A staggering debut from Iranian writer-director Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow may wear its focal themes transparently on its sleeve, but that does little to prevent it from being an uncommonly visceral, pleasantly restrained slice of historical horror.
Amid war-torn Tehran in the post-revolutionary 1980s, mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) refuses to leave her apartment to seek refuge with her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), instead waiting out the missile strikes even at the protest of her husband (who has since left for sanctuary), and even when it appears that a malevolent entity has attached itself to both mother and daughter.
With its conflation of a fairly familiar haunted house narrative with a more cerebral character-driven thematic, it’s unsurprising that Anvari’s film has earned comparisons to The Babadook, and those similarities extend beyond the immediately obvious. Similarly, this isn’t a “scary movie” as such, rather one fraught with psychological dread that nevertheless builds to a number of deeply unsettling crescendos.
Those who love their jump scares loud and sudden may feel initially disappointed, but rest assured that the film features arguably one of the most jarringly effective horror jump scares in the history of the genre, so unexpected and well-placed it boasts a shit-your-pants quality quite unlike almost anything else in years and years.
Overall, yes, it’s more creepy than scary, building suspense along the parallel axis of familial discord and an increasingly dangerous living space. While some audiences may simply find Shideh too stubborn in her refusal to leave and Dorsa too gratingly whiny – the latter complaint was also leveled against The Babadook’s lead child – the two performers do such a brilliant job selling their roles, it’s easy to be seduced into accepting these gripes.
A few moments, especially in the final act, do walk a very fine line between goofy and cool, and some viewers probably won’t be able to reconcile this by film’s end, but for the majority of its agreeably tidy 84-minute run-time, Under the Shadow provides a chilling history lesson, a compelling family drama and a creepy horror story. A stellar directorial debut indeed.
Under the Shadow is available now on VOD