First thing’s first, let’s get the inevitable namechecking of The Babadook out of the way, because almost every review of Under The Shadow has drawn some comparisons between the two, and not without some justification. But I don’t want to spend too much time comparing the two. Mainly because they’re about very different subjects, when you dig below the surface. But also because, much to the chagrin of many horror fans, I really wasn’t all that won over by The Babadook. So let’s just move swiftly on.
Set in Tehran, 1988, during the last days of the war between Iran and Iraq, Under The Shadow is the story of a mother (Shideh, played by Narges Rashidi) and young daughter (Dorsa, played by Avin Manshadi) trying to live their lives against the backdrop of an increasingly dangerous and scary war. Not that war is ever NOT dangerous and scary, but the movie shows a difference between the interruptions and warnings that people have been used to and the increased threat of missile attacks that cause many to temporarily uproot their lives and get out of the city. Shideh doesn’t want to follow everyone else, as long as she can keep Dorsa safe by her side, but after a missile strikes the building, without actually exploding, things begin to get worse, and spookier, and the war doesn’t seem to be the only thing pressing against the taped-up windows.
After honing his craft with a number of shorts over the past decade or so (sadly, I have seen none of them but will seek them out now), writer-director Babak Anvari announces his talent to the wider world with this impressive, layered, horror movie. It’s not a constant barrage of spookiness and scares, but the tension ratchets up nicely towards a satisfying third act, and little details build up to make a big picture that will undoubtedly reward repeat viewers. The film can be interpreted in a number of ways, despite the fact that Anvari seems to let things play out in a pretty straightforward fashion. He knows, unlike some other film-makers I could mention, that viewers can pick and choose what they want to focus on as they meditate on what the movie is addressing (be it life during wartime, life as a woman in Iran, or even life that is pushed in a different direction due to past behaviour viewed with stern disapproval).
The crafting of the movie is polished and smart, but it’s also boosted by some great lead performances. Rashidi and Manshadi share many scenes together and they both feel like a very real mother and daughter. Rashidi shows stress and frustration without tipping over into unbearable histrionics, and Manshadi conveys her fear without resorting to the overused staples of being wide-eyed and shakey. Bobby Naderi plays the husband/father who ends up having to leave his family when he is drafted into military service, a small but vital role, (and indeed another of the many shadows that the title relates to) while Behi Djanati Atai, Aram Ghasemy, and Soussan Farrokhnia play the other, varied but equally important, main female characters.
Viewers should go in to Under The Shadow before the superlatives start piling up, before hype can do any damage. They should go in expecting something carefully constructed to provide some great creepiness and scares while also rewarding patience. And, most important of all, they should just go to see it. Because it’s this sort of film, and we’ve had some goodies in recent years, that shows how interesting and broad the scope of the horror genre can be.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: BABAK ANVARI
STARS: NARGES RASHIDI, AVIN MANSHADI, BOBBY NADERI,
RUNTIME: 84 MINS APPROX
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