Horror cinema has always been a haven for strong female characters, even if those characters are placed into a viciously skewed psychosexual dynamic where promiscuity is violently punished and virtue gives only the promise of making it to the third act, they are still given agency and an effort towards character development in a cinematic world where women are so frequently used as little more than glorified set dressing in overbearingly male environments. But there’s been a welcome shift from the notion of ‘The Final Girl’ in recent international horror offerings such as The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night or Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow (playing at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival) in which the women are given rich interior lives that allow for the horrors they encounter to be an obstacle to be mediated, not simply survived.
Set largely in an apartment complex in 1988 Tehran, the film places us directly in the emotional maelstrom that is Shideh’s (a tremendous performance from Narges Rashidi) life as Iraq and Iran are in the throes of battle. As missiles and mortars shake the literal ground they walk on, Shideh must also deal with the fact that she is barred from continuing her medical education as a result of the outspoken stance she took during the recently concluded revolution. She faces this oppression as any woman in the late 80’s would – with gritted teeth, and vigorous exercise to Jane Fonda workout tapes she has hidden like the contraband they are alongside her TV. When her husband (a practicing doctor, a fact which only further chafes Shideh’s sense of self-worth) is drafted into the battle, she is left alone with her cherubic daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi, equally great) who clings to her beloved doll with an intensity of a child living in fear. As the attacks on Tehran ramp up in intensity, so do the supernatural happenings in their apartment complex: a doll suddenly goes missing, a mute neighbor speaks, and the cracks in the ceiling from an undetonated missile (shades of Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone) begin to pulsate with an evil intensity. And while she initially laughs off a neighbor’s premonition that they are being plagued by a Djinn, the mounting evidence and bleeding of Shideh’s nightmares into her reality suggest that this may in fact be the case.
Having a protagonist like this in a setting like that could easily lead to an overbearing attempt at blending thematic concerns with visceral ones, but Under the Shadow toes this line confidently, never addressing its social concerns in too obvious or arch a manner – no mean feat in a film where the spectral horror often manifests itself as a floating hijab. There are two occasions in the film where Shideh is confronted with the reality of her standing as a woman in this society, one early on where she must mask her emotional state at a roadside checkpoint and another where she flees her home in fear without donning the traditional garb required of a woman venturing outside. It speaks to the power of the film that these intrusions of reality aren’t leaden bromides that leave a lingering taste of cultural vegetables, instead serving to enrich the isolation and emotional turmoil Shideh is in and providing a common sense explanation for what in lesser hands might seem to be an inexplicable desire to deal with these problems alone. The setting also serves to amplify the few times the movie goes in for the traditional horror movie ‘jump scare’; confronted with a society that is literally being blown to pieces around them, sudden fear-inducing jolts delivered with concussive intensity don’t seem like much of a cheat.
What comes through so strongly throughout is Anvari’s sure hand as a first time feature film director. He builds his tension exquisitely, with a sure sense of scale and isolation, slowly turning the screws on this mother/daughter duo without losing track of the emotional core that is this mother/daughter relationship. He also deftly handles cultural critique in the body of his horror, allowing the ghost that plagues them to be nearly interchangeable with the oppression of the society at large (a moment where Shideh is enveloped by the evil she faces late in the movie is potent both as metaphor and as pure visceral filmmaking). By the movie’s end you’re unsure if this evil spirit that oppresses the family is something that can be overthrown, transforming the horror movie cliché of unstoppable evil into a provocative social inquiry.
Under the Shadow plays twice more at the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival and receives my highest recommendation; it screens Wednesday, September 28 at 9:45 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre, and this Sunday, October 2 at 9:45 p.m. at the Times Cinema. Tickets can be purchased here.