I’m “biast” (con): not much of a horror fan
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
A young mother and her small daughter, under extreme stress and increasingly isolated, find themselves under attack by a menacing supernatural presence. Under the Shadow’s basic premise may sound familiar, even banal for the genre, but this is as fresh and as exhilarating as horror movies come, not least because of its extraordinary setting: late 1980s Tehran, when the city was under regular aerial bombardment from Iraqi missiles in the waning years of the long Iran-Iraq war.
When her husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is called up for his annual military service, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is left alone with their daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) — who’s about five or six — to cope with regular air-raid warnings in an apartment building that is emptying out as their neighbors retreat from the city. Shideh’s situational single motherhood is exacerbated by the desolation imposed on her by the strictures of Iran’s Islamic revolution: she has been refused permission to continue her medical studies, cannot walk outdoors without wearing a chador (a full-body cloak), even has to take great pains to ensure that no one outside the family discovers they have a VCR and that she exercises to a bootleg Jane Fonda aerobics video. Shideh’s frustration with the smallness of her world and Dorsa’s childlike anxiety over the war and her absent father appears to make them ripe pickings for the evil djinn, or spirit, that arrives with an unexploded missile that lands in their building; that djinn are said to travel “on the wind” makes them a marvelous metaphor for a modern threat.
With his feature debut, writer-director Babak Anvari weaves a sinister tapestry of urban unease and feminist fury that turns an ordinary domestic setting into a place of skulking terror: Anvari whips creepy imagery out of such everyday objects as bedsheets and cracks in plaster. Though Shadow is in the Persian-language and was shot in Amman, Jordan — and draws on a cultural fantasy tradition that hasn’t been explored much in films aimed at Western audiences — this is a British indie (Anvari is based in London) and recently won the 2016 British Independent Film Awards for Best Screenplay, Best Debut Director, and Best Supporting Actress (for the kid; Manshadi is a wonderful combination of petulant and terrified). It’s one of the most original and most deeply creepy movies I’ve seen in ages. Fans of The Babadook, or of psychologically insightful horror in general, will not want to miss it.