Under the Shadow is a Persian language horror movie set in Tehran during the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s. It is a written and directed by Iranian born Babak Anvari and is a joint production between Qatar, Jordan and the UK. Despite its wide international origins our country seems to be claiming it as its own though as it has been put forward as the British entry for Foreign Language Picture at the next Oscars. (I tend to forget that we can do that.)
It is clearly great, for diversity and authenticity, that the characters are speaking in their own tongue but a more cynical person may think the decision to make this a foreign language film is more to do with making it stand out and to give it a better chance of winning awards (just as a more cynical person once suggested about another seemingly Iranian horror film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night).
Put all of that out of your mind though and take the film at face value. Under the Shadow is a straightforward but genuinely creepy ghost film and if you want to look beneath the surface then look to the metaphor rather than any possible corporate motivations designed to garner critical appreciation and cult status. (I’m obviously trying to convince myself here. You people are all cool with it.)
Watching Under the Shadow I initially thought it was a little slow. Even though the total running time is only an hour twenty four I was beginning to think it could stand to lose ten to fifteen minutes. The first third of the movie has protagonist Shideh going about her life with a chauvinistic husband and a demanding daughter in her nice apartment in the middle of a war zone. It is compelling enough seeing her deal with prejudice and air raids but nothing much really happens. Taken as a whole though, I appreciate that this protracted beginning is essential in building the tension. Even though the supernatural elements are slow to arrive, the opening scenes really ground the film in realism making the second act all the more unsettling.
Things begin to change in the story when a missile falls through the roof of the family’s building. It doesn’t explode but it becomes evident that it has brought with it an evil spirit that is quite capable of doing a lot of damage all by itself. In line with cliché it is the little girl who sees the monster first but this is well managed and plays on Shideh’s growing sense of inadequacy as a mother which initially causes her more distress than the spooks she refuses to acknowledge. Over time though denial becomes impossible and the closing moments are a full fight against spectral entities for the soul or her child.
There are times when the scares are engineered clumsily, like one of those internet videos where something suddenly jumps out at the camera, but generally the design of the ghost has real panache. For much of the time the wraith is actually just a floating sheet but this is creepily done, renovating this tired idea and taking it back from what it has been reduced to by Scooby Doo and a million last minute Halloween costumes. This is no bed sheet with holes in, this is a ghastly manifestation of the oppressive hijab that Shideh is forced to wear out of the house and as much is a mocking representation of the patriarchy that is as much a threat to her as the supernatural invader. At one point she flees from the house in terror only to get arrested and threatened with flogging because she has left her head scarf behind.
The shadow of the title then is not just the demonic visitors, it is the danger of war and the sexist society in which she lives. All of this makes this more than just another horror movie and in the end it is this layered symbolism that actually sets it apart, not the fact that having it in a language other than English makes it a little bit art house. Only a true sceptic would suggest otherwise.