In a post-revolutionary Tehran during the War of the Cities, when Iraq engaged in bombing and air raid campaigns against Iran, Shideh and her daughter Dorsa find themselves tormented by an unknown entity after a missile crashes through their apartment block roof.
As Iran tries to return to normality, Shideh is rejected from continuing in her medical training due to an association with revolutionary groups. Unable to pursue her dreams she continues to raise her daughter Dorsa, as her husband Iraj carries on with his medical practice. As the bombing persists Iraj is sent to provide medical aid in a war torn area of Iran, and Shideh decides to stay put despite the looming fear of missile attacks on the city. One night a missile crashes into the roof of Shideh’s apartment block but does not detonate. As the other residents begin to flee the city Shideh refuses to budge, despite suffering from bad dreams and Dorsa demonstrating erratic behaviour. One of the residents of her block warns Shideh that Djinn could be haunting her family, stealing treasured belongings in an effort to possess their owners. However as Shideh remains dismissive, Dorsa’s favourite doll has disappeared during the shelling attack that hit their roof.
Though not an all out fright night horror film, Under the Shadow is a multilayered genre blending chiller, deftly crafted with precision. The film begins as an immersive drama following the fallout of war and revolution at home, career aspirations are desperate and the fear of attack is a constant looming presence. Shideh, a former medical student, must face the reality of being restricted to a role society wants her to abide but takes advantage of the liberty her home provides to unwind. Jealous of her husband’s duties and somewhat resentful of having to be the one to look after their daughter, Shideh struggles to acclimatise to her current setting. This part of the film is dutiful in its goal, patiently setting the stage for what follows next. Then the missile lands on their apartment block.
Following the shelling strike things begin to change dramatically. Dorsa’s doll Kimea, which her dad told her would keep her safe before leaving for the warzone, has been taken by something and she subsequently begins to develop fever like symptoms. Shideh on the other hand begins hearing and seeing things, whilst experiencing unsettling dreams, and it is here Under the Shadow kicks into chiller gear. As things go bump in the night the films layers begin to slowly peel away. The Djinn are no ugly monster or frightening beast, they’re visions out the corner of your eye, tricksters masking reality that also double as an embodiment of personal fears. Almost metaphorical ghosts of the past and present. As time wears on the happenings get worse, and the threat of attack grows ever larger.
Make no mistake Under the Shadow is not your typical tale of spirits. It won’t make you jump in the dark or hide behind a pillow, but in return it gives you a solid story more mature and thoughtful than the slew of generic crap dumped into cinemas annually. It evokes vibes from The Babadook whilst also being it’s own creeping entity, Babak Anvari is now a director to keep your eyes wide open for.