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British-Iranian writer-director Babak Anvari’s assured first feature is a gripping thriller about a mother and daughter under supernatural siege, which also doubles as a potent allegory for the insidious and very real anxieties of war, political turmoil and a society that oppresses women. Picked up prior to its Midnight section premiere at Sundance for streaming by Netflix, and digital, VOD and select theatrical markets by Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films, Under the Shadow should possess its share of arthouse-inclined genre aficionados open to smart foreign-language horror. In addition to representing an impressive calling card for the director, who signed with WME at Sundance, the film also introduces a magnetic screen presence in lead actress Narges Rashdi.
Anvari’s childhood was spent in Tehran during the Cultural Revolution and the protracted Iran-Iraq War, when he and his brother were left alone with their mother for part of each year while their father was away doing compulsory military service.
That gives Under the Shadow — which is set in 1988, toward the end of the conflict, when the Iraqis started hammering Tehran with strategic missile attacks — a strong personal connection. However, detailed knowledge of 20th century Iranian history is not a requirement to enjoy what’s basically a textbook tale of haunting distinguished by its fascinating cultural specificity.
Comparison seems inevitable at first with the intense domestic dramas of fellow Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, notably A Separation. But Anvari is merely controlling our expectations as he prepares his fright assault, putting a mother and child in the kind of psycho-supernatural peril that recalls any number of genre standouts, from Poltergeist to The Babadook.
A former leftist radical during her college years, Shideh (Rashdi) is a flinty, modern woman, punished after the Revolution with a government veto preventing her from returning to university to complete her studies in medicine. Her husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is a practicing doctor, and his blithe attempts at consolation (“Maybe it’s for the best”) pour salt on her wounds. In scenes that are both illuminating and amusing, Shideh dons a tank top and works up an angry sweat to a Jane Fonda aerobics tape on a forbidden video player.
When Iraj is conscripted and sent to the front, he urges Shideh to take their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) to stay with his parents in the North, where it’s safer. Despite the constant air-raid alerts, causing them to huddle in the basement with the other residents in their apartment block, Shideh refuses to give up her independence. But soon after, a missile tears through the upper floor of the building, and while it fails to explode, it leaves deep cracks in Shideh’s living room ceiling.
Meanwhile, a creepy orphaned boy taken in by their landlords fills Dorsa’s head with frightening thoughts, despite him later being revealed to be mute. She starts seeing figures in the apartment, and her favorite doll disappears. Sleepless and ill with a persistent fever, Dorsa’s fear intensifies. While Shideh is short-tempered with the girl, Dorsa’s unsettled state eventually infects her mother, too, and she starts seeing hostile apparitions of Iraj that feel too viscerally real to ignore.
From her downstairs neighbor (Aram Ghasemy), a timorous, superstitious woman of old-fashioned values, Shideh learns about the djinn, ethereal Middle Eastern spirits carried on the wind to places where fear and anxiety have paved their way. This cues Anvari to add howling gusts to his densely layered soundtrack. Shideh also learns that if one of these dark forces gets hold of a human’s cherished possession, they remain attached to that person forever. Despite her intelligent skepticism, this fuels Shideh’s anxieties about the missing doll.
Anvari masterfully balances the collision of real and possibly imagined danger as, one by one, the building’s other occupants flee the city, leaving Shideh and Dorsa somewhat improbably alone. In one stunning lurch back to harsh social realism, a freaked Shideh bolts into the streets without her hijab, and is sternly reminded that this is an offense punishable by lashes.
It slowly becomes apparent that the djinn are slipping in and out of the apartment via the cracks in the ceiling, removing and shifting things to turn daughter against mother. At first, the spirits are seen only fleetingly in cleverly manipulated images. When the djinn finally shows itself, in Anvari’s most striking subtextual feminist touch, it’s a faceless figure in a whirling chador that threatens to engulf Shideh. From even before that point, however, the accelerated action of the film’s extended climax never lets up, as all kinds of goop and menace get unleashed.
The director uses his share of stock devices like bone-chilling groans, violent sound cues and startling jump scares, but he executes them with great style. The first such shocker is a hilarious tease involving a pop-up toaster, a crafty trick that sent a ripple of nervous laughter through the Sundance audience. Anvari also continues the welcome trend of adventurous horror directors largely favoring practical effects over CG.
Under the Shadow benefits immeasurably from MVP Rashdi’s riveting work, and persuasive support from Manshadi as the terrified child, as well as nimble editing and cinematography. Anvari deftly builds and sustains tension throughout, crafting a horror movie that respects genre conventions (right down to the safe/not safe ending), while firmly establishing its own distinctive identity.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Production companies: Wigwam Films, in association with Creativity Capital, Mena Film
Cast: Narges Rashdi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Hamidreza Djavdan, Soussan Farrokhnia, Aram Ghasemy
Director-screenwriter: Babak Anvari
Producers: Lucan Toh, Emily Leo, Oliver Roskill
Executive producers: Sanjay Shah, Nick Harbinson, Patrick Fisher, Duncan McWilliam, Khaled Hadad
Director of photography: Kit Fraser
Production designer: Nasser Zoubi
Costume designer: Phaedra Dahdaleh
Music: Gavin Cullen, William McGillivray
Editor: Chris Barwell
Sales: Vertical Entertainment, XYZ Films
Not rated, 84 minutes
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