Under the Shadow, written and directed by Babak Anvari, is a film that feels different in not only its approach to its story, but also where it is set, how it feels in its initial lead up and then later on when things escalate in tension. Unlike other films in the genre (horror) I liked how the film takes its time to settle you into the world of the characters and then slowly builds to its main focus-point. Even with the contained nature of ‘Under the Shadow’, I still have quite a bit to say, so let’s get on with it and see what makes this film a rewarding watch.
In the film we follow Shideh – played by Narges Rashidi – and her daughter Dorsa – played by Avin Manshadi – who live in war-torn Tehran in the 1980’s, post-revolution. Their husband/father has been conscripted and sent to the frontlines, leaving the two living in an apartment building that is in constant danger of mortar and missile strikes. However, things take an unexpected turn as along with the ever falling bombs, also brings a mystical evil called a djinn. As residents abandon the city by the hour, Shideh and Dorsa are soon left alone in an apartment building that is haunted by an evil that’s motives are unclear.
One of the most interesting things about ‘Under the Shadow’ is that despite it being a horror film, it never really feels like one. What I mean by that is while it is scary and certainly gets the heart pumping, it never feels like it is doing so in the sometimes reductive way that other horror films do. There is time and there is development given to so much of the film, before it then begins to introduce the supernatural element to the film. This different feel helped to not only ease me into the film but it also helped to ground me in who the character were and what it was like to live in their unique living situation (the threat of bombs falling from the sky and destroying your home is not how I’d like to live, that’s for sure). By having the time to settle in and learn more about, Shideh and Dorsa and not have the film solely focus on cramming as much of whatever high-concept horror idea it had, down my throat, meant that when it did come time for the film to evolve into its full form, I felt more than ready to see the terrifying time, through to the end with them.
Too often do I feel horror films overlook or blatantly ignore the necessary exploration of their characters and instead focus fully on building out its concept and then using said concept to bombard you with jump scare after jump scare. Now I’m not saying all horror films do this – there have been some excellent horror films recently that have thankfully bucked many of the tedious trends that are now lumped with the genre: I’m looking at you ‘The Witch’. But it cannot be denied that there is more shlock out there than there are worthy experiences.
But back to the film, and I have touched a little bit on the fact that the film gives time to its characters, but that time that it gives is not only in the beginning (when setting up the characters) it continues to build and reshape them as the films progresses. What I really enjoyed about the way in which it went about developing its two main characters was the slight subtlety it used when doing so. Shideh in particular is a character that over time begins to show the effects that the terrifying situation is having on her. Not only can you begin to see the emotional effect that it’s beginning to have on her, but you can also notice the physical toll that it is having. The film doesn’t telegraph these effects, in fact, unless you’re paying enough attention yourself, you may not even notice it until very late on in the film – subtlety is something I always appreciate in filmmaking.
Another interesting aspect to Shideh as a character is how in the beginning she is a pretty unlikeable person. This is a women who because of the decisions she made when she was younger, can now no longer study for the career she so wants; this results in a person who is angry, who snaps at her family and who feels unsupported by her husband. Now I can absolutely sympathise with the character, but it doesn’t change the fact that how she then acts to the people around her is not the most pleasant of ways. But this didn’t turn me off from the character, the opposite in fact, it made me more interested in her; when a film decides to make its main protagonist a challenging person to follow along with, well that sends off some signals in my head that suggest there’s a reason why the filmmaker chose to do this and now I’m interested to see where they go with that decision. What it did was added to the layers of the character; not only is she reeling from the fact that she can no longer go into the career path she so desired, but now her and her daughter are being haunted by a dangerous monster, one that is unrelenting in its torment. Also, those signals that were going off in my head were right, having the character be the way she is, plays into the development of the plot (later on in the film) in a really interesting way; one I did not expect.
Another issue that the film thankfully doesn’t fall into is that it doesn’t get bogged down in trying to explain what exactly the thing is that is tormenting the family. Often, horror films will get lost in trying to breakdown and give some unnecessary explanation on what the monster is and where it came from etc. ‘Under the Shadow’ does not do that. The monster is not the focus of the film, nor does it ever feel the need to have a momentum halting expository scene where some wacky expert gives a monologue on what it haunting them. This is a film that focuses on its characters and with the aid of the plot, explores the many facets of their situation; from living in a war-torn country, to the personal troubles of Shideh and also the struggles a women encounters in a place with strict religious laws – that last one is only slightly touched upon, but it’s still something that plays its part.
With the film not making its monster the soul focus it also means that there is some mystery left to it all. Not only are the djinn something we never truly understand (that not knowing adds to the mystery of course) but the film then also leaves you with an ambiguous ending. Now for some they may not enjoy the fact that the film leaves you with unanswered questions, and it is a bit of a trope to leave the audience with the open-ended question of: are the protagonists truly safe or is what was haunting them still out there and coming for them again? But for me, I liked how the film handled this – it felt sensible and believable within the confines of the film. I didn’t feel cheated nor did I feel unsatisfied. I got an ending that for me worked well with the tone of the rest of the film.
There was certainly a lot I liked about this film and nothing major that stands out that I didn’t like. For me this was a film that succeeded at what it wanted to do and never once caused my attention or interest to waver.
So I will be recommending ‘Under the Shadow’. A film that got the tension rising and also a film that felt meaningful in its execution. Certainly make the effort to see this film as its more than worth the time.
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