Sundance 2016: Frightening Iranian Ghost Horror 'Under the Shadow'
by Alex Billington
January 30, 2016
Sundance loves to find and premiere the next generation of horror films, and this is one of them. It's very likely most people have never seen a ghost movie like this before, which is refreshing for the genre. Under the Shadow is a horror-thriller set in Tehran, Iran, about a mother and her daughter encountering eerie supernatural forces in their bombed out building. The only worthwhile comparison to make is that this film reminded me of The Babadook, another Sundance film (from 2014), with a plot involving tensions between a mother and her child, not to mention some very creepy things going on. Under the Shadow is frightening and captivating, and while it doesn't have the most extensive mythology, it is a satisfying horror experience.
The film is set entirely in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, when both countries were bombing / attacking each other's major cities without much warning. It takes place primarily in a big apartment building, where an intelligent and independent woman named Shideh, played by Narges Rashidi, cares for her daughter Dorsa, played by Avin Manshadi. One of the remarkably shocking moments in the film is when a huge missile suddenly crashes into the building, but it doesn't explode. Instead, it smashes through the room above and pokes a hole into their ceiling. Dorsa can see djinn (the word for ghosts in Islamic mythology) but her mother cannot, and as other residents flee these djinn become increasingly malevolent.
Alas, that's pretty much the only explanation given for the supernatural side of this film, though I wish there was more to it. I was expecting they would spend a bit more time building up a mythology around these particular djinn. Instead, the film focuses on the relationship between Dorsa and Shideh, as well as a few other residents in the building. It's really great to see a smart woman leading a film like this, but she is so stubborn at times I was worried it might get annoying (thankfully it never did). Compared to The Babadook, Under the Shadow isn't as fleshed out or as expansive as that film, but it is as entertaining and thrilling to watch. It's left open for a sequel, though writer/director Babak Anvari tells a complete story with this film.
There are a number of extremely effective jump scares and freaky moments that will have you grabbing onto someone/something nearby. The supernatural aspects of the film are unique, and they never go overboard with excessive scares or unnecessary tropes. It's a simple, sleek, well-made film that above all is efficient in telling a creepy ghost story with an emotional undercurrent. It's one of the better horror films to come out of Sundance in years and I'm hopeful it will find an audience in North America. Not only will it scare the shit out of you, but maybe you'll learn a thing or two about the culture of Iran and how hard it is to be a mother when you never know if a missile is going to hit your building and destroy it. This is definitely worth seeing.
Alex's Sundance 2016 Rating: 8 out of 10
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