Review: “They travel on the wind, moving from place to place until they find someone to possess.” Let’s agree that the quote isn’t specifically describing a nature of some entities. Make it as if the quote, being stripped off its intrinsic connection, is an allusion of ‘horror’ in general; it might appear in any form, any place and to any people, just like ‘travelling on the wind.’ Be it that way, Babak Anvari’s British-Qatar-Jordan funded horror, Under the Shadow, is understandably frightening even from the subtitle precedes the whole picture.
Taking place in Tehran, Iran during the decade-long Iran-Iraq war in circa 1988, the horror in Under the Shadow is polymorphic. Nightmare comes along the missile war and the casualty, but it’s not the only form. The “other forms” are far more harrowing and suffocating; but, is Under the Shadow a simple juxtaposition of war and ghost story?
The answer is a simple, definite ‘NO.’ Babak Anvari crafts a more profound social commentary about social-politic issues in Iran with a compelling horror story in the midst of fiery war. More specifically, Anvari focuses in pointing out that woman is the most fragile host to this parasitic horror environment; and this neat-structured narrative attempts to ensure that the message is reflected effectively.
The nightmare itself revolves around the life of Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a wife of a doctor and a mother of a daughter named Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). As a protagonist in a horror film, she’s more than simply a capable persona. She’s independent, aspiring, and quick-witted; she could’ve easily survived the terror. When missiles start raining into buildings, she could easily escort her daughter to safety and even help others. She’s a downright figure even when she has to take care of the house and the daughter when her husband is stationed to other part of country. Repeatedly, Shideh is asked to leave the unsafe town to join her husband’s family in other city via phone conversation, but she keeps refusing it. Her goal is to prove that she’s not failed in acting as a mother.
Situation gets worsened when a missile hits strike at the building where Shideh lives. Instability and fear begins possessing the residents, waking suspicion and insecurity. Gradually those people moves out from the apartment; some believe that the place is haunted by djinn, an evil entity, which travels on the wind to find someone to possess, especially those under high influence of fear and anxiety. Dorsa begins to experience disturbance and weird, horrific occurrences start to happen. Shideh, who once persists, starts to melt down, she agrees to move out, but Dorsa refuses to go if her lost dolls hasn’t been found yet. Meanwhile, rumour has it if those djinns take one’s possession, that also means that they mark the unfortunate one. Even in her breakdown, Shideh still is still a reliable hero.
Although she often fights with her own hesitation to her daughter, she shows the quality of a capable mother with fascinating survival skills. Yet, djinn isn’t the only nightmare she’s been trapped into. There’s one moment when Shideh, out of her eagerness to survive, she bursts out the apartment with her daughter, thinking that she’s safe. But, she’s forgotten something essential; she forgets to cover his head in public, and that’s worth a punishment for her. As I mentioned previously, as woman in the 1980s Iran, Shideh and many other women are susceptible of any possible nightmare, and djinn might only be a beginning of it all.
Under the Shadow, with its slow pace, takes its time to build an atmospheric horror without ever explicitly shows the look of the entity. What makes it harrowing is, the entity isn’t a projection of the protagonist’s psychological circumstance. It is as real as the repression that Shideh experienced as a woman in a conflicting place. She’s been expelled from med-school due to her affiliation in political movement and she’s underestimated by society because of her role as a wife and mother. The entity of terror is also as vivid as the fundamental law, which limits woman’s choice and movement.
Sounds socio-political heavy? It is. However, Under the Shadow doesn’t allow its narrative body consumed by thought-provoking criticism in its entirety. As a horror piece, Babak Anvari’s film delivers formidable terror in its simplest and most traumatic way. The supernatural terror is depicted in a classic, non-overly jump-scare ready packs; Anvari plays with darkness and space before delivering one of the scariest apparition this year in a form of flying sheets. Yes! You read it right, flying sheets. Imagine how flying sheets could scare the hell out of the audiences; then you could imagine how such a horror beauty is crafted.
As much as Anvari’s clever narrative is socio-political heavy as well as domestic, it makes a beautiful horror without forcing the apparition to appear on-screen. In the end, people are afraid of what they don’t understand, right? What if they don’t understand the poltergeist, the paranormal activity and… society? Will they be afraid?