Under the Shadow
Directed by Babak Anvari
As a mother and daughter struggle to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war torn Tehran of the 80s, a mysterious evil begins to haunt their home.
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★★★★½ review by Vanessa on Letterboxd
me before watching under the shadow: this movie can't be that scary
me now: i'll never be able to sleep again
★★★★½ review by DirkH on Letterboxd
Ever since I was a kid I've been fascinated by haunted houses and ghosts. So it was only natural that when my love for the horror genre was sparked by films like Nightmare on Elm Street in the 80s, I always sought out films that had to do with spirits and whatnot.
So I guess you'll agree with me that we have been mistreating this particular subgenre for quite some time. These days films about ghosts and hauntings are prefabricated, jump scare riddled, drab distillations of what should make these stories so great. We should be intrigued and afraid, not scared, but uncomfortable.
When you read the synopsis for Under the Shadow, you'd probably think you'll be in for yet another familiar trip down trope lane.
And to a certain extent, you are. It follows the beats of the most familiar ghost stories. The difference is, however, that Under the Shadow is dedicated to its setting in that it takes great pains to give its audience a glimpse into a deeply troubled era of a country. In the wrong hands this could have turned into a cheap gimmick, but director Anvari takes his time to establish character and setting before using the latter to build the tension a story like this needs.
And the tension is at points superbly uncomfortable. Aided by two superb leading ladies, Anvari keeps his storytelling lean, which is very welcome indeed. I loved how the events of the outside world acted as a very credible reason for mother and daughter to slowly end up alone in their apartment building. The growing despair in Narges Rashidi's eyes as she sees everyone leave and feels her daughter slipping through her fingers, caused by something that she eventually has to concede to being supernatural, that despair carries this film. Horror is about being afraid for the people you're watching and Under the Shadow does that really well.
There is the odd jump scare but this film really excels in the visual fear mongering. There are scenes that are deliciously disturbing because of their haunting imagery. I hope Anvari gets more chances to explore this genre as he certainly manages to do a lot with a little.
Contemporary horror can learn a thing or two from Under the Shadow. And for fans of this particular sub genre it is required viewing.
★★★★½ review by nathaxnne walker (retired) on Letterboxd
During the Iran-Iraq War, approximately a million people were killed, half of whom were civilians. Under the BP/CIA-installed reign of the Shah, Iran was a favorite client state of the US and its allies. After the revolution, Iran became isolated, while Iraq had the backing of the United States, France and the Soviet Union, all of whom helped to fund the war and provide Iraq with the necessary resources to fight it, including US approval and logistical support for Saddam Hussein's use of sarin and mustard gas, backing that was only rescinded once Saddam started acting on the belief it extended to other neighbors who were on better terms with us than Iran.
It has been United States policy to keep Iran isolated ever since. Even now, our entire plan for 'Middle East Peace' involves a Saudi-Israeli-Egyptian alliance against Iran and many of its trading partners even as Iran has in recent years voted for moderate governments who seek greater rapprochement with the world community.
There can be no understating how traumatic this war was and still continues to be to this day.
Under The Shadow is a terrifying look at life inside a civilization in the grip of a war waged seemingly without end and a theocracy frightened of its own fragility offering itself as the only protection against total destruction.
Emptied by bombing and missile campaigns the city becomes as a ghost, full of damaged homes abandoned by humans and inhabited now by the winds which flow within and without and those who dwell within them, drawn to what is missing, what once was present.
The scariest thing in this movie is the sound of the winds howling through the streets, whooshing as they wrap themselves around buildings, louder now that there is less noise of activity to dampen and distract. How daily life can be taken from you, how your house and family once ruptured by forces from without can start to collapse from within.
★★★★ review by Leticia Fernandes on Letterboxd
This poster is so ugly it almost convinced me of not watching the film
★★★★★ review by Disgustipated on Letterboxd
Shideh, her head shrouded within her hijab, desperately pleads with an administrator to allow her to return to university so that she can graduate and become a doctor. At the time of the revolution she was young, impressionable and passionate for change. But she sided with the wrong side of the Iranian cultural revolution. However, now she sees the error of her ways. The administrator waits patiently until she is finished and then he demolishes her, derisively intoning with a glint of sadistic pleasure that one's choices have indelible consequences and hence she will never be admitted to the campus again.
During this conversation, as seen through the office window, a bomb explodes in nearby urban Tehran giving rise to a disturbing plume of dust and debris, an emissary of death courtesy of Saddam Hussein. In this one conversation at the very beginning of the film we are immersed into the post-revolutionary world of late 80s Iran. Politics, culture and conflict are encapsulated perfectly in this one short scene and once established this combustible mix becomes an increasingly claustrophic knot that only gets tighter the more that Shideh struggles against it.
Once home we meet her young daughter Dorsa, her husband Iraj and Dorsa's doll Kimia. We quickly get the sense that Shideh is struggling with the grief of having lost her mother six months before. And although she clearly loves her daughter very much, it is clear that the motherly instinct eludes her. Given this, there is a simmering tension within the household even before the plot kicks in. When Iraj receives his draft papers and ships off to the frontlines, Shideh and Dorsa find themselves struggling to negotiate one another without his mediation.
In between her living room workouts in front of a Jane Fonda video cassette, Narges Rashidi shifts from pout to shout in ever increasing gradations, playing Shideh with a masterful control even as her character starts to lose it completely, descending into a fever of fear and horror. Avin Manshadi is a fantastic find as her daughter. In one of the best child perfomances in a recent horror movie she perfecrly blends the maturity of an old soul with the vulnerability of a child.
In fine psychological horror tradition, this film pushes the limits of that boundary between psychosis and the fantastic, never once collapsing the tension by resolving it into one or the other. What makes this so interesting is that Dorsa is the hinge between both worlds. As the apartment descends further into the hell of war, we are lead to question whether the nightmare phantoms of a scared little girl are being adopted by the mind of an adult beset by her own anxiety and fear. Or on the other hand, does the open-mindness of a child, less restricted by the cold hard reason of maturity, only make Dorsa more readily receptive to the all too real horrors that lurk beneath our beds.
Having said that, the truly creepy and horrorifying elements of this film are not what sets this apart. Director Babak Anvari has provided us with what feels like an authentic recreation of the claustrophobia of late 80s Tehran. In particular, besides the war and superstition, it reveals to us the emotional cost of the constant suppression of one's identity when you are out of step with the dominant ideology and everything you want to do is throttled by the authorities or must be hidden. And this is where the film is truly exceptional.
With an interesting historical, political and social context; fantastic central performances and a knife-edge narrative of pyschological and supernatural horror, this film is as intense as they come and totally fascinating. Highly recommended.
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