Saturday, 15 September 2018

Under the Shadow (2016)

Tehran, 1988. The Iran-Iraq War is drawing to a close. Saddam Hussein's last throw is to bombard Tehran with guided missiles. In an apartment block, a mother and daughter find themselves alone as their neighbours flee the raids. Except that Shideh and her little girl Dorsa aren't really alone. Something has arrived. Something that seeks out suffering, riding on the wind, wanting to possess mortals, body and soul. When Dorsa's favourite doll vanishes, it is the first move in a campaign to steal the child away. Mother and child are under the shadow of war, and oppression - and a paranormal threat.

Written and directed by Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow is a first rate supernatural horror film. The setting is of course original - a city under foreign attack, and also in the grip of a brutal theocracy. Before I watched the film I wondered if this background of very human evil would overwhelm the supernatural aspect. We are inured to a diet of middle-class Americans with secure lives suddenly confronting assorted spooks. Yet to Anvari it is clearly the external, worldly barbarism that empowers supernatural evil. Machen, in 'The Happy Children', took a similar line. 

Much of the film depends on the interaction between Shideh and Dorsa. Fortunately both performers are well cast. Shideh, a would-be doctor barred from study thanks to student activism, is played by Narges Rashidi with understated conviction. Shideh clearly loathes the regime - a forbidden Jane Fonda exercise video is one of her prized possessions. As Dorsa, Avin Manshadi is superb, charming even before we find that one of her favourite pop songs is 'Don't Go' by Yazoo. The dynamic between the two is always convincing, which makes the stakes even higher as things take a disturbing turn. In an American horror film we could be sure that the little girl would escape. Here there are no guarantees.

The film does use a few jump scares, but the first major shock is the Iraqi missile that strikes Shideh's building but fails to go off. The idea that an instrument of terror brings djinns to claim frightened, demoralised victims of war is a clever conceit. The first appearance of a djinn is disturbing enough, but Anvari carefully raises the stakes as the beings close in on the child, using theft and seduction to drive a wedge between Dorsa and her mother. The finale is very reminiscent of Dark Water, and I'm sure Anvari knows this, which is why he throws in an extra kink to the twist.

Under the Shadow is a deceptively straightforward, economical movie that treats the viewer as a grown-up. It's been a long time since a horror film gave me spine-chilling pleasure. This one did.

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