The residents of the apartment building that serves as the setting for Under the Shadow have reason to live in fear even before the monster arrives. Living in Tehran toward the desperate end of the Iran-Iraq war, when Iraq launched a series of missile attacks on the Iranian capital, they live in a shaken city in a country where the utopian promise of the Iranian Revolution had started to fade. For some it was never much of a promise anyway. As the film opens, Shideh (Narges Rashidi, excellent in a role that places a lot of weight on her shoulders) meets with a university official who, while sitting under a portrait of the Shah, explains, again, why her involvement in a leftist group years ago prohibits her from finishing her medical degree. Advising her to give up, he sends her on her way and back to the upper-floor apartment she shares with her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), a girl who’s known only life during wartime. She’ll soon learn there are other reasons to be afraid.
Under the Shadow begins as a sharp, understated study of life in the Shah’s Iran. With her dream of becoming a doctor thwarted again, Shideh retreats to her home. It’s a place overflowing with books and one where a contraband VCR and a bootleg copy of Jane Fonda’s Workout enjoy a central spot — at least as long as no outsiders are around. It’s also as much a place of confinement as comfort. Within the building, Shideh can uncover her head and let down her guard. On the street, she has to behave in ways that go against her independent instincts. When Iraj suggests it might be for the best that she didn’t get readmitted to school, he finds himself on the receiving end of some pent-up resentment. When she learns he’ll soon be leaving her alone with Dorsa to work in a medical facility on the frontline, as the government requires, that resentment hardens into anger.
Director Babak Anvari has drawn on personal experience for his feature debut. Now based in London, he grew up in Tehran in the era in which the film is set. And like Dorsa, he grew up a fearful child with a father forced to leave home because of the war. Unlike Dorsa, he most likely did not become the target of djinn, malevolent spirits that bear no resemblance to the wish-granting genies of popular folklore. Once told about them by a refugee neighbor from closer to the front, Dorsa becomes obsessed with djinn, believing they’ve stolen a doll her father gave her to help her feel safe. When a missile lands on their building, causing substantial damage but failing to detonate, that obsession only intensifies, growing worse as Dorsa becomes afflicted with some unidentifiable illness.
As the film goes on, Shideh comes to believe it as well, and Under the Shadow slowly starts to transform from character study to a nail-biting horror film in which something horrible always seems to be lurking the shadows, or around the fringes of Shideh and Dorsa’s dreams. Sometimes it stops lurking. In one memorable sequence, Shideh flees the apartment in terror only to be picked up by the Islamic religious police for failing to wear a scarf. She’s traded one type of threat for another.
Horror is often at its best when it finds ways to embody real anxieties, and occasionally at its worst when it strains to turn its monster into easy metaphors. Anvari skirts the latter problem by letting djinn stand in for all the free-floating anxieties in Shideh and Dorsa’s life: the war, the missiles, the oppression of women, the possibility of losing a father or a husband, the unrealized dreams. Its slowly intensifying approach, use of shadows and suggestion, unsettling soundtrack, and well-deployed special effects allow it to stand nicely next to a recent horror classic, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, another film that turns the pressures of motherhood into the stuff of nightmares. But whatever the resemblance, Anvari’s film is very much its own movie, a vividly remembered dream of a childhood spent in the middle of forces seemingly intent on destroying any sense of happiness and security.
Under the Shadow opens in select theaters on Friday, October 7, before expanding. It’s also currently available via on demand services.