"Under The Shadow" Makes A Strong Case For Substantive Horror

There are horror pictures scarier than Jordan-Qatar-UK co-production “Under The Shadow,” fright flicks more likely to scar young ones who shouldn’t be watching. But there are few more substantial. Have no doubt – the Farsi-language film contains a few moments of absolute terror, the kind that will rattle the most seasoned horror fans. But Babak Anvari’s feature length debut doesn’t just want our neck hairs at attention. No, it wants our hearts and minds, too, and for eighty-four collar-tightening minutes, it gets them.

The film is set in Tehran in the late 1980s, when the city was one of several in Iran under siege by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The specter of air raids hangs heavy over the capital’s residents, no more so than a young mother named Shideh (Narges Rashidi). She is an aspiring doctor, her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) a practicing one, their marriage disconnected by a society in the throes of a cultural revolution. Shideh’s political activist past has put a stake through her hopes of becoming a professional woman, of becoming her husband’s equal, consigning her to a life lived mostly in their apartment, as a stay-at-home mom.

But political Islam is more than a screen over Shideh’s life. It creeps into every crevice. She’s not allowed to have the Jane Fonda Workout Tapes she hides beneath the television that she’s also not allowed to have. Nor can she appear in public sans hijab, not even in a moment of panic involving her justifiably spooked daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). It’s an existence at odds with the progressive woman that she was, is, and wants to be, her country’s political walls closing in on her faster than a projectile.

And then there are the actual projectiles.

While Iraj is away tending to soldiers on the front lines, an unexploded missile lodges itself in the roof of the family’s apartment building. A neighbor dies of a heart attack. Sirens become the soundtrack to Shideh’s existence. Suddenly, everything wrong in her life is amplified a thousandfold, from Dorsa losing her favorite doll to a neighbor boy spinning scary stories about djinn (supernatural creatures from Islamic mythology).

Anvari’s screenplay pivots gracefully from real-life to mystical horror, but it’s his direction that makes the transition so memorable. Several visual motifs aid in the jump – tape on plate glass windows is the standout – culminating in a couple of expertly executed dream sequences that deliver both scares and devilish, dizzying camerawork. This is not an expensive film, but it occasionally looks it, complete with a healthy dose of mostly convincing CGI work.

Narges Rashidi is a force through it all, selling Shideh’s mettle, intellect, and fear not as disparate parts, but as a single package. She’s a strong, complicated character, at once deathly afraid and fiercely courageous, pouring dirt over the old notion of what a horror heroine should be. (A quick Google search of “horror babes” reveals a genre with more than one foot stuck in the past.)

Whether the spirit haunting Shideh’s apartment building is real or a manifestation of her anxieties – political, familial, or otherwise – is blissfully left up to audience interpretation. Or is it? The film’s final images are as unforgettable as those taped up windows, only without the same sting of hopelessness. Like everywhere else in his film, Anvari finds that elusive island between real and unreal in his ending, putting us in – and then, finally, out of – that apartment complex. Just before the walls close in completely.

“Under The Shadow” joins James Wan’s “The Conjuring 2” as one of the year’s premier horror offerings, the pair making a strong case for emotional, meaningful scary movies. With a few exceptions, it’s been over thirty years since the genre was thought of as more than a vessel for cheap thrills. No more.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: October 7, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: XYZ Films, Wigwam Films
Director: Babak Anvari
Screenwriter: Babak Anvari
Starring: Narges Rashidi, Bobby Naderi, Avin Manshadi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for terror, scary images and brief language)