Samuel Kaufman ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Under the Shadow is an Iranian low-budget horror movie from first-time writer/director Babak Anvari. It is about Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) who are haunted by an evil force during the 1980s in Tehran, Iran. It is similar in many ways to the 2014 Australian horror movie The Babadook. In fact, it is almost shockingly similar. But does that negate Under the Shadow’s right to exist? In short, no. It is no secret that horror movies are often ‘about’ something deeper then what goes bump in the night. The Babadook is about depression. Nosferatu is about the Spanish influenza. Rosemary’s Baby is about gender roles. Under the Shadow is not only a very well made movie, but a whip-smart allegory for the effects that war has on a family, and how Iranian society oppresses women.
The film is a very slow burn, with no hint that it is even going to be a horror movie until thirty minutes in. The first third is just as good at being a gripping family drama as the last third is at being a curl-up-into-a-ball-level scary movie. One of the most impressive aspects of Under the Shadow is the way that it finds horror in the smallest things. Don’t expect a man with a chainsaw or an elevator overflowing with blood. No, this film is able to make an audience scream with only a gust of wind or the billow of a sheet. Even when the film does decide to use jump scares — the red headed stepchild of the horror movie landscape — they are effective and never feel like a lazy cop out.
Additionally, everything that is making these people scared makes perfect sense for the setting and characters. Of course they would go into the dark basement, that is where they go during air raids. Obviously there would be no light, blackouts happen all the time during war. Every horror movie has the thing that is making the characters stay where they are, and a horror movie can often be judged on how effective and innovate this confining factor is. The bad ones are notorious, “My cell phone won’t get reception,” “The car won’t start!” etc. In Under the Shadow these factors are not only smart and natural, but add to the story overall. At one point, Shideh takes Dorsa and flees the house in the middle of the night. She doesn’t get far before she is stopped by a car full of men. Instead of helping her, she is taken to the police for being outside without wearing a hijab. Beyond just being a way to keep Shideh and Dorsa in their home, this further highlights the institutionalized sexism in Iran. While other filmmakers may have created more unbelievable reasons for the characters to continue being haunted, Anvari used this as an opportunity to enhance his narrative.
This movie is just plain well made. It’s very well acted (especially by the young Manshadi), well shot, and uses its budget well. It is well written and never strains under the culture shock of being an Iranian movie watched in America. Under the Shadow is a can’t miss for any film fan.
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Overall Grade: A