Iranian cinema is generally celebrated by those in the know. Despite the ever-worsening political climate in the region, Persian film makes for some of the best, most uniquely crafted in the world today, and horror is no exception. Horror fans with a Netflix account will probably be familiar with the western-esque arty vampire flick A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. If that is your appetizer, then 2016’s Under the Shadow makes for a worthy main course.
Under the Shadow – an international Persian-language film shot in Jordan – takes place in the 1980s during the height of the Iran-Iraq war. Protagonist Shideh is a former medical student who is barred from resuming her studies due to her politically unpopular stance during the revolution. In addition, her husband gets drafted to the front lines, leaving her alone with their young daughter Dorsa (played by Avin Manshadi). The two have familial squabbles in between air raids, which adds an air of paranoia to their interactions with their strange neighbors, and the overall deteriorating condition of the world around them. At this point, the film is firmly grounded in reality; you are looking at real people with real problems. This is a testament to the quality acting and writing, as well as the immersive setting, featuring everything from Jane Fonda to VCRs to make you feel like you are in a time warp (to a place you probably aren’t very familiar with). This is well and good, but there is nothing in the film’s first act to clue you in that this is a horror film at all.
Honestly, Under the Shadow is a bit of a drag at first; the first half only has accents of the supernatural, from upsetting dream sequences to the off-putting tilted camera. But the real horror doesn’t kick in until the 40 minute mark, when we finally realize that Shideh and co. are being haunted by a djinn- demons that arrive on the wind, or in this case, on a guided missile from Iraq. If you can see the metaphor here, good! This film has subtext aplenty, thank god. However, rather than being beaten over the head with it, we are treated to an honest to goodness Iranian ghost story, with some real scares and tasteful effects, plus a soundtrack that is almost suffocatingly quiet only to spook you when you least expect it. Considering much of the horror lies in what you don’t see, it may be a struggle to see how this film earns its “extreme” stripes. Rather than a hunk of raw meat then, think of this as a serving of some tasty veggies – horror that is actually good for you!
Let’s back up a minute. Before genies, however, we have the hostile authorities, on both sides of the war. Not to mention evil neighbors, including one strange boy who seems to have a strange affinity for Dorsa, to the trepidation of both sets of parents. Under the Shadow is, true to its name, filled with shadows and red herrings aplenty, before showing its true stripes; with all this misdirection you don’t really know where the horror will come from. Which do we believe, the horror we see with our own eyes, on the news every day? Or perhaps in our folk legends and myths, which tell us that something terrible will happen. Do we rely on facts and cool heads, or arcane remedies to keep us and our loved ones from harm?
Like in certain previous editions of this column, Under the Shadow suffers from a rather admirable flaw common in upper-echelon horror from developing countries: great technical know-how that pays a little too much homage to the western classics. On one hand, the professional camera work slowly tilts and turns like we’re on a boat rather than land, thankfully largely eschewing shakey-cam even while the bombs are coming out of the sky. You will be able to see what the film wants you to see, which allows all this subtlety to come through regardless of the fact that you are watching everything with the subtitles on! However, there is also the typical dream within a dream thing in order to bridge the gap between the reality of the war and the supposed doings of the djinn that I felt was somewhat unnecessary; it is such a cliché at this point and I can’t think of a single film that even comes close to doing it as well as Jacob’s Ladder did almost 30 years ago. Other typical problems include annoying kids in main roles. Sure, kids will be kids, but if the audience is rooting for some innocent girl like Dorsa to be carpet-bombed, you know there’s a slight problem. Luckily, the starring role was immensely well cast. Though more well known internationally than in the English speaking world (her Hollywood film credits include bit parts in stinkers like Aeon Flux and Speed Racer) Narges Rashidi is great as Shideh. Her character as acted has enough weight and power behind it to carry a political drama, as well as make a seamless transition to international scream queen battling supernatural forces in a crumbling, creepy, apartment building.
Honestly, even some discerning horror fans may not appreciate all the genre bending and misdirection, and simply get bored of it while at the same time respecting the effort, but you can do far worse than giving this film an honest watch.