Performances, screenplay and direction are all absolutely first-rate in writer/director Babak Anvari’s debut Under the Shadow, a UK funded, Farsi language horror film set during the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s. Echoing everything from Repulsion to The Babadook but also quite distinct in it’s own right, Under the Shadow is a brilliant entry in what has been a remarkably strong year for the genre.
At first, the film feels more akin to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, as Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is informed she cannot complete her medical studies due to a radical political past disapproved of by the Iranian regime. Disappointed and frustrated she returns to her flat, only to find her husband has been called up to military service, leaving her and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone and in danger of falling Iraqi missiles. One such missile hits their apartment building shortly afterwards, though it does not explode. However Dorsa comes to believe the missile has stirred up a Djinn – an evil spirit that has come to take possession of her, as signified by her claims it has stolen her doll.
From there, Anvari turns the tension screws with stripped down precision, keeping the action centred in the flat and gradually building up an atmosphere of unease and dread. Has a Djinn really entered their flat? Or are they both imagining the apparently supernatural goings-on? Are the peculiar events all a result of post traumatic stress? Or perhaps a psychological condition provoked by the oppression of the Iranian regime itself? In one key sequence, mother and daughter flee their home in terror, only to be stopped by religious police who arrest them for being improperly attired. Shideh is subsequently told she should count herself lucky that she didn’t get lashed, and they are promptly sent back to the flat. Clearly it is no mistake that the Djinn sometimes assumes the form of a veil, so the film can also be interpreted as a feminist critique of fundamentalist Islam.
On the other hand, regardless of how you interpret it, Under the Shadow is quite simply a splendid piece of psychological horror which really comes alive during the final act. Without once resorting to blood and gore (though it is not above a good jump scare), the film delivers deeply satisfying shocks in style. Images of cracked ceilings, peeling masking tape and blowing curtains are all milked for maximum menace; and the sound design and spare music score are both superb.
In short, Babak Anvari is definitely a name to watch out for in future. In Under the Shadow he has crafted a genuinely unsettling, must-see genre treat for all with nerves of steel.