‘Under The Shadow’ Reinvigorates The Horror Genre
I love a good scare. The trouble is that there haven’t been any good ones in quite a while. And I’m a demanding customer; I also want to be made to think. My benchmark films range from ‘It Follows’ back through ‘The Orphanage’ to ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, about which there’s an interesting article here, arguing that the film really concerns loss of control.
More recently Ben Wheatley was shaping up to be horror’s best hope with the brilliant ‘Kill List’, only to blot his copybook by going Hollywood and making the execrable ‘Free Fire’. Which is, of course, what British directors do – they choose money and the aforementioned loss of control over making something special. In the last few years a number of really interesting low budget British genre films have appeared, including ‘Black Pond’, ‘Isolation’, ‘Skeletons’, ‘Wake Wood’, ‘Black Death’, and that thing about the cursed boy on the council estate.
Now we have ‘Under The Shadow’ from a British-Iranian director, Babak Anvari, who brings us a film made in a UAE country (unlike the more pretentious ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’, which was shot in America). ‘Under The Shadow’ places a traditional ghost story in an unfamiliar setting. The film is set in Tehran in 1988, at the peak of the Iran-Iraq war, when Iraqi bombs fell nightly, and centres on a mother Shideh (Narges Rashdi, superb), who must care for her daughter Dorsa after her doctor husband is sent to a war zone.
Shideh has just been turned down as a doctor because at college she briefly had political affiliations, and men keep asking her why she can’t be content just to be a mother. Even her husband (who looks eerily like a very young George Clooney) is falling for the propaganda. Everyone thinks it would be a good idea to go to his parents, where it’s safer, but why should she give up her last shred of independence and leave the family’s flat?
Mother and daughter own almost nothing. Shideh has a precious Jane Fonda workout tape (which she has to hide because VCRs are forbidden under Sharia law) and Dorsa has a doll. Then a bomb falls on the apartment building.
But the ill winds which brought the bomb, along with a mute child who saw his parents die, have also brought something else – a djinn. As we wait to see how this demon will manifest itself we also start to wonder whether the incredible stress of the situation is responsible for Shideh’s changing state of mind.
Director Anvari builds this seemingly simple scenario with enormous care, so that when the shocks come – and oh, they do – the audience is in a similar state of messed-up nervous tension. This is a smashing debut that acts as an antidote to everything Hollywood horror does wrong, not least because Shideh’s actions are entirely believable, living in an untenable situation, and the lovely small details really make a difference.
At one point Shideh is driven from the flat, only to be forced by the authorities to return after failing to show enough ‘modesty’. It’s very rare that a film combines feminism, religion, politics, horror (bloodless) and suspense so effortlessly. What’s more, it was shot on a low budget in just three weeks. Anvari’s next film is also British, so for a while we may keep Hollywood’s claws off him.