Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives in Iran with her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) just as the war with Iraq is building to an even more violent and destructive climax, with bombs raining down on the capital Tehran, where they have an apartment. Her mother has died recently, and she has been pondering that her heart's desire was to see Shideh become a doctor, so she has been to see if she can continue her studies at university. However, she is turned down flat because thanks to a combination of the revolution in 1979 and her political involvement with liberal causes at the time, the ultra-conservative climate will not allow her to meet her aspirations. Somehow this trauma signals all will not be right from now on...
I mean, obviously when missiles are being fired at your home then it's safe to say things are not right already, but with Under the Shadow there was a growing sense of the supernatural encroaching on the characters. When Iraj is sent away to the front line when he is doled out his annual conscription, as if that were not upsetting enough something else seems to move in, and writer and director Babak Anvari was reluctant to pin it down in anything but the vaguest terms. He did give it a name, though: the djinn, an ancient Middle Eastern spirit of malevolent intent, as described in the Koran therefore everyone in the Tehran of the film will know exactly what is being referred to, and how dire circumstances could become.
Really this was your basic haunted sceptic movie where the unbeliever - here the practical Shideh, whose medical background means she is rationally-minded no matter how thwarted her studies were - is subjected to an ordeal that has no other explanation than it must be paranormal, though equally trauma might create the same impression in her mind. We had seen such movies and television increase with each passing year of the twenty-first century as a suspicion of science took hold, especially documentaries purporting to present factual evidence of the uncanny which mixed fiction and the genuine and presented them as entertainment (but you were invited to believe them anyway). So this film was potentially struggling to stand out in a crowded field of competition.
On one hand, its thunder had been stolen somewhat by the well-regarded New Zealand horror The Babadook, on the other Under the Shadow sought to be its own thing by its setting and allusions to the political situation in many of the cast and crew's homeland of Iran. There was a scene late on where Shideh flees her apartment in terror without pausing to put on her chador and is caught by the authorities who are far less interested in her distress than the fact she has "exposed" herself by venturing out into the streets with an uncovered head; it's not a major sequence but neatly displayed how a genre movie can inform as well as divert if the filmmakers sneak in some history or social commentary. Although filmed in Jordan with a team largely based in the United Kingdom, its heart was defiantly Iranian.
Fair enough, that was the instruction and information element that was deftly woven into the plot, but this was billed as a horror, presumably that was what most of those who made a point of watching it wanted to see, so did that deliver? Although there was a contingent of the audience for whom this did nothing at all, as was the case with every half-decent horror movie to be scrutinised by an unimpressed army of internet opinion, for a decent-sized section Under the Shadow was judged not only a success as far as sustaining the attention, it was actually pretty damn scary as well. Anvari used his effects sparingly until the very end, but he worked up a freaky atmosphere which may be a shared madness between Shideh and Dorsa, left alone to feed on one another's unease, may be the pressure of the war affecting everyone in the block, or alternatively the djinn may be real and exploiting both of those things. The director was not too proud to use jump scares, but these were extremely high quality, as was his skill at creating disquiet in the attentive viewer; for a feature debut, this was a superb accomplishment. Music by Gavin Cullen and Will McGillivray.