Under the Shadow review – genuinely terrifying Iranian horror

By Ryan Keating-Lambert

★★★★☆

This genuinely creepy fright fest relies more on mood than cheap jump scares and with the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, and an unnerving folk tale to top it off, Under the Shadow is worth a look… but do approach with caution!

In 1980s Tehran, wife and mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is forced to take care of her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone after her husband is sent to the front line of the Iran-Iraq war. As the city begins to crumble and the bombs begin to fall, Shideh notices an even stranger presence in her flat. Something that wants her daughter.

Director Babak Anvari’s feature film debut has more than secured his position in modern masterpieces of Farsi cinema. It’s scary as hell, inventive and fiercely feminist.

The backdrop of the war is very fitting for the film. I can’t remember the last time I was as disturbed as I was in the bomb scene with the wailing air-raid sirens. The bomb in the living room reminded me of equally haunting imagery from Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, another brilliant supernatural thriller that combines the presence of a ghost with the perils of war.

Then there’s the folk tale – every country has them and Iran’s djinn are up there with some of the scariest, and also somewhat unexplored in film so why not now? Throughout the country’s history, there have been countless tales of people invoking these demonic spirits for personal, and even political gain, but there’s never too much given away in the narrative itself, and it’s that ambiguity that reeled me in most.

There’s also underlying notes of feminism in Under the Shadow. Shideh is a powerful character with a turbulent past that prevents her from continuing her studies as a doctor. We’re constantly reminded of her struggle to be taken seriously in a society that, especially in post-revolution Iran, really didn’t listen to women.

Director Anvari has crafted a notable supernatural thriller which I believe will no doubt lead the director to bigger projects. He’s already made an English language film with 2019’s Wounds starring Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson – it’s nightmarish.

Check out a special ‘quarantine’ screening of Under the Shadow at next week’s Netflix watch party hosted by myself and the wonderful Farsi Cinema Center (FCC) on April 6th at 19:30. No masks or tickets required!

Photo: Bloody Disgusting

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