Editor’s note: Dave “Dr. Shock” Becker is a host on Horror Movie Podcast, Universal Monsters Cast and Land of the Creeps horror podcasts. He is also the mastermind behind DVDInfatuation.com, a movie review blog where he is watching and posting one review every day until he reaches at least 2,500 movie reviews. Follow Doc on Twitter: @DVDinfatuation.
I’m definitely “a list guy.” I love movie lists of all kinds and am especially fond of yearly Top 10 lists, where critics and fans alike clue us in as to which films were their favorites of that particular year.
Of course, there’s a downside to compiling such a list: Odds are you missed a few of the movies released over the past 12 months, and it’s possible that a film you haven’t seen yet would have cracked your Top 10, had you watched it in time.
Such is the case with the 2016 Iranian-produced horror flick, “Under the Shadow.” Simply put, it is a tremendous picture, and had I caught up with it, there’s no doubt it would have made my Top 10 Horror Films of that year. In fact, “Under the Shadow” is so good that it might have filled a spot on my Overall Top 10, as well.
Tehran, 1988. The Iran-Iraq War rages on and has now reached the city (Iraq pelts the Iranian capital with missiles on an almost-daily basis). After being refused a chance to continue her medical training (due to her past political activism), Shideh (Narges Rashidi) slips into the role of a housewife, and when her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is drafted into the army, she and their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) find themselves alone in their spacious apartment (for their safety, Iraj begs his wife to take Dorsa and move in with his family in the country, but the stubborn Shideh refuses to abandon her home).
As the days pass, Dorsa begins to complain that she’s afraid, and doesn’t want to be left alone or sleep in her own bed at night. When Shideh asks her why, the young girl confesses that one of her playmates, the nephew of their landlord, told her that a Djinn, a malevolent spirit that haunts the living, has found its way into their building and is looking for someone to torment. Shideh tries to calm her daughter’s fears by explaining that ghosts are a myth, but when Dorsa’s favorite doll goes missing, the poor girl is convinced it was taken by the Djinn.
Try as she might, Shideh cannot find the doll, and after a few creepy experiences of her own, she begins to wonder if Dorsa’s Djinn is, in fact, make-believe, or if it is very real.
Over the years, I’ve grown weary of jump scares, especially when they’re part of a dream sequence, yet writer / director Babak Anvari has managed to incorporate both of these now-tired clichés into “Under the Shadow” and make them damn effective to boot (I jumped each and every time I was supposed to, and because the film’s overall style remains consistent throughout, we’re never quite sure when Shideh is awake and when she is dreaming).
The war also plays an integral part in the story, bringing an added level of tension to what is ultimately a very intense situation. To escape the bombings, the building’s other residents temporarily move away, leaving Shideh and her daughter to fend for themselves (Shideh has promised Dorsa they won’t leave until they’ve found her beloved doll). In addition, one of the film’s most memorable scenes involves an unexploded missile that crashes into the upstairs apartment, leaving a crack in Shideh’s ceiling that figures prominently once the supernatural thrills are in full swing.
Also worth noting is the film’s strong central character (wonderfully portrayed by Narges Rashidi), and when you take into account the setting and the time period in which this tale is set, the fact that the character is female is doubly impressive. I’m not sure if the laws have relaxed over the years, but in the ‘80s all Iranian women were forced to wear a chador in public, and after a particularly harrowing encounter with the Djinn, Shideh grabs her daughter and rushes outside, only to be taken into custody by the military and threatened with a whipping (because she didn’t cover her head before she left the apartment). The Djinn proves to be a formidable foe throughout “Under the Shadow,” but for progressive-minded women in 1980’s Iran, tradition and law could sometimes be just as frightening.
That said, the most notable aspect of “Under the Shadow” is the entity that haunts both mother and daughter. Over the course of the film, we do learn a little about the Djinn; according to legend, it moves with the wind, and there’s no telling where it will turn up or who it will bother.
Also, Djinns supposedly steal a prized possession from the person or persons they’ve focused their attention on, and until that item is recovered, the Djinn will be able to track its victim’s every move (it can follow them to the ends of the earth, if necessary). These bits of ghostly trivia aside, we know nothing about the spirit that has settled in Shideh’s apartment building, including what form it will take (mostly seen as a floating chador, it can also resemble people they know) or why it chose Shideh and Dorsa as its prime targets. From start to finish, the Djinn at the center of “Under the Shadow” remains an enigma, and this makes it all the more terrifying.
As we mentioned in our year-end show on Horror Movie Podcast, some truly excellent horror films were released in 2016, which made compiling a Top 10 for that episode a bit of a challenge. Still, I have no doubt I could have found room for “Under the Shadow” on my list, had I seen it in time.
My Overall Top 10, though (which includes all genres), is another matter entirely.
Right now, “The Witch” is resting comfortably in the 10 spot on my 2016 list, and while I really enjoyed “Under the Shadow,” I can’t say with any degree of certainty that I prefer it to director Robert Eggers’ indie sensation.
One day in the near future, I hope to watch both “The Witch” and “Under the Shadow,” back-to-back, to decide once and for all which movie will fill that final spot on my 2016 list. But regardless of which one I ultimately choose, “The Witch” is an extraordinary motion picture. And so, for that matter, is “Under the Shadow.”
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