31 Days of Halloween — Day 9: Under the Shadow (2016) — by Dr. Shock

31 Days of Halloween - Under the Shadow 2016

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.”

—Dr. Shock

Dr. Shock’s links:
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3 thoughts on “31 Days of Halloween — Day 9: Under the Shadow (2016) — by Dr. Shock


    Day 09 – The Brood

    Famed Canadian director, David Cronenberg, has always been a filmmaker who I’ve felt as if I haven’t seen nearly enough of his work. Looking over his IMDb credits, it does seem as if I’ve slowly been working through his filmography, most recently watching the bizarre Videodrome. In my desire to watch more of Cronenberg, I set out to watch a Cronenberg movie I had been meaning to watch for over a decade now – The Brood. As it turns out, I should not have been dragging my feet on this brilliant film. It’s certainly bizarre like Videodrome, but The Brood actually excels at making enough sense instead of having the credits roll and even though I enjoyed what I saw, also feeling as if I didn’t understand what I had just watched such as how I felt after seeing Videodrome.

    The Brood is not afraid to go extremes. While there’s not many kills and it’s mostly a movie of non-stop talking, when the film does show a kill, it instantly grabs your attention. I loved the small, dwarf like creatures that were set out to punish everyone that had caused Nola harm. The first time we see such a creature, it comes as a complete surprise. Without knowing much about The Brood before watching it, with the way the movie was beginning, I was expecting nothing more than an unusual thriller with perhaps a few sci-fi aspects thrown in. So imagine my surprise as a dwarf breaks out of a refrigerator and brutally murders Nola’s mother in the kitchen while Nola’s young daughter, Candice, is just in the other room. It was sudden, bloody, and immediately caused me to pay close attention to the rest of the film.

    The most shocking death in the entire movie though would come to Candice’s teacher, Ruth Mayer. The fact that she died wasn’t what surprised me. After all, she’s a minor character in a horror movie and clearly resembled a character designed to be in the movie just to be killed off. Yet, what was shocking was the manner in which she died. With two dwarfs walking into the classroom, easily able to hide amongst the similarly sized children, and suddenly attacking Ruth with classroom objects as weapons in front of all of the children. I don’t know if I can say I’ve ever watched a horror movie where a murder happens in front of children. When it first looked as if the dwarfs were going to attack the teacher, I thought for sure that the film would have frequent cuts with closeups of the attacks and then cuts of the children’s expressions, clearly showing that the children were recorded at a separate time, keeping them from having to see this act of violence. Instead, no, the children are shown in the same shot as the dwarfs attacking their teacher and bludgeoning her to death. It makes me wonder what Cronenberg did on that day to ensure those children weren’t traumatized for real.

    The most horrific moment of the entire film came near the end when Nola’s mental illness caused her to utter a line that was extremely disturbing. Fearing that her husband will take Candice away from her for good, Nola screamed that she’ll kill Candice before ever losing her. I’m not even a parent, but that line still hit me hard because of how real of a line it is. Unfortunately in this world, real life horror like that happens far too often. That final act in general was pretty fantastic with the initial reveal of the dwarfs officially being connected to Nola. It only got weirder once Frank rushed to take Candice away from Dr. Raglan’s Somafree Institute when he learns just how connected Nola is to her dwarfs and reveals her naked form, complete with a new dwarf being “Born”. The reveal and sight of her bizarre body was unexpected and grossly fascinating. Speaking of Dr. Raglan, I loved that throughout the movie, the viewer is left unsure of what to make of Raglan. Is he a cult leader, someone who is obsessed with Nola, or someone who stumbled onto something and is just so over his head? The mystery of who Raglan is and his true intentions was the other main reason, besides the gnarly dwarf based kills, that kept this viewer watching.

    Overall, The Brood is yet another utterly insane David Cronenberg film that manages to be one of his best movies that I’ve seen. There were plenty of surprises, gross effects, and mystery that keeps you interested. I would be curious to see how it holds up on a second watch, now knowing exactly what happens in the film. For now though, I loved it and realize I should have watched it ages ago.

    Rating: 9/10

  2. Well I’m a little behind with my viewing and I heartily applaud those going to great lengths to watch and review each day!

    My movie today was Ravenous (1999) starring Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle.
    I knew this film was highly regarded and was essentially about cannibalism, but that was all I knew. I was not expecting what I got. The film threw me from the very opening credits, which I’m not going to spoil, but certainly suggested to me that I was getting a comedy! Combine that with the unique score from Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn (of Blur and the Gorillaz) and I was knocked off balance.

    The film has been described as Fantasy, Thriller, Slasher, Horror and even a Horror Western. Perhaps my lack of knowledge of western movies is the reason it didn’t resonate with me. I don’t want to say too much, because I would just love others to have the same ‘cold’ viewing experience and let me know what you think.

    I did enjoy the film, it was an unusual experience but I can’t say whether it kept me interested because of what was happening on screen or because I was waiting for something more. Ultimately I appreciated the dark humour more than the horror in the film, but neither was consistent enough to satisfy. Probably because of my high expectations I ended up disappointed by the film and my rating would be somewhere around 6/10.

  3. Day 9: The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

    Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard turn horror movie tropes and expectations on their head in The Cabin in the Woods. While the film starts out like a typical teen slasher narrative it becomes something very different and satisfying in the end. There is a delightful abundance of monsters, ghosts, and zombies for any horror fan. The film does a great job blending scares and comedy making for an entertaining watch even on repeat viewings. 8.5/10

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