Director: Babak Anvari
Writer: Babak Anvari
Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi
Babak Anvari’s 2016 film Under the Shadow is a modern horror masterpiece. It takes all of the tropes of a haunted house story but makes them feel fresh and scary again. Set in 1980s Tehran against the backdrop of the War of the Cities, the film follows a mother and daughter who are being haunted by the Djinn, a supernatural creature.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is trying to restart her medical studies at the local university but is stopped from doing so due to her involvement with a student revolutionary group. Her husband is called into military service, leaving Shideh alone in a Tehran with their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) as bombings intensifies. Dorsa loses her doll during a bombing and neither of them can find it anywhere in their flat.
The horror in Under the Shadow starts off very subtly and is slowly engrained into the narrative throughout the film. At first it feels like this is a drama film set during war time, and it really works on this level. You really feel for both Shideh and Dorsa, as well as the other people living in the same building. As Dorsa starts to panic about her doll going missing, you’re not quite sure whether it’s something supernatural or just the stress of the situation around her. Even when Shideh starts to have unsettling and intense dreams, it could still be in her head. For the most part you’re not sure if this is something psychological and it really gets under your skin.
As with most of the best horror films, it works so well because you care about the characters. There are countless amounts of ghost films, and Under the Shadow doesn’t stray away from many of the tropes. All the stuff we expect from the genre is here, like jump scares, something looking like it’s there but it’s not, moments turning out to be dreams, but the tropes work because the story is so well told, and we’re given so much time to get to know the main characters.
There are also some real-life horrors presented through the film. The horror of the war happening around Shideh, as well as the sexism shown towards her. There’s a striking moment when Shideh thinks there’s someone in the house at night, so she leaves barefoot, carrying Dorsa, running for her life and when the police stop her they’re more concerned about what she’s wearing than what’s happened back home.
Under the Shadow is a chilling and memorable film that’s completely captivating from start to finish. Babak Anvari masterfully creates characters that you instantly care about and when the horror starts it’s nail-biting. A must see for any horror fan.
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