Director: Babak Anvari
Screenplay: Babak Anvari
Cast: Narges Rashidi (as Shideh); Avin Manshadi (as Dorsa); Bobby Naderi (as Iraj); Ray Haratian (as Mr. Ebrahimi); Arash Marandi (as Dr. Reza); Bijan Daneshmand (as the Director)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #84
If there ever was a case of crushing disappointment, not instant but a day after upon reflection when the buzz is dwindling and one thinks more level headedly about a film, then Under the Shadow, a Persian language horror drama set within the Iran-Iraq war in Tehran with politics of the Middle East seeping through the walls the heroine Shideh (Narges Rashidi) becomes affectively trapped in with her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), is a despairing example when a film doesn't live up to expectations. It's a common habit for me, unless a film completely sinks itself into my memory both positively and/or with confusion whether I liked it or not, usually becoming a film I love later as I appreciate how I had to work with them to gain something from them, that movies I had an exceptionally positively view on the day before lose their lustre immediately when it becomes common in hindsight I'd never need to watch them again. Both obscure films but also critically acclaimed ones, even sacred cows, can fall for this when even the most scabby of b-flick schlock can have a greater imprint on my mind in their virtues that make them worth revisiting. However with Under the Shadow, the problem is entirely what it brings in expectation through two-thirds of its length until it becomes utterly predictable supernatural horror.
Shideh is now, in post-revolution Iran, unable to become a doctor due to being involved in mid-revolution protests. The entire white elephant of gender inequality in Middle Eastern conservative values becomes as much a weight that crushes her slowly as the war looming over her apartment complex is, the later dropping an unexploded bomb in the roof that starts to cause tenants to leave on mass, the former putting pressure on her even if it leads to potentially ill advised actions. Adding emotional complexity, she's far from a saint capable of terrible behaviour even as a loving mother, like staying in her apartment flat and taking a rational, strict view of her daughter's belief a jinn is roaming the floors, having stolen her beloved doll and drawing her closer as her mother's more aggressive, stressed behaviour pushes her away.
The film starts as a Repulsion (1965) story where the pain of the real world hurts Shideh as the increased number of supernatural influence mirrors reality back. In Tehran, she is as much stuck in real life as in the throes of a supernatural demon of the wind, attempting to flee the home only to be arrested for not covering her head and forced back home. The stress of losing her desired goal as a doctor, her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) away to help as a doctor in the war and in a flayed relationship where she feels he looks down at her, feeds the monstrosity terrorising them in the flat and whole building, bringing promise of the psychological horror of Japanese cinema but with a decidedly unique viewpoint in being a film about Middle Eastern modern culture, even if it's set in the eighties with Jane Fonda workout videotapes, and at first emphasising both drama which tackles real world issues and using a figure, the jinn of that culture than using a cliché from Western horror cinema.
However with this complex portrayal of politics, culture and gender in mind, alongside a slow burn pace which drags out the discomfort of the jinn terrorising her and her daughter in subtle ways, it's dismaying to find that the film becomes a generic supernatural horror movie in the Hollywood template with constant jump scares and emphasis on CGI in the finale. It feels like an entire page is ignored, when a mythological creature as significant in Arabic and Islamic culture like a jinn, unique to that culture with countless versions told and with complexity to their behaviour in said stories, is reduced to a faceless ghost under a sheet. That it's a horror film first, subtext between the lines, is worst in seeing how what is such a quietly put together, well paced story which drip feds jump scares one at a time becomes reduced to the jinn chasing the central characters through the house without any sense of emotional resolution or complexity, not functioning as a horror movie trying to be more serious as a result. What started off as a buzz liking the movie became hollow as it didn't live up to being a more distinct film making its own direction with its own style and issues to tackle, instead latching onto clichés as its centre it could've done without. Particularly as someone who wishes to see films from all around the world especially in horror, even if this is a UK production shot in Jordan, this is a heart breaking result when non-English, non-European interpretations of even simple ghost stories is something we are in dire need of especially now for a sense of global interaction as cineastes.