Under The Shadow
by Martin Dunlop
I remember when the kids in horror movies were badasses, like the unflappable Newt from Aliens, or that zombie toddler that went around stabbing everyone in Pet Semetary. Now, in movies like The Babadook and the new Iranian-set horror film Under The Shadow, they’re all screaming monsters. You know, like real kids.
Under The Shadow shares more than just a haunted howling child with the recent Babadook. Set in Tehran during the 1980s War of Two Cities, there’s also a worried mother, an absent father and a heavy coating of metaphor over everything, only where the Babadook had mental illness, Under The Shadow uses its demonic entities to signify the coming oppression of the religious regime in Iran. It’s heavy stuff, and early scenes contain a great deal of exposition as Shideh, the mother (played by a very fine and intense Narges Rashidi) is rejected from medical school and finds herself hounded back to her cramped Tehran apartment, only to be deserted by her husband when he’s drafted to join the conflict. Alone with her daughter, Shideh seems to be in enough trouble… and then the djinns wander in.
The film doesn’t really become a full-blown horror picture until the last third, when Shideh and her daughter are trapped alone in an empty building with supernatural forces, but the story up to that point is still a fascinating portrait of a woman trying to survive under the pressure of a religious state. The oppression and conflict is almost a little too well-rendered, in that it takes some of the effectiveness away from the supernatural scenes. It’s hard to be frightened of demons made of smoke when there’s missiles pouring in through the roof and a policeman arrests you if he can see your hair. But the scares, when they come, are solid, the performances (from Avin Manshandi as the daughter and Arash Marandi as a doctor who seems all to willing to believe in djinns) are strong and the tension is at times unbearable.
In a great year for smaller independent horror films, Under The Shadow is another superb addition. And hey, what other horror film are you gonna see that uses a Jane Fonda workout VHS as a central prop?