It’s been a good year for horror (on and off screen). Robert Eggers’ masterful The Witch led a field that includes several impressive non-english language offerings, including Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing and Julia Ducournou’s Raw. However, a particular standout is Babak Anvari’s Iran-set chiller Under the Shadow, which focuses on the haunting of a mother and daughter in war torn Tehran.
Under the Shadow draws inevitable comparisons with Ana Lily Amirpour’s vampire tale A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Admittedly, both films are shot in Farsi and set in Iran with female protagonists, and both were filmed and financed outside of Iran. However, despite the connections of genre, gender and the films’ multinational mosaic-like productions, they are ultimately quite distinct works. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was made in Southern California by an American director and production team. Shot in chiaroscuro black and white, the empty streets and steaming oil refinery chimneys make the fictional setting of “Bad City” feel like a location outside of geographical space. This is an imaginary world that exists in a kind of “no place,” where characters happen to speak Farsi because what language should one speak in an imaginary world? If anything, the dusty and threatening desert setting connects visually to the border towns of Sergio Leone’s Westerns – arguably suffering from their own crises of location and identity (filmed in Spain with an Italian cast and crew, yet dubbed in English and set in Mexico and the USA).
Under the Shadow, whilst having been filmed in Jordan and financed by a UK production company, is explicitly set in a defined time and place: Tehran in the 1980s during the conflict between Iran and Iraq. This setting, aligned with the opening scene that shows protagonist Shideh (Narges Rashidi) being told that she will not be allowed to continue her medical studies due to her connections with left wing groups, immediately establishes the film’s intent to engage politically with regional conflict — conflict between authority and civilians, and conflict between genders. A bold statement, and a startling moment for the audience, is when it becomes clear that Shideh doesn’t wear a headscarf in her apartment. Iranian women do, of course, remove their headscarves in private, but never on screen. The Iranian Council of Public Culture deem these scenes to be “public” as men might be watching the film (which raises a whole fascinating debate about the relationship between a film and its audience). Thus, if you watch (e.g.) an Asghar Farhadi film, women will always retain their headgear. Given the outsider position of his film, Anvari presumably faced no such costuming restrictions, but it remains a conscious and powerfully stylistic choice, particularly as it may threaten the film’s exhibition in Iran.
Briefly put, Under the Shadow concerns Shideh and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) who, following Shideh’s husband Iraj’s (Bobby Naderi) departure to the frontline of the Iranian-Iraqi war, live alone in a Tehran apartment. After an unexploded missile crashes through the roof of the apartment during one of the nightly air-raids, Shideh and Dorsa’s neighbours flee the city for the relative safety of the country. Finding themselves initially reluctant to leave, and then with nowhere to go, psychological cracks begin to appear between mother and daughter. Both are subject to terrifying visions and encounters. Are these manifestations of interior strain, or are they haunted by a demonic djinn?
The progression towards the eventual horror setup of isolation is deliberate, yet relentless. Director Anvari moves from the carnage of the bombing raids and proliferation of panicked residents to the empty and silent building where any offscreen noise drips with horrific possibility. This is the familiar territory of Hideo Nakata’s atmospheric Dark Water, which placed a mother and daughter in a near-deserted tower block in Tokyo. The effect of situating vulnerable characters (either solitary or young) in these vast and threatening environments evokes two responses in the viewer. Either one internally screams: “please stay in this room, do not investigate the noise upstairs,” or one incredulously complains: “why on earth are you living in this destitute and terrifying place? Why not just leave?” Whilst Dark Water evades this logical inconsistency by ignoring it, Under the Shadow makes it an integral part of its narrative and political heft.
Much of Under the Shadow is constructed around the accessibility and inaccessibility of openings and entrances, permissions to travel and a person’s (particular a women’s) ability to to command their space/home. Despite the pleas of her husband, Shideh initially refuses to leave her home. She would rather endure the bombings than subject herself to the critical gaze of Iraj’s parents in the countryside. They are not the only characters to take offense to Shideh’s desire for education and a career — her status as an, albeit temporary, single mother makes her even more disreputable (both her car and Jane Fonda exercise tapes seem particularly transgressive). She does her best to secure the various entrances: locks on the door, taped “Xs” on the windows to lessen the danger from blowouts and tape across that (really rather worrying) crack in the ceiling. As Shideh and Dorsa’s predicament becomes increasingly disturbing, the impetus turns to escape. Here the film takes a malevolent Luis Buñuel/Franz Kafka turn, as it transpires that exiting is impossible. Doors will now not open, whilst that crack in the ceiling keeps getting wider. Neighbours and family have turned from disapproving to outright abusive. Should Shideh escape her apartment, there is always some irresistible force drawing her back. Occasionally this is because her daughter’s treasured doll Kimia needs retrieving (Shideh already feels like a neglectful parent for losing the doll, a present from Dorsa’s father), or, more freakishly, when she hears Dorsa call out for help — despite Dorsa seemingly holding her hand by her side. The corridors and stairways (intermittently dark due to rolling blackouts) of the building never lead to the street. Instead, they take Shideh up to the cratered rooftop or down into the airless basement raid shelter. On one occasion, the outside world is finally accessed, only for the panic stricken mother and daughter to be detained for breaking curfew, and sent back home under the threat of lashes.
