Islamic mythology meets the horror of war in this claustrophobic, low-budget spine-tingler
Horror films have taught us to be scared of many things: clowns, leprechauns, the internet, men with knives for fingers, creepy children. Adding a new item to the chamber of terrors, Under The Shadow will have you looking askew at sheets of fabric. The film’s supernatural forces – the ‘djinn’, demonic presences from Islamic mythology – are malevolent spirits that whip around your apartment amid gusts of wind, moving things around, terrorising people and stealing children. They are not your classic bedsheet ghost.
But the djinn are one of two horrors in this film, a joint Iranian and British production in Farsi with subtitles. The counterpoint to the supernatural chill is the very real, very present horror experienced by protagonist Shideh (Narges Rashidi) in the city of Tehran at the tail-end of the gruelling Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988, when air raids are a regular occurrence and Iraqi missiles are too close for comfort.
A medical school dropout, the ground shifted for Shideh during the cultural and social upheaval of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Unable to return to university due to her political activism against the Islamisation of the nation, she’s frustrated with life as a stay-at-home mother, choosing to spend much of her time watching contraband Jane Fonda workout videos on her secret VCR.
The film’s tension comes not just from Shideh’s steely response to the escalating amount of unexplainable happenings in the flat, but also from her strained relationship with her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), her husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), who is sent off to fight in the war, and the creeping sense of isolation as her friends and neighbours flee the city for safety. Support is nowhere to be found: at one point, having escaped her apartment following another incident, she’s briefly incarcerated for being in public without a hijab.
Wisely, for a low-budget film, horrors are only ever glimpsed. And unusually, for a horror film, the characters are well drawn enough for you to care. The setting, language and period may be unfamiliar for British audiences, but the film’s humanity – and its fears – are universal.
Stars: Narges Rashidi, Bobby Naderi
Release date: 30 Sep, 2016