This film is very notable to me for being the first – that I am aware of – horror film to come out of a Middle Eastern Islamic country. For this reason alone, Under the Shadow is an interesting movie. Horror films generally work best when there is a sense of mystery to proceedings, the unknown being one of the scariest things there is.
This was the reason that the J-Horror films from Japan were so terrifying to western audiences, as the Japanese conception of the supernatural was so different to ours meaning that things happened in those films that were highly unpredictable and unsettling. It’s this same reason that a horror film from an Iranian cultural perspective is always going to feel more original in approach. And so it proves, as while there are familiar elements in this ghost story, there are also aspects that are less predictable, resulting in a fascinating movie.
A woman and her young child live alone in an apartment in Tehran during the latter years of the Iran-Iraq War when the Iraqi regime were systematically firing missiles into the middle of large populated urban areas. Before long the bombs come crashing around them and just as this starts happening a strange malevolent supernatural force enters their home and begins to terrorise them also.
One of the things that made this one really stand out for me was the historical setting and social context that came with that. While on the one hand this is a claustrophobic apartment-based horror film, there are also very real terrors outside the home too. In fact, the apartment is a haven for the mother in many ways, a place where she does not have to wear restrictive clothing and can work-out to her Jane Fonda video. Beyond this safe sanctuary she has to deal with a repressive regime who may violently punish her if her clothing is not correct or if they even hear she owns a VCR. The restrictive lives of women during the Cultural Revolution is the real life horror that the protagonist experiences out with the home, while the supernatural Djinn entity is the horror she and her daughter endure within the home.
At the same time there are the horrors of war constantly occurring without warning and with potential deadly consequences. Even though this film is set in the late 80’s, it’s quite clear that this latter factor remains horribly pertinent today, given the horrendous bombings of civilians in the Syrian Civil War which continue unabated as I write this. So, this is a movie with quite a lot going on when you think about it. The supernatural horror material escalates as the story progresses and there are some genuine jump moments and some nicely sinister imagery. It never overplays its hand though and does not descend into over-the-top shenanigans, which ultimately is to the film’s overall benefit.
Lastly, and certainly not least there are a couple of excellent performances in here underpinning everything. Narges Rashidi is extremely compelling as the mother, while Avin Manshadi puts in a very strong performance as her young daughter. We really do care about these two sympathetic and realistic characters. In the final analysis, I certainly hope that this film leads to a cycle of Iranian horror films, as the horror genre is often a very good one when it comes to examining tough social issues in an accessible way. This film may be the tip of the iceberg.