We were all witnesses to the horror renaissance of the 2010s. We can always pray for another It Follows or The Babadook. If Under the Shadow happened to have taught me anything, it’s that I shouldn’t get my hopes up on word of mouth. Babak Anvari’s directorial debut is an intelligent film underneath the weak horror elements. Anvari calls upon historical issues that add another layer not seen in many horror films. But due to the amateurish use of jump scares and weak character motivation, Anvari loses control of the film before it’s able to fully impress under both genre labels.
Under the Shadow sets itself in post-revolution Tehran in the 1980s. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) attempts to go back to medical school after becoming wrapped up in the activism of the (then) war-stricken Tehran. Due to her involvement with the Government opposition, she is denied entry and must remain a stay-at-home mom. Her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) as a doctor is the breadwinner of the family and this leaves Shideh helpless and alone in a land that has no room for women outside of being caregivers. To make matters worse, Iraj is drafted to the military for a 3 month contract in an area of heavy fighting. This leaves Shideh to take care of their daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) on her own.
Small character moments make the first half of Under the Shadow work. The central performance from Narges Rashidi is what carries the dramatic tension into the uneven last half of the film. Rashidi subtly informs her performance with insecurity and frustration as a mother at the end of her rope. The moments between Dorsa and Shideh are mostly full of stress and anxiety. Between looking for a missing doll and the mysterious boy living upstairs, Shideh has to deal with the nightmares of her daughter due to the mystical Djinn. Of course, Shideh doesn’t believe her daughter and denies it until a variety a jump scares change her mind.
A number of horror films this year have done a good job setting up their films in order to lose all creativity by the time the horror aspect kicks in. A jump scare is inherent to the horror genre, but that’s no excuse for that to be the only trick in the directorial arsenal that should be used. Momentous silence and then a loud piercing noise does not count as something horrific, just something cheap. Anvari could learn from that. Due to these moments which the last half are filled with, all intelligence and dramatic heft is forgotten and left behind for the easy way out.
Anvari should be commended for giving Under the Shadow dramatic depth with a story like the one it has. The film feels historically accurate with the use of the bomb shelters and tape along the windows. Shideh comes across men in the city and makes sure to cover up. She has to hide her VCR and Jane Fonda workout tapes. No reference is wasted and they never feel cheap. Some of those jump scares I hate are actually pretty clever considering the use of the time period. There is a ton of creative possibilities working with this time period and location, it’s just a shame it was all wasted.