It’s been a long time since a jump scare has genuinely grabbed me and left me unnerved in the pit of my guts the way Iranian writer-director Babak Anvari succeeded with his patiently executed and thought-provoking debut feature Under the Shadow. This carefully crafted movie will have its Florida premiere at this year’s second annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival (Tickets for Florida’s premiere horror movie fest Popcorn Frights on sale today; a chat with the fest’s creators), and it’s bound to be a surprise hit of the festival. It’s also one of those rare horror films that crosses over in appeal to fans of foreign language cinema, as it doesn’t overdo the cheap scares with gore and harbors an insightful connection to a particular culture and history, in the case Iran of the late 1980s.
Anvari takes his time to front load the movie with stakes that are both human and speak to life under religious authoritarian rule. The film’s lead actress, Narges Rashidi, brings incredible soul to Shideh, a free-thinking young mother too rational to submit to religious law, much less give credence to the notion of evil spirits from Islamic lore. Shideh has more earthly concerns. She deals with stifling, culturally sanctioned sexism and has to cope with the fact that she’s been expelled from medical school for participating in protests. All the while, missiles from Iraq rain down on her neighborhood.
The film takes place in 1988 Tehran, during that country’s war with Iraq. For much of the film, Under the Shadow feels like a testament to the state of Iran following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the revolution’s impact on a family on a personal level. The film’s first third is a sharp domestic drama, until father Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is called away to serve as a medic for the military. Alone at home, the tension between Shideh and her 4-year-old daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) is focused around the absence of the father and then the mysterious disappearance of her doll, a gift from Dad.
Anvari shows no haste in establishing the film’s stakes before adding one more concern for Shideh: an invasion of djinn (think Islamic demons) who try to steal Dorsa not just physically but with a sense of trickery that speaks with insightful awareness to the tenuous bonds of intimate blood relations. The patience that Anvari shows before introducing a fantastical element pays off for genuinely frightful moments that never resort to gore but cut to the core of our primal fears of the unknown. The supernatural first invades the lives of the mother and daughter psychologically, as rumors turn to nightmares and nightmares become undeniably and unnervingly real.
Some horror fans will notice familiar references to other films. Under the Shadow has an air of The Exorcist and the tension between mother and daughter will remind some of The Babadook, another marvelous horror movie that broke out of the horror film scene due to an extra layer of taut drama, back in 2014. Anvari never cribs heavily, however, making the film his own. The true inspiration is clearly informed by his home country’s malaise, from an incredible set piece featuring a missile landing inside the building to the characters’ religious concerns.
From such broad notions as religion to the tiniest details, Anvari amps up the film’s dread as neighbors gradually pack their bags to leave the apartment building, due to the threat of bombing and later to more mysterious circumstances. Before you realize, mom and daughter have suddenly been left to fend for themselves in a creepy haunted mansion-like environment. Anvari’s storytelling is incredibly nuanced. Those with sharp ears will notice that the haunting, poly-rhythmic opening credits music reappears during a later unnerving scene involving unnatural clawing at a door. The detail also comes from the film’s strong cast, from that marvelous lead performance by Rashidi, who balances paranoia and skepticism in a manner that defies notions of the dim damsel in distress, to a religious neighbor well-versed in Dijinn lore, who can crack a smile loaded with both politeness but also sinister awareness.
As someone who hasn’t been terribly impressed by recent horror movies, from The Witch to Lights Out to The Wailing (The Wailing can’t overcome storytelling issues to merit two and a half hour running time — a film review), I have to say Under the Shadow is one of this year’s finest horror movies. Anvari plays a marvelous balancing act between character development, performances, story craft and frights. It should not be missed by lovers of the genre or anyone looking for a well-made cinema experience.
Under the Shadow runs 84 minutes, is in Persian with English subtitles and is rated PG-13. It will have its Florida premiere on Saturday, Aug. 13, during the Popcorn Frights Film Festival at O Cinema Wynwood. The film is preceded by the short “Hada.” For tickets, visit this link. All images provided by Wigwam Films, who also provided a preview link for the purpose of this review.