This year’s Sundance Film Festival has had a truly oddball lineup of Midnight movies, including the outstandingly scuzzy The Greasy Strangler and Kevin Smith’s Canadian horror-comedy Yoga Hosers, but the best of the bunch is undoubtedly the Farsi-language thriller Under the Shadow. Going into the festival, this movie had a tremendous amount of buzz around it. Netflix purchased the right to distribute the film (after the theatrical and transactional debut) even before the film made its premiere. Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films have partnered for global distribution, and will coordinate a global day-and-date release on digital and VOD platforms, alongside theatrical release in select territories. The release date is still to be announced, but this is one you definitely want to keep on your radar because writer-director Babak Anvari’s feature film debut is an eminently creepy, layered story of psychological terror, political turmoil, and life during wartime. Though there are supernatural scares to be had, Under the Shadow is a movie so unnerving, so tense and tightly wound that the scariest thing is when nothing happens at all.
That isn’t to say that nothing happens in Under the Shadow. Quite the opposite, actually. Set in Tehran in 1988, the country is both in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and the throes of the Iran-Iraq War. It is not an easy life by any means, as the protracted conflict requires all eligible young men to serve mandatory military service while the rest live in constant terror from the increasingly common threat of missile strikes. The wartime setting is one of the savviest choices Anvari makes, as it is something personal to the British-Iranian filmmaker’s own life. In his youth, Anvari lived in Tehran during the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent fallout of the Iran-Iraq War. During that time his father was forced to leave for his military service, leaving him and his brother alone with their mother, conditions which we see echoed in Under the Shadow.
The film opens on a young woman named Shideh (an electrifying Narges Rashidi) sitting in a university provost’s office as she is told in no uncertain terms that, thanks to her association with radical left-leaning political groups in college, she will not be permitted to fulfill her mother’s dying wish and resume her studies at medical school. “I suggest you find a new goal in life,” the grim-faced administrator flatly tells Shideh. Driving home in tears, the full weight of what just happened sets in on her; her dreams have been crushed. Unfortunately, it is only the beginning of the horror she will face. Her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi), who kept his head down during the revolution, is also a doctor — a sore subject for Shideh — and is soon sent off to serve on the front lines, leaving Shideh to care for her precocious daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi).
Upon leaving, Iraj begs Shideh to flee the city and take Dorsa to the relative safety of his parents’ home up north. But Shideh is stubborn and fiercely independent, and she is not content to simply give up their hearth and home. One day, while everyone is huddled in the basement air raid shelter, a missile crashes through the building’s ceiling. Though it does not explode, it destroys the upstairs apartment and creates a large, unsettling crack in the ceiling of Shideh’s apartment. In addition to this very real danger, both Shideh and Dorsa begin seeing haunting visions, which their neighbors warn them are evil spirits known as djinn. Shortly thereafter, Dorsa falls ill with a fever, her favorite doll disappears, and she grows increasingly hostile towards her mother, which sets off the short-tempered Shideh even further. However, Shideh learns something else horrifying: when a djinn gets a hold of someone’s treasured belongings, they are attached to that person for life. From there on out, the film becomes a constant series of nightmares, and the audience is constantly left guessing what is real and what is imagined as we unravel alongside Shideh.
While the wartime setting and fractious political climate serve larger, more noble narrative purposes, they also serve to sequester Shideh and Dorsa in their claustrophobic apartment. Anvari and his cinematographer Kit Fraser constantly keep the viewer off-balance by manipulating the widescreen aspect ratio to cleverly reveal things lurking just out of the frame, and by tilting the camera 90 degrees in order to create some truly disorienting shots. The film’s color palette grows increasingly muddy as the film wears on, signifying the spreading influence of the djinn, as well as inducing a sense of claustrophobia. The apartment, once the family’s safe haven from the horrors of the real world, is no longer safe, as the building is ripped apart by threats both supernatural and martial.
Yet in Under the Shadow, the evil spirits nipping at our heroes’ heels are just one of the many terrors they face. The title itself refers to a multitude of horrors that Shideh and her family must face. Yes, the threat of a djinn trying to steal your daughter away to the netherrealm is palpable and sinister in and of itself. However, the family must also live under the shadow of missiles falling from the sky, death from above foretold by the cacophonous symphony of air raid klaxons. More insidious still is the shadow of systemic oppression that subjugates women, marginalizing Shideh even further and throwing her strained relationship with her daughter into sharp relief.
Many viewers — myself included — are woefully ill-informed about the sociopolitical ramifications of the Iran-Iraq War and the Cultural Revolution. To his credit, Anvari neither spoonfeeds you nor moralizes; rather, he immerses us in a specific atmosphere, trusting the viewer to put the pieces together themselves. While the film never quite reached the horrific heights I wanted during its runtime, it was a story that stayed with me long after the credits rolled. Under the Shadow‘s sublime storytelling makes for a Matroyshka doll full of frayed nerves, deep-seated insecurities, and raw emotion, and it is a must-see not only for horror fans but for movie fans period.
Rating: 4 out of 5 spooky burritos
For our complete Sundance coverage, click here.
Image: XYZ Films