Sundance 2016: Under the Shadow, by David Bax
Babak Anvari’s politically and socially minded Iran-set horror film, Under the Shadow, begins atypically for its genre, with lengthy text detailing the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and the repeated missile strikes the two countries delivered upon one another’s citizens. Set sometime during that struggle, Under the Shadow explores the life of a leftist, secularized woman in post-revolution Iran. The specter of hardline Islamism soon becomes embodied by, well, actual specters as our heroine struggles to keep her daughter safe both from bombs and from the malevolent supernatural forces that have invaded her home.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) was a medical student at university before the revolution and is now barred from returning to school because of her earlier political activism. Now she finds herself a stay-at-home mother in a culture she doesn’t recognize, one where she has to cover her hair to go outside and her driving a car is novel. Her unconventionality calls her mothering ability into question from her neighbors as well as her husband, whose gender has afforded him a much more comfortable place in the new Iran. So, basically, when demons known as djinn start showing up, darting around spookily and whispering to Shideh’s daughter than they can take care of her better than her mother can, it’s the last thing she needs.
Shideh owns a VCR (contraband in 1980s Tehran) and her collection of tapes mark her as a Westernized woman. She shows her daughter music videos and works out daily to Jane Fonda’s exercise videos. These things not only make her an obvious outsider in her own community but also mark her as a sympathetic figure to a secular audience.
Under the Shadow takes its time introducing its genre elements. Anvari and cinematographer Kit Fraser work in a mostly handheld style, presenting the film as a domestic drama not unlike the films of Asghar Farhadi. Things become more stylized the deeper we get into horror territory, though, with dutch angles and digital effects adding to the creepiness and tension. Even as we get more jump scares and CGI trickery, though, Anvari keeps his allegories about Iran and war intact. For instance, the same masking tape used to keep the windows from breaking during air raids is used to seal up a demonic portal.
Even before the proper scares enter the picture, Anvari shows us Shideh’s terror at being out of place in her own home. She yearns to return to pursuing her degree but is constantly pushed toward a more limited style of motherhood. She startles at the sight of her own reflection in a mirror, not recognizing herself in a hijab. Even more unsettling, her young daughter, Dorsa, already seems to be more at home in this new world than Shideh is. The girl refers to her doll as “she” but Shideh only says “it.” The daughter’s playacting even gets echoed in Shideh’s life, when the mother is forced to repeat with an older neighbor the motions of Dorsa’s imaginary tea party. Under the Shadow is a solid and effective horror film that cuts even deeper with its suggestion that Shideh is being punished by both the physical and spiritual world for insisting on a life of more options and freedom.