Under the Shadow (2016) / Horror-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for terror, scary images and brief language
Running Time: 84 min.

Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manchadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi
Director: Babak Anvari
Screenplay: Babak Anvari

Review published January 18, 2017

Written and directed by Iran-born and London-based filmmaker Babak Anvari, . Though primarily a British production, Anvari took the risk to script his film entirely in the Farsi language, at a great financial risk against those studios and distributors who trid to persuade him to change the language to English to broaden the markets. It's set in Iran, though filmed in Amman, Jordan, where the look and feel of 1988 Tehran had been recreated quite well.

We find the action taking place right at the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), as missiles are being shot into the heart of Tehran, putting everyone who remains in their abodes there at great risk.  Within Iran itself, a great upheaval has taken place since the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, bringing about a fundamental religious regime, enforcing their ideology with severe penalties for noncompliance, that had completely changed the social freedoms once experienced there, especially as it pertains to women.

Narges Rashidi (Aeon Flux, Speed Racer) stars as Shideh, wife to distracted doctor Iraj (Naderi, "Prison Break") and mother to one young daughter, Dorsa (Manshadi, her debut).  Shiideh has been recently told that due to her prior life as a political activist that she can no longer pursue her career as a doctor.  After her husband gets drafted and called away to the war, Shideh is left alone with Dorsa, in a city currently besieged by incoming Iraqi missiles. One of those missiles just so happens to strike her apartment building, but miraculously doesn't go off.  After this, strange events begin happening around the building, causing Shideh, a woman of science above superstition, to question her own sanity, or come to face the realization that there are unseen supernatural forces that exist in this earthly plane.

Anvari packages this very thoughtfully appealing hybrid of family drama and horror film with class and a nice political touch underneath.  Though there isn't a great deal of ambiguity as to the nature of the disturbances as the film plays out, there is a question on whether that manifestation is something that has arrived in the apartment complex, or whether they are an externalization of Shideh's inner fears as a woman, a mother, and a wife.  Paranoia abounds, with nosy, busybody neighbors that threaten to report any transgressions, police who admonish her for not following the new religious laws in terms of dress, and Shideh's having to hide pieces of her life that aren't allowed, including a medical book given to her by her recently deceased mother, as well as a VCR so that she can play the Jane Fonda workout tape that she enjoys partaking in during her spare time.

Further stoking her innermost fears from an external force, Shideh is attacked head on by being frequently being reminded of what she has lost, as well as all that she has yet to lose.  Fear of being a bad mother, a bad wife, an oppressed citizen, and just a lost sense of herself abound, causing her to become increasingly more unsettled as every piece of her existence seems to crumble around her, much like the walls of her apartment.  Much like The Babadook, Anvari shows a mother and child's difficulties in maintaining a relationship as the child gets into more danger while the mother appears to be losing her grip on the sureness of her reality.

Those fears seemingly begin to manifest themselves outwardly, much like an early Roman Polanski chiller like Repulsion or The Tennant, with cracks beginning to emerge in the windows and ceiling, and strange visions in the night.  Shades of Guillermo del Toro also emerge in the undetonated missile that appears to encroach into the building, perhaps bringing with it the malevolence that is to come.  Evocative of old school terror from the 1960s and 1970s, those who prefer their horror in the vein of classics like The Innocents, The Haunting, and Don't Look Now will likely find Under the Shadow to be a welcome throwback to that kind of cinema.

With excellent camera movements and eye for aesthetic, Anvari, who himself had been born during the Iran-Iraq war depicted, succeeds at making a superior, atmospheric horror movie (hints of J-horror abound) that is worth a look even for those who normally eschew horror (the PG-13 rating makes it accessible for those who dislike gore and excessive malice).  Instead, it concentrates on building up the characters for us to care about before they get put into precarious, claustrophobic situations that have us hoping for a benevolent outcome for Shideh and Dorsa.

 Qwipster's rating:

2017 Vince Leo