With the apparent lack of distinctive voices (with the exception of names like James Wan and Mike Flanagan) in the mainstream Horror market, as the output seems increasingly overstuffed with jump scare studio offerings, the genre now seems to be booming independently and internationally. Back in 2014 Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night provided a strong start to the budding Persian language Horror market and now we have debut director Babak Anvari’s chilling offering Under The Shadow, which is a UK/Jordan/Qatar production, and has been shortlisted as the British entry for Best Foreign Language Feature at this year’s Oscars...and with any luck it will make the cut and get the win.
The film takes place during the period of a war torn Tehran in the 1980s (specifically The War of the Cities), as mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) fails to re-qualify for her medical course at university and her problems only grow when her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) - who works as a doctor for the military - is called away to the war zone, leaving Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) both home alone together. Worse still, the mother and daughter and their neighbours are shaken by a missile strike that damages their housing block. As neighbours begin to relocate and the surroundings become more turbulent, Shideh and Dorsa become convinced something has invaded their home, as Dorsa’s beloved doll goes missing and stress slowly begins to raise.
Even before the scares fully envelop the screen, Anvari’s film entices with its frighteningly realistic presentation of this era of fear, panic and grief. The drama is real because the era was and the characters are similarly urgent, while the ideologies are timely and alarming. This film recalls Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and A.J. Bayona’s El Orfanato in how eloquently and effectively it marries together atmospheric frights with meaning. This is a film that has much to say about the emancipation of women in this era of real life horror and also addresses ideas of the anxieties of war and the loss that comes with it. The surrounding disaster of the film is every bit as terrifying as the central maternal story of a mother and her child threatened by evil and how their relationship is strained further by this climate of fear and oppression.
This is a very slow burning film that is an absolute treat to a fan of the genre or any genre for that matter, as it methodically unravels to deliver well earned chills and startlingly original moments of culturally specific frights. The film simply excels at attacking both your heart and your mind, as its story is both emotive and lingeringly shocking, with a climax that leaves a lasting sense of unease in the face of seemingly inescapable evils (that are likened to the carnage perpetrated by war).
Rashidi is superb in the lead as Shideh and really captures the soul of a frustrated and trapped individual, who is being confined by the views of the society in which she lives, while on the flip side she captures the shaken vulnerability of a mother doing her best in the face of so many problems and this unknown menace in her home. Meanwhile young Manshadi as Dorsa is equally brilliant and her stress and grief over her lost dolly (almost a character itself) is wonderfully reflective of her mother’s own parental nightmare and Dorsa as a character is such a strong core to the film. The supporting cast play a great part too but undeniably this is a film that belongs to its two female leads and Anvari has constructed two characters we truly care about and whose ordeal we suffer along with them.
From moments of hair raising scoring by Gavin Cullen, the perfectly paced direction by Anvari and the engulfing atmosphere, to the compelling characters and the many moments of idealogical impact, there is not a bad word this writer can find to say about Under The Shadow. This is what Horror filmmaking should be and not only is it the best film of last year but it is an absolute masterpiece. See it, or rather experience it, fear it and never forget it.
UNDER THE SHADOW / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: BABAK ANVARI / STARRING: NARGES RASHIDI, AVIN MANSHADI, BOBBY NADERI / RELEASE DATE: 23RD JANUARY