Under The Shadow

Ever since The Babadook premiered at Sundance in 2014, it feels like every new critically beloved, out-of-nowhere horror hit has been touted as “the new Babadook.” Most of the time, the descriptor is just a catchy way of saying “this horror film’s got buzz.” Many of these “new Babadooks,” from It Follows to The Witch, aren’t all that much like The Babadook at all, and — in my estimation — none of them have been quite as good.

In the case of this year’s Sundance horror Under the Shadow, though, the description really does seem apt. The film works for many of the same reasons The Babadook does. Like The Babadook, Under the Shadow relies more on tension and dread than cheap jump scares. And as with The Babadook, the uneasiness lingers long after the credits have rolled because it evokes real-life horrors, rather than simply relying on supernatural ones. 

Written and directed by Babak AnvariUnder the Shadow unfolds in late ’80s Tehran, at the height of the Iran-Iraq War. Sideh (Narges Rashidi) and Iraj (Bobby Naderi) are the parents of Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), a young girl of around seven years of age. As the fighting intensifies, Iraj is conscripted into military service, leaving Sideh and Dorsa to fend for themselves in their Tehran apartment. As the threat of missiles looms, a mysterious supernatural force begins haunting mother and child.

The genius of Under the Shadow lies in the way it builds up the tension: slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, until I suddenly realized I was wound so tightly I wanted to scream. The first act plays more like a family drama than a horror film. Sideh and Iraj discuss her career, comfort their daughter after her nightmares, and argue about whether the family should flee Tehran for the relative safety of the north.

But the possibility of death and destruction looms in every second. Air raid sirens send the entire apartment building scrambling to the basement, waiting anxiously to see if they’ll make it out alive. After the first time it happens, it’s possible to relax once the immediate danger has passed. After the third or fourth or fifth time, I was less and less able to let go. The general air of dread and uneasiness had crept under my skin, and I found myself clawing at my sweater and clenching my jaw even in scenes where nothing was really happening at all.

Compounding Sideh’s anxieties is a frustration borne of helplessness. Her dreams of becoming a doctor are dashed thanks to a youthful brush with “radical” politics, and her lack of a medical degree later comes back to haunt her. Though she insists on sticking it out in Tehran, Iraj pressures her to leave the city for Dorsa’s sake. In one instance, Sideh, terrified of the malevolent force terrorizing her inside her home, runs out into the street, only to be harshly reprimanded for leaving without covering her hair. “A woman should fear nothing as much as being exposed,” she’s told. “Our men are being martyred to protect these values.” All Sideh has in her life is her daughter, and she can’t save her daughter from the djinn that stalks them, or the everyday terrors of living in war-torn Tehran.

With so much real-life dread in the atmosphere, the presence of a djinn seems almost superfluous. But again, as with the Babadook, the monster is really just an external manifestation of more down-to-earth fears. The djinn forces Sideh to confront her fears that she can’t protect her daughter, that she’s not what society deems a good woman and a good mother, that she and her family will never be able to get over the trauma of the war. In and of itself, the djinn isn’t truly terrifying enough to enter the canon of classic horror movie monsters. As an embodiment of Sideh’s anxieties, however, it’s incredibly effective.

It’s easy enough to forget about a made-up monster once the film has ended and the house lights have turned back on. It’s far more difficult to let go of the pain we endured with Sideh — the unbearable stress of trying to go about her daily life while knowing that everything she holds dear, not to mention life itself, could be torn from her at every moment. And it’s equally impossible to forget that while djinns may be the stuff of children’s fairy tales, the missiles and bombs and zealous conservatism that threaten Sideh at every turn were not. Under the Shadow is a tragedy as much as it is a horror film, and the heartbreak lingers long after the fears have been shaken off.

/Film rating: 8.0 out of 10

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