Under the Shadow Blu-ray Review

Under the Shadow

Demons and children. Most teenagers’ parents will say they’re one and the same thing.

Whatever your view, from the seventies possession flicks like The Omen and The Exorcist, to modern haunted-child fare such as The Babadook and Insidious, it is fair to say that kids have long been a staple of the horror film genre.

Fortunate that Under the Shadow, director Babak Anvari’s debut feature, brings something new to the table then.

It’s war-torn Tehran, 1988. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) has been disallowed from continuing her medical studies due to her previous involvement with left-wing student groups. Adding to her disappointment, her doctor husband Iraj gets dispatched to an area where fighting has intensified. Shideh is left with her daughter, Dorsa, and the largely supportive community of her apartment block.

One day, an exploded shell hits the apartment block, creating serious structural damage and causing one of the residents to die from a heart attack.

Over the next few days, Shideh experiences odd dreams while Dorsa grows feverish and starts acting erratically, convinced someone has stolen her favourite doll. One of Shideh’s neighbours mentions malevolent spirits known as djinns, who thrive where there is fear and anxiety.

As more and more residents evacuate the apartment block and Dorsa’s behaviour gets worse, Shideh thinks back to her neighbour’s words about the djinn and wonders if maybe something else penetrated the building alongside the unexploded shell…

This is taut and tense movie which, although following to some degree the tried and tested quiet-quiet-BANG rhythm of most Hollywood horror films these days, is more effective in its subtler and creepier moments, such as the moment when Shideh goes downstairs and…..oh, I won’t spoil it.

The use of special effects is mercifully low; a welcome departure from the film’s contemporaries, which usually descend into third-act CGI ridiculousness.

Rather than effects, the film wisely relies on its strong performances. Rashidi, and Avin Manshadi as Dorsa, are terrific with the former portraying a chillingly credible journey from dismissiveness to helplessness.

But what really elevates this film above other horror fare is the historical setting.

Aside from the djinn, we see Shideh’s state of mind affected by factors particular to the time and place, which adds to her panic and the overall atmosphere of unease. At one point, she is fleeing down the street from some unseen threat and the police, rather than help her, arrest her for not being dressed appropriately.

The air raid scenes are also unsettling, mainly due to the everyday way in which the residents of the apartment block are forced to take shelter in the basement.

Even more interesting is how the film deals with the djinn as a symbol for the invasive nature of war and its effects on familial relationships and on children. Dorsa attacks Shideh and you feel this is driven by her general stress rather than any paranormal influence.

Thought provoking and chilling, Under the Shadow is a strong debut from Anvari and is sure to get under your skin.

Conor Brennan

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Dates ‘n stuff

January 2017