Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Movie review: Under the Shadow

A scene from the movie Under the Shadow.
A scene from the movie Under the Shadow.

If Shideh wasn't already feeling demonised enough. She's a liberal-minded woman living in Tehran during the final years of the 1980s Iraq-Iran war.

She's lost her chance at becoming a medical doctor due to her previous political activism, having put aside her studies to raise her daughter Dorsa.

Now she is facing a cloistered life as a dutiful homemaker. Her doctor husband Iraj has been recalled to the army. He wants her to evacuate the city because of missile attacks. But she would rather stick it out, making regular trips to the basement with her neighbours when the air-raid sirens sound.

It turns out, though, that a missile through the roof is the least of Shideh's worries.

Something wicked this way comes. The pervading sense of fear seems to have conjured up something supernatural in the building.

A scene from the movie Under the Shadow.
A scene from the movie Under the Shadow.

Maybe it's something to do with the spooky mute orphan staying with his relatives downstairs who's a playmate to wee Dorsa.

The landlord's wife thinks a djinn - an evil spirit - might have taken up residence.

Soon, Shideh and Dorsa are all alone in the building and must fend for themselves.
Like the apartment block it's set in, the debut of Iranian-born British-raised director Babak Anvari works on many levels.

It starts out feeling more like a high-minded feminist drama than horror film but eventually it gives way to an unsettling ghost story.

Its mother-daughter vs paranormal nasty might sound conventional.

And while it's not above delivering some fright-flick cheap tricks - especially via a pop-up toaster and an eerie sound design - it's all there to rack up the tension as Sideh slowly unravels under the strain.

In the lead Narges Rashidi is great as the woman, who, already feeling crushed and her maternal abilities under attack by the real world, finds herself at the mercy of a supernatural one.

The little-seen djinn eschews special effects for a manifestation that is a clever visual metaphor supporting the film's allegory of female oppression.

It's all part of the film's intriguing cultural specificity, a factor that makes Under the Shadow a horror flick with an edge all its own.

That's apparent too when one of the threats Shideh faces isn't just whatever is going bump in the night. There's also the local religious constabulary who arrest her when she flees the apartment without her hijab.

Yes, if you see only one Iranian horror movie this year, make it this one. A smart choice for Halloween.

Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Nader
Director: Babak Anvari
Rating: M (Horror and supernatural themes)
Running time: 84 mins
Verdict: Smart scary Middle East horror story

- TimeOut

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