It is the 1980s and, in war-torn post-revolution Tehran, young mother, Shideh (Narges Rashidi), struggles to look after her young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshedi). Shideh’s husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is a doctor, and when he’s called away to work at the front line, Shideh feels horribly isolated in her city apartment. She has long wanted to be a doctor herself but, because of her political activism whilst at university, she’s been banned from ever pursuing such a career. Indeed, she has to keep many things secret – even the fact that she owns a VCR on which she watches Jane Fonda workout videos – and naturally, like all women in the city, she can no longer be seen out on the streets without covering her hair with a hijab.
A near miss from an Iraqi missile, plunges her apartment block into turmoil and things get even more complicated, when neighbours start muttering about the presence of Djins – evil spirits, borne on the wind, that seek to take everything from their chosen victims. At first, Shideh dismisses the notion as superstitious nonsense but, as inexplicable occurrences begin to mount, she starts to believe that there may actually be something in the stories; and that one of the things these shadowy creatures wish to take from her is her daughter…
Under the Shadow uses all the tropes of the contemporary horror movie to tell its story – there are jump-cuts and scare moments aplenty here, all of them skilfully executed; but writer/director Babak Abvari’s assured story is quite clearly an allegory, one that relates to the oppressive situation that Shideh finds herself in, while the collapsing apartment building is clearly a comment on her own mental disintegration, as well as the country’s demise. If it reminds me of another film, it’s Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, where Catherine Deneuve goes through a similar process but, where she is alone, Shideh has her vulnerable daughter to worry about (a delightful performance from young Manshedi). As the slow-burning tale builds steadily towards its catharsis, the audience is drawn deeper and deeper into a world of mounting terror.
The intriguing conclusion eloquently points out that the impact of war and the suppression of individuality have a long-lasting effect on their victims. Abvari should be congratulated. He’s created a film that offers everything you’d expect in a successful horror movie… and a good deal more besides.