Directed by: Babak Anvari || Produced by: Emily Leo, Oliver Roskill, Lucan Toh
Screenplay by: Babak Anvari || Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi
Music by: Gavin Cullen || Cinematography: Kit Fraser || Edited by: Christopher Barwell || Country: United Kingdom, Jordan, Qatar || Language: Persian
Running Time: 84 minutes
Horror films and I have a complicated relationship; on the one hand, I love many of the classic, influential horror pictures all cinephiles have to appreciate in some respect (e.g. Psycho , The Exorcist , Alien ), and of course enjoy the concept of visual storytelling used to convey fear. The horror genre is one of the most readily cinematic formulas, enduring within mainstream filmmaking to this day. On the other hand, I have limited patience for some of the most pervasive cliches (e.g. excessive jump-scares, torture-porn, over-the-top gore, overacting when characters are possessed by various demonic entities, etc.) and popular subgenres of the movement. Films based around demonic possession, unless executed with precision and restraint, do little for me, I’m mum on classical slashers like Friday the 13th (1980) or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and many “slow-burn,” “atmospheric,” critically lauded cult films (e.g. Ti West) leave me baffled. Perhaps I’m more in love with the idea of horror filmmaking than I am in love with the genre itself.
Every now and then, however, I’ll discover an underappreciated gem (e.g. The Mist ) or agree with a blockbuster’s popular reception for once (e.g. Don’t Breathe , It ) that rejuvenates my affection for the horror genre. Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, a spooky picture about the haunting of a mother (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter (Avin Manshadi) by a Djinn (genie) during the Iran-Iraq War, is one of the former. Besides its notable historical and cultural setting, the picture follows standard horror filmmaking procedure, making great use of limited production-design (most of the film takes place in a single building) across a tightly paced, brief running-time (84 minutes) and limited but impressive special FX. Under the Shadow’s (henceforth, Shadow) diverse, effective scares are a function of (1) great sound-editing, (2) a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere, and (3) creative, surrealist imagery. The latter two are a function of Anvari’s great use of his principal setting: A small Tehran apartment building that is routinely hit or nearly hit by Iraqi shelling. Symbolism from the surrounding geopolitical conflict is obvious, but never distracts from the primary narrative or its intimate focus on our two co-leads. Rather, the constant threat of bombs almost hitting our main characters’ home accentuates how threatening that home becomes once the chief supernatural threat reveals itself.
Shadow paces the full reveal of its antagonist brilliantly, demonstrating its powers with subtle visual tricks of light and shadow, creepy framing, persistent silence with minimal Foley, and minor but unsettling digital FX. I often hate most special FX used to illustrate demonic possession or haunting (e.g. automated dialogue-replacement [ADR] manipulation, furniture moving by itself, characters being dragged or thrown about by invisible forces, etc.), but Anvari’s minimalist FX feel believable and all the more frightening. The closest analogy I can think of to describe the majority of Shadow’s scares is drifting in and out of sleep from a nightmare… and having parts of that groggy nightmare stay with you when you wake. In other words, dream sequences and surrealist imagery in Shadow interweave with one another and have a greater purpose in the story, unlike many lesser horror features, which often use them as filler.
A “final form” of the Djinn is never portrayed, but its harassment of Rashidi and Manshadi intensifies as their supporting cast, their apartment neighbors, abandon the building one by one to avoid the Iraqi bombing. This subtle yet purposeful narrative structure of slowly isolating our main characters feels natural due to the historical setting, and enhances the film’s principal supernatural scares. Similar to the film’s use of dream sequences, Shadow’s historical and cultural setting are a critical part of its genre formula, but never supersede it. The Iran-Iraq war is not used to preach, nor is it window dressing, but a well illustrated diegesis that adds memorable flavor to the film’s horror.
If I had to complain about anything in Under the Shadow, it would be the film’s ugly color palette and flat, boring set-design. I noted Anvari’s effective use of his (mostly) single-location production, but that doesn’t mean his principal apartment location is pretty to look at. Similar films about or shot in Iran (e.g. Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up , Taste of Cherry ) have made far better use of related architecture and Middle-Eastern landscapes. I suppose the movie’s drab appearance could have a thematic function related to its foreboding tone, yet I doubt that given the movie’s probable small budget and limited distribution. Creative as the cinematography may be, Anvari’s picture boasts all the colorful diversity of a parking lot.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this film to horror fans or those open to non-English language genre filmmaking. Most audiences may never have heard of Under the Shadow, but given the considerable popularity of numerous horror franchises today, including those with wacko premises and bizarre, exploitative overtones (not judging, by the way), your average viewer has no reason to be skeptical of this movie. Writer-director Babak Anvari’s clever scares, surrealist imagery, and dept use of historical setting not only combine entertainment and educational value for Western viewers, but also distinguish Under the Shadow from the plethora of demonic possession-oriented scary pictures in contemporary mainstream filmmaking. This film is an example of horror formula respected and reinvigorated.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Under the Shadow knows that less is more when it comes to production-design and unsettling tone. This minimalist style extends to the film’s characterizations and main antagonist, allowing the narrative’s sociopolitical diegesis to breathe and enhance, rather than distract from the movie’s scares. You’ll never look at a hooded toddler the same way again.
— However… Under the Shadow’s digitally(?) compressed cinematography and flat, dull colors make for a repetitive viewing despite Anvari’s creative direction. Of all the films I can recall from memory, only Solo (2018) and The Raid (2011) looked uglier.
? I’m assuming that doll’s missing head and the forgotten medical textbook mean the haunting continues. What if our characters leave the country? Does the Djinn’s haunting have a range?
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