The Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 remains a bit of a mystery in the West. The nearly decade long conflict is thought to be the longest sustained conventional war of the 20th century, and yet knowledge of it outside of the region is fairly limited. However, the events that bookend the war – the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the 1990 Gulf War – have provided ample fodder for Hollywood over the years (from Argo to Jarhead), but it’s unlikely you’ll ever see a movie set against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War come from a major US studio.
Thankfully there’s Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow to fill that void – a film that no Hollywood studio would ever make. Set during the War of the Cities – a period in which civilian populations on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border were targeted by air bombardment – the film centers on a Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a young mother who opts to stay in Tehran with her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) during the worst of the shelling. After a missile strikes their apartment complex and kills a neighbour, Dorsa comes down with a fever and begins to behave erratically, convinced there is a presence in the house. With her husband (Bobby Naderi) away serving as a doctor on the frontline and her neighbours steadily leaving the city for safety, Shideh soon find herself alone with Dorsa in their apartment, haunted by a malevolent force.
Borrowing heavily from both the Hollywood horror tradition and Islamic folklore, Anvari’s film is a truly scary horror story and one that consistently defies convention. Comparisons are sure to be made to other claustrophobic horror flicks like The Shining and The Babadook, but part of what makes Under the Shadow so unique is its wartime backdrop. The spectre of death that hangs over the city is nearly as frightening as the actual spectre – or Djinn – that has attached itself to the family. The movie offers some insight into what civilian life in Tehran must have been like during the war, but it also paints a portrait of isolation and oppression in post-revolution Iran. Rashidi and Manshadi are both fantastic, whether under duress from airstrikes or the marauding spirits that come with them, they are a believable family unit experiencing unbelievable events.
Under the Shadow‘s true strengths are those supernatural elements. The film has an ability to ratchet up a feeling of tension and dread, and then deliver on that in a way that never feels cliche. There are real shocks here – even for the most jaded horror fans who think they can see every jump scare coming – not to mention some imagery that is bound to haunt your nightmares for weeks. Music and sound design are always critical in a horror movie, so special mention must be made of Gavin Cullen and Will McGillivray’s affecting score, which helps give the film a truly eerie and oppressive mood.
Often when a genre film hits in the way that Under the Shadow has – earning rave reviews and enthusiastic audience buzz at film festivals – critics are quick to herald its director as a “visionary” or “a new voice in terror” or some other trailer-worthy designation, but that sells this movie and its filmmaker short. Under the Shadow is a spectacular first feature – horror or otherwise – it’s a debut that has me incredibly excited about whatever Anvari chooses to do next.
Under the Shadow screens at the 2016 Toronto After Dark Film Festival on Friday, October 14 at Midnight @ Scotiabank Theatre.