Under the Shadow review – ghostly Iranian gem

Otherworldly forces terrorise a mother and daughter in this provocative horror set in 1980s Tehran

The UK’s submission for the foreign language film award at the forthcoming Oscars is this Farsi chiller that seems at first glance to share some of the supernatural/ sociopolitical concerns of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Yet despite their shared language and genre, this ghostly gem owes less to Ana Lily Amirpour’s monochrome vampire fable than to the Spanish civil war fantasy of Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and the maternal sacrifice of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water.

Focusing on a mother and daughter besieged by forces both worldly and otherwise in a Tehran apartment block, Under the Shadow presents a gripping portrait of an independently spirited woman shackled by sharia law who becomes more scared of the demonic forces tormenting her daughter than of the lashes threatened by her rulers or of fire falling from the sky. A very impressive feature debut by Iran-born, London-based film-maker Babak Anvari, this is thoughtful, provocative and increasingly scary fare, which succeeds equally as feminist fable, fractured family drama and full-on fright-fest.

Watch the trailer for Under the Shadow.

Set in 1988, with Jordan doubling for Iran, Under the Shadow finds its characters sheltering from the fallout of the Iran-Iraq war, bombs and sirens intermingling with ever more alarming news reports in the threatening mosaic of background noise. Barred from resuming her medical studies because of her formerly outspoken politics (“I was naive… I wanted change”), Narges Rashidi’s Shideh becomes more isolated than ever when husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is called away for military service. Behind closed doors, Shideh works out to Jane Fonda videos, but her VCR is a secret that must remain under wraps.

When an unexploded missile pierces the roof of their building, Shideh’s daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), is convinced that malevolent “djinn” spirits are out to get them, an idea fomented by a haunted young neighbour whose parents have died in the conflict. Are Dorsa’s night terrors a fanciful reaction to the down-to-earth horrors of life during wartime? Or is Shideh somehow projecting her own fears and frustrations on to her impressionable, traumatised daughter?

There’s more than a touch of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook in the way Anvari cleverly conflates Iraj’s complaints about Shideh’s maternal shortcomings with the spooky occurrences that now threaten to tear mother and daughter apart. While cinematographer Kit Fraser shoots early domestic scenes in neorealist handheld style, the visual aesthetic becomes more angular and expressionist as Shideh descends into a sleepwalking nightmare, replete with skin-crawling flashes of a wraith-like figure wrapped in a significantly patterned spectral chador. A disorienting shot of Shideh lying in bed with the camera tilted at 90 degrees seems to provide a literal tipping point, a moment when waking life becomes a dream. Yet as with Polanski’s Repulsion and The Tenant (which Anvari has cited as influential), such boundaries remain fluid and we are never dispossessed of the notion that Dorsa really is the target of wandering spirits, plotting to steal her away like her beloved doll, Kimia.

Avin Manshadi as Dorsa in Under the Shadow.
Avin Manshadi as Dorsa in Under the Shadow. Photograph: Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

Reading from Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi’s descriptions of the “people of the air”, Shideh learns that “where there is fear and anxiety, the ‘winds’ blow” and all those elements are present in abundance here. Plaudits should go to Chris Barwell’s razor-sharp editing and Alex Joseph’s Lynchian sound designs that echo the industrial rumbles of Alan Splet’s work on Eraserhead. As the groans of the apartment block intermingle with the omnipresent cacophony of war, these cries and whispers keep us wondering whether the vortex of sound spiralling around our central couple comes from their home or their heads. Even when the drama strays into the declarative, carnivalesque territory of Poltergeist, Anvari keeps bringing us back to those ambiguously eerie rumbles that lurk in the very foundations of his movie.

None of which is not to suggest that this whip-smart writer-director is above saying “Boo!” to his audience. From the amplified snap of a pop-up toaster to the well-orchestrated crash of a broken window, Anvari knows how to make us jump. But more importantly, he also knows how to make us think and to care, to invest emotionally and intellectually in the fate of Shideh and Dorsa. “Dead people can’t dream,” Shideh tells Iraj when he suggests that her professional ambitions are merely an attempt to live up to her mother’s hopes of a better life for her daughter. With this terrific feature debut, Anvari lifts the veil on his heroines’ hidden lives and leaves us all dreaming with our eyes wide open.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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