It's getting harder and harder to do new things with horror. As technology evolves and the skin of the audience toughens up to meet that of Leatherface, sometimes you have to look to other people - and places - to provide fresher and better alternatives. This is where low budget Iranian film Under the Shadow comes in, possibly the first Farsi-language film to find success in the horror mainstream. Festival audiences shrieked their way through it earlier this year, and now it's back to haunt us some more. Combining the horrors of war with the horrors of scary ghosties, Under the Shadow is unlike anything else you will see in a cinema this year.
The first feature film effort of Iranian director Babak Anvari,Under the Shadow takes place in war-torn Tehran in 1988. The terrors and conflict of the post-revolution linger daily; the sound of missile attacks as ubiquitous as an icecream truck in summer.
The film follows a woman named Shideh (played by Narges Rashidi) and her family, living in the midst of the War of the Cities. Accused of rebelling by the government, she is blacklisted from medical school and begins to fall into despondence.
Faced to raise her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in the face of earth-shattering violence, Shideh's mental state slowly declines. After the sinister death of an elderly neighbour, evil forces appear to have taken hold of their apartment building. This is where the real horror kicks in, blurring the lines between her visions and the supposed haunting of their apartment building by a cursed Middle Eastern spirit called a djinn.
Much like Australian festival smash The Babadook, a blood-curdling exploration of a mother's grief, Under the Shadow becomes as much an exercise in isolation and fear in times of conflict as it is a movie about spooky ghosts.
With a minimal budget, Anvari still manages to deliver a wholly unnerving universe. This isn't one a trillion-dollar war film; you won't see giant explosions or soldiers in combat. Instead, scenes like a giant undetonated missile lodged through a living room ceiling serve to represent the ever-present threat of violence in times of civil unrest.
On the supernatural side of things, Anvari reminds us that CGI and and flashy effects have nothing on a well-placed billowy sheet and the suggestion of a ghoul under a bed.
Narges Rashidi as Shideh creates a chilling portrait of a mother at the end of her tether, simultaneously trying to protect her child while fearing the evil forces that may or may not be inside her. Her one escape comes in the novelty form of a Jane Fonda workout video, which she dutifully follows once a day. It's an ironic nod to the comparable absurdity and vapidness of mainstream and US culture from a completely different context. When the djinn invades her home and the tape is ruined, it's the final straw. Shideh confronts the paranormal force in her own home and the audience is there for every scream along the way.
For those who think the horror genre is just full of monstrous men in masks and mindless women in bras, Under the Shadow will shatter your expectations completely.
The despair and hopelessness of Rashidi's Shideh is a gripping portrait of a woman left to hold everything together - including herself. It's a nuanced domestic study that happens to also contain very scary moments. Knitting together social commentary, historical context with an entrenched mainstream genre, Anvari's debut to feature film-making is a must-see.