The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Great horror speaks many tongues. By that measure, Babak Anvari’s feature-length debut, Under the Shadow, is multilingual. It’s also terrifying, a spooky ghost story that singes the nerves as much as it coddles the mind. The Iranian filmmaker wisely uses the genre to work through themes of oppression, rebellion, and femininity without ever politicizing the film. This is prestige horror, the kind with tricks and treats that arrive with purpose and linger for years.
Set in 1988, the story follows a small family in Tehran trying to cope with the tail end of the Iran-Iraq War. This isn’t an easy life: bombs come and go, windows are taped in the likelihood of an explosion, and the basement provides daily refuge from any oncoming missiles. These aren’t even the larger issues, at least not to Shideh (Narges Rashdi). When we first meet the brave mother and wife, her dreams of studying medicine are crushed by a stern administrator.
“I suggest you find a new goal in life,” he tells her, following a severe brow beating about her riotous political history. You see, Shideh is a black swan — she’s rebellious. Strong, fierce, and independent, she is rather resolute in not succumbing to the values and customs that her country or even her family have placed upon her. This is a woman who illegally owns a VCR, if only to exercise daily to her Jane Fonda video. She’s extraordinary.
And extraordinary things are happening to her family. When her husband, a practicing doctor much to her chagrin, is called off to war, she’s left alone in the apartment to watch their only daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). This is where Anvari indulges in the traditional conventions of the genre, beginning with the child’s premonitions, leading into the mysterious unraveling, and peaking with the calamitous poltergeist — or specifically, the Djinn. Not so fast, though.
In between, Shideh disintegrates mentally, fearing that she’s failed her dead mother, who always dreamed she would become a successful doctor. Slowly, she starts doubting her own abilities — as a mother, as a woman of medicine, as a citizen of Iran — and it’s this psychological torture that pairs well with the terrors at hand. Much like The Babadook, the horror itself becomes a larger metaphor for her own instability, and it’s a jarring downward spiral.
Still, it’s more than that. There’s a claustrophobic malaise to Shideh’s lifestyle that separates Anvari’s work from other ghost stories. The wartime chaos adds a significant element of tension; at one point, there’s an attack on the building, and any expectations go out the window — will we see an explosion or a spirit or what? It’s tantalizing. Eventually, it’s apparent that there is no respite for Shideh, a haunting prospect made worse as close friends start evacuating the city.
Everything clicks in Under the Shadow. Rashdi is captivating, sweating her way through a terse 84-minute performance that’s physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausting. Her chemistry with Manshadi is equally remarkable, almost too real, which sells the heart-stopping finale in ways similar productions have stumbled hard. Anvari spares no expense with his characters, dedicating as much time to their backstory as he does to the film’s creepy mythology.
Which, by the way, couldn’t be more unnerving. Despite the short run time, Anvari patiently tells his ghost story, using neighbors and situations to slowly prod the imagination of his audience. Yes, there are jump scares, snazzy angles, and frantic noises — expected constructs of any horror film — but Anvari is wont to capitalize on manic repetition, wide portraits, and the atmosphere he’s conceived through, believe it or not, structured storytelling.
There’s also some clever manipulation of the darkness. With ample light, Anvari turns thin hallways, empty stairwells, and messy living rooms into lucid nightmares. It’s never a guarantee that we’ll see something — in fact, most of the time we don’t — but that doesn’t matter, not in this story, where empty spaces are more or less blank slates. This is something too many filmmakers of the genre forget: It’s what we don’t see that stays with us.
Such old-school thinking is partly what makes Under the Shadow so convincing. It’s a film that embraces the original tenets of horror, back when eerie tales were meant to enlighten rather than simply scare. On his first try out, Anvari wildly transcends the limitations that modern audiences have placed on the genre, and it’s a bold testament to his abilities as a filmmaker. Where does he go from here? That we don’t know only confirms these notions.