Shideh now becomes stuck in a liminal state of existence. She is imprisoned in her home, threatened not only by the destructive forces of the bombs, but also by the supernatural force of the djinn. Yet authority decrees that she cannot leave. The same authority that refused her resumption of medical school, originally condemning her to the domestic roles of motherhood and housekeeper (also related is her husband’s departure to the frontlines in his capacity as a medic – his occupation effectively nullifies any chance she had of performing a similar job). The irony here is that, having lost all sense of her home as sanctuary, Shideh is effectively homeless, and the psychological strain leads to an increasingly toxic relationship with her daughter. In this film, these invisible walls that keep women in social and domestic conditions lead to poisonous representations of archetypical feminine roles such as mother, daughter, wife, etc.
It is telling that Dorsa seeks an alternative maternal presence in the ghostly Djinn. The terrifying and threatening spirit is, despite its purported evil, a more attractive parental figure than the psychologically cracked Shideh. In one memorable sequence, Shideh and Dorsa become trapped in the swirling and binding fabric of the Djinn’s chador. It is a frightening and disorientating moment, yet also connotes a sense of swaddling and comforting. In fact, once the debris has settled, it’s not easy to pinpoint the spectre as incontrovertibly harmful. The line between how much of the haunting is due to an ungodly spirit and how much is a manifestation of a strained filial relationship is unclear. One cannot be sure who exactly is responsible for obviously malicious acts such as mutilating Dorsa’s doll, particularly given Shideh’s history of sleepwalking when stressed.
This ambiguity is aided by the concealment of the Djinn; Anvari never reveals a fully “unveiled” monster. The true identity is kept opaque, allowing viewers to fill in the (literal) blank within the floating, silken chador. This is a welcome contrast to James Wan’s summer megahit The Conjuring 2 which, despite a 132-minute running time (by contrast Under the Shadow skips along at 84 minutes), unmasked its antagonist before the opening credits. Equally, when compared to leaner recent horror films such as Hush, Don’t Breathe and The Shallows, Under the Shadow is content to withhold its main terrors until the last act, leading to a greater sense of tension and an ultimate catharsis that the narrative, characters and viewers deserve.
Under the Shadow is an admirable film, albeit not wholly original. I’ve mentioned the debt to Dark Water (which itself contains an explicit reference to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which whilst being a great gag, serves to completely dissipate the tension which Nakata worked so hard to weave, and other critics have mentioned the mother-child dyad of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, the unexploded-bomb-as-metaphor in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, the masking taped doors in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse and the crack in the wall-as-mental-breakdown imagery from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Under the Shadow wears its influences comparatively lightly to, say, It Follows. In defence of David Robert Mitchell’s masterful film, It Follows uses its references very deliberately. From Disasterpeace’s John Carpenter/Fabio Frizzi inspired score to a multitude of 1970s/80s horror film references, the aim of It Follows was to inspire childhood nostalgia in its audience so that it might investigate youth specific traumas such as school bullying, puberty, parental neglect and social anxiety.
Ultimately, I believe that horror cinema’s tendency to speak to itself lends it an endurance and cohesion beyond that of other genres. The tropes, codes and motifs of horror are so binding that no one great horror film exists sui generis (as meta-horror films such as Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods and Wes Craven’s Scream series have exploited so ingeniously). This also creates a particular language of horror, impenetrable for the uninitiated, but available for all who are willing to be converted. In this sense, horror is a truly collective genre. This also allows Under the Shadow to anchor itself in a familiar milieu, and then use that as a launching pad to create something thrilling and new.
George Crosthwait is a PhD candidate and teaching assistant at King’s College London. He is currently writing a doctoral thesis on self-reflexive Hollywood cinema and spends his spare time watching John Carpenter films or listening to John Carpenter’s music.