'Under the Shadow' - Sociopolitical Meets Psychological Horror
Last Friday British-Iranian Filmmaker Babak Anvari's sophomore feature Wounds was released on Netflix (and Hulu in the US). It's a bizarre, at times incohesive jumbled mess of a film with a strange J-Horror influence that, whilst I didn't dislike, definitely intrigued me enough to watch it again in the future. But it made me think back to Anvari's debut again and again throughout. Under the Shadow, a Persian tale of a mother and daughter haunted during the Iran/Iraq war in the 80s, encompasses many of the traits that modern horror films are considered instant classics for. So why is it not enough people talk about Under the Shadow?
The film begins with a text crawl detailing the conflict of the longest conventional war of the twentieth century. It keeps things brief, only enough to empower the story of the film - the aftermath of a supposed revolution, the strategic bombing of Iranian cities, and that 'lives were plunged into darkness where fear and anxiety thrived'.
Cut to Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a mother stripped of her dream to become a doctor under sharia law and her rebellious past. Left alone with her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) whilst her doctor husband is enlisted for the war effort, her life consists of small escapes from the shackles of the world around her - American videotapes and a daily Jane Fonda exercise routine that she puts her all into. These are the only things that offer solace; the titular 'shadow' of sharia law and the attitudes towards women within the societal norms. This is the sociopolitical layer of the film, we'll call this layer 1.
Then we move to a commonly-referenced text - Jennifer Kent's The Babadook. Much like how Kent uses the confined space and mythology of The Babadook to crank up the tension of Amelia and her son Sammie's relationship, Anvari traps Dorsa and Shideh within their apartment for the majority of the film. Near the beginning, a bomb drops through the apartment above theirs, leaving an insidious crack in the ceiling similar to the unexploded atom bomb in Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone. Raids are commonplace, and the citizens of the apartment block hide in the basement until the sirens are gone. In a time of intense fear, Dorsa hears tale of creatures named Djinn (depending on who you ask they can range from genie-like creatures to literal demons, I'm guessing here they're more the demon variety) from a scared young mute neighbour and holds the fear of Djinn inside her - especially the fact that if they take something precious of yours, they can haunt you forever.
The central conflict of Under the Shadow is left primarily down to the audience, as they're forced to decide whether Shideh's shackled existence passes on the fear to her daughter, or whether there really is a supernatural being haunting the two of them after the strange disappearance of Dorsa's doll/protector Kimia (who her father has sworn will protect her). The tension between these two ideas is what drives the psychological aspect, this is layer 2.
Anvari offers up both answers simultaneously by fusing the layers together. For the first half of the film, Under the Shadow is almost completely void of any horror tropes or iconography. Alongside cinematographer Kit Fraser, Anvari directs the inside of Shideh's apartment with handheld and minimal movements. As the sirens blast out and panic ensues, we're kept calm and collected - this is normal life for the citizens of Tehran. Then, as neighbours within the building start moving away to safer areas, the pressure on Shideh increases. It doesn't help of course that Dorsa's becoming ill and has started acting up since Kimia disappeared.
At around the film's halfway point Anvari begins to divulge in fairly traditional horror dream sequences. He delights in the pops and sudden crashes of jumpscares which, whilst sometimes cheap, always feel justified. The camera movements become expressionist too, and the direction tighter. One dream sequence features a startling 90 degree turn to exaggerate Shideh's awakening from her dormant lifestyle. She's now let her daughter's perceived fear of the Djinn into her mind, and it's here where the film sprints to the finish line.
The Djinn or 'wind spirits' as they're referred to within the film, provide gusts that fill the film's most anxious moments. When company starts to disappear and the two are the only ones left in the building, Shideh looks out on those leaving as a violent gust of wind rattles the gates outside - the mother and daughter are now the soul playthings of either the Djinn or their own anxieties, depending on what you think. During a routine clean of the apartment, Shideh throws away the charm Dorsa is given by her mute young neighbour in an unobtrusive and passive manner because...well it's just a dust bunny. But is it? Under the Shadow is filled with little questions you ask yourself, the smaller details that ramp up your own paranoia. What did kill the old man upstairs? Did Dorsa destroy her mother's workout tape in a spiteful act of revenge?
The Djinn seemingly find a way to strip Shideh of everything that encompasses her as an individual outside of Sharia law. The two of them, after a particularly starling encounter, break free of their apartment and run off to supposed safety only to be picked up by law enforcement as Shideh forgets her garments and is chastised for not covering up. The outside world is just as scary as the one inside.
It doesn't help that the Djinn's rulebook is apparently never ending too. They can possess people, and imitate voices too, which Shideh discovers when she is verbally abused by her husband for being a poor mother. Yet at the same time, her brief discussions with her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) at the film's start proved she showed resentment towards being a mother. It's an uncomfortable question and probably the closest thing to The Babadook within the whole film.
But this is its own film of course, and even if the climax becomes steeped in horror iconography and Djinn appearances (they of course present themselves as flowing burkas in the wind - signifying the shackles of their society), Under the Shadow's buildup is better than most.
It feels like a more substantial experience thanks to the sociopolitical context that's used to strengthen these more traditional aspects. The delights and thrills of doppelgangers and jump scares mask a story of progression and individuality or of motherhood and responsibility. In the end Dorsa may get Kimia back, but Anvari's final shot lingers in the mind long after the credits roll, and depending on how you believe Shideh has developed throughout the narrative will determine whether the two are safe from Djinn in the future or not.
Under the Shadow is a rare example of a film whose narrative encapsulates the amalgamation of psychological horror and political subtext. Babak Anvari has taken a scary story that would have fallen to the wayside and injected it with purpose, meaning and poignancy. It more than deserves to be on the list of contemporary horror classics alongside the likes of The Babadook, It Follows, The VVitch and Hereditary.
I like doing these explorations/analyses of films/television shows. If you have a certain show or film or text you'd be interested in hearing my thoughts on, or if you'd be interested in contacting me about potential writing work then give me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear what you think.
Under the Shadow is now available on DVD (no blu ray unfortunately)
Both Wounds and Under the Shadow are currently available on Netflix in the UK.
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