, but zombie film The Girl With All the Gifts was also an incredibly piece of work that’s certain to be up there when I get around to an end-of-year list. Then there are the horror-thriller hybrids by Fede Alvarez and Jeremy Saulnier, with Don’t Breathe and Green Room respectively providing white-knuckle thrill rides supplanted by bone-crunching brutality. Now enter another instant classic, the cross-country production Under the Shadow. In Farsi, directed by Iranian-born Babak Anvari, filmed in Jordan and financed by Qatar and the UK, Under the Shadow is genuinely “oh fuck” scary, up there with It Follows and The Witch in the annals of recent horror.
Part of a tradition of horrors that present the urban apartment as a locus of modern middle-class anxieties and claustrophobic fears that stretches back to Roman Polanski’s loose “apartment” trilogy (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant), Under the Shadow tells the story of Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), living in Tehran in the late ‘80s as the Iran-Iraq war was reaching its conclusion. A former medical student barred from returning to university due to her affiliation with ‘radical’ groups during the 1979 Iranian revolution, Shideh’s frustrated ambitions are compounded by the fact her doctor husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) has been drafted into the frontline. Even worse, despite his protestations and the increased bombing of the capital, Shideh opts to stay in their apartment home even as it becomes increasingly dangerous.
Things start coming to a head when a shell directly hits the family’s apartment building, shattering windows and leaving a horrendous crack in the ceiling. Soon after, objects start going missing: Dorsa’s favourite doll, Shideh’s banned workout video. Later, ghostly figures start appearing in the apartment, causing things to go bump in the night. A devoutly religious neighbour, Mrs Ebrahimi (Aram Ghasemy) explains to the non-religious Shideh that the figures are djinn, wandering evil spirits in Islamic theology.
Anvari opts to keep these figures in the dark for much of the film. Coming in at only 84 minutes, Under the Shadow is a case study in narrative efficiency and economy. The bomb hits the apartment at roughly the half-hour mark, but we don’t get a good look at the djinn until about twenty minutes before the end. Even when we do, we get only fleeting glimpses, a black featureless figure hooded by a chador; a spectral metaphor for the Iranian government’s repression of women outside of their homes, as when a tearful unveiled Shideh is picked up by authorities having been chased from her home by the djinn and duly given a very stern slap on the wrist, reminded of her place in society. When she returns home (now veiled), she turns to the mirror, and is momentarily frightened by her own appearance in a chador, forced into something she isn’t.
The other residents of Shideh’s apartment block are mostly women of various political backgrounds, with the males being either elderly or children—no prizes for guessing where young men of military age might be—and as the bombing continues, the city of Tehran gradually depopulates, its denizens leaving for relatives in the country or abroad. Only Shideh stays, determined to reclaim her independence, but as her neighbours leave, so too does the feminine support network she has built up, where the sense of community prevails over political and religious differences, even with her frosty relationship with Mrs. Ebrahimi.
The djinn appear to know Shideh’s weak spots, probing into her life and straining her relationship with her daughter. Her and Dorsa’s relationship is wonderfully drawn, and Babak Anvari’s portrayal of their domestic life is fully realised: Under the Shadow scares because we care, and because the film spends a good deal of its running time simply depicting their relationship, the eventual payoff is all the more terrifying simply because we’ve been allowed into the lives of these characters. Shideh is far from a perfect mother, even before the djinn start playing on her deepest fears, but she’s an inherently good person, ambitions frustrated by what looked like a genuinely progressive turn in Iranian history devolving into religious authoritarianism. Rashidi’s performance is spot-on, taking the complexity of her character and giving it the depth and intelligence that Shideh deserves. Avin Manshadi is adorable too as Dorsa, a clever and perceptive little girl, and Babak Anvari clearly knows how to direct his actors. The two stars have a really believable chemistry, and the film far surpasses the overpraised The Babadook from a few years back as far as horrors based on parent-child relationships are concerned.
One might argue that there are minor quibbles with Under the Shadow; perhaps Anvari leans a bit too much on jump scares at times, but they are brilliantly deployed and well-timed jump scares, not fun-house fairground ride “boo!”s. Even exceptionally minor quibbles like this don’t change the fact that Under the Shadow is, as I’ve said already, genuinely terrifying. Towards the end, my heart was barely keeping up, and whilst that might signal larger problems with my fitness rather than my appreciation for the film, any horror fan owes it to themselves to track this one down.