Under the Shadow review: Don't miss this Iranian horror flick at Jio MAMI 2016
Ghosts are not spirits from another world who are stuck in our world, but a fabric of a reality in your own world that you don’t want to face. This is the theme that Babak Anvari beautifully explores in Under the Shadow, the best ghost story on screens since the Spanish movie The Orphanage.
Beginning with a stunning opening credit montage of brutal military bombings and air raids, the film then puts us straight into midst of the 1986 Iran Iraq war, seen through the eyes of a woman in Tehran named Shideh (Narges Rashidi). Shideh is trying to become a working professional doctor but is disallowed to do so because she protested against the government during college and dropped out.
Her depression is exponentially multiplied when she learns that her husband is slated to head outstation for military duties, leaving her and their little daughter home alone. Making things worse is a missile from Iraq that suddenly lands on the roof of her house, and things begin going bump in the night.
The film doesn’t waste much time in setting up the scenario to initiate the supernatural phenomenon and things get pretty creepy and unsettling. Anvari is terrific at building up tension and a sense of constant dread lurking in the corners, and manages to keep the hair at the back of your neck flailing around in anticipation. It’s also refreshing to see a horror movie not resorting to cheap jump scares but rather relying on an escalating atmosphere, thereby making you believe there’s much more than an malevolent spirit chasing the protagonist in her house.
There’s a fun plot device that Anvari uses, where the people in her building begin leaving the society one after the other, making Shideh and her daughter feel more and more alone as the film progresses. A building society is the most unlikely place to experience any real horror but Kit Fraser’s cinematography and the sound design capture sequences that will make you slightly unsettled with your own flat. These aren’t sequences that haven’t been done before in other horror films, but thanks to the unique settling of an army missile-based entity the scares feel fresher than they really are.
Complementing the well-designed atmospheric scares is the tremendous acting from Rashidi as a single mother caught in a situation in she doesn’t want to be in – not just in the haunted house but generally in life. The best moments in the film aren’t the ones where you see her screaming in fear but the ones where she yearns to wear western clothes and watch an American aerobics class on the telly, trying to break free from the radical reforms in her country.
What makes Under the Shadow more memorable than most horror movies is that it uses the supernatural element as a metaphor for a real worldwide tragedy that is affecting more than ninety percent of the human population. There’s a reason why this film is Britain’s submission to the Oscars - the spook in the film is, for the lack of a better word, meaningful.
If you’ve seen The Babadook you’ll understand what that means. But if you haven’t seen that movie it’s a good time to watch Under the Shadow at the festival and then pop in the DVD right after at home. Don’t expect to sleep much later that night though. And a good way to pass time that night is by watching Anvari’s brilliant and prescient short film Two and Two.