Under the Shadow (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Under the Shadow,” an inspired horror picture written and directed by Babak Anvari, is the phrase “horrors of war” made literal. It is a patient, careful, and precise piece of work that fascinates from the moment it begins up until the very end because the viewers are not given a complete answer as to whether whatever is going on is simply in the heads of its characters or whether the paranormal occurrences are real. The final shot of the camera looking toward a clear blue sky despite the ruins all around captures the idea that the material is all about perspective.
There are not many scares but nearly all of them are effective. This is because Anvari understands common fears, ones that transcend culture, and he uses them to jolt us into paying attention when a thing busts out from nowhere, to creep us out when there is a suspiciously large negative space, and to terrify us when a creature from under the bed, real or imagined, is front and center. The writer-director is able to deliver a consistent, increasing tension by means of introducing another interesting piece just when we are about to recover fully from a previous encounter.
Set in a post-revolution Tehran in the late 1980s, we get a real sense of space and feeling. It is intriguing that the material works as a drama if the horror elements were taken away. Notice how the camera is unafraid to settle on faces thereby highlighting the humanity of this particular story. When the sirens go off and the residents of the building come running downstairs toward the bomb shelter, we feel a different type of fear as opposed to when the mother and daughter, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), respectively, are alone in their home, sleeping, and about to be terrorized awake by, presumably, ghostly supernatural forces.
Because I love horror films rooted in a specific culture, I wished, that the so-called Djinn was explored further for those unfamiliar with Islamic mythology. We learn a little bit about how it travels and what circumstances it is attracted towards, but the rest is up to us to interpret—which may not be as interesting given that western audiences are likely to inject western shadings to something that is specific to a certain culture. It is a disappointment that Anvari chooses not to provide more details about the Djinn given that nearly everything else about the work are specific yet detailed.
Unlike generic western horror films, “Under the Shadows” is not interested in being loud or ostentatious. Rather, it is interested in the quiet and the voices one hears, which may be coming from within, when one is stuck in a dark room, completely paralyzed out of fear due to the possibility that just few feet away a malevolent entity is simply waiting to be touched by the living, so that they, too, for a moment can feel alive. The picture offers some images that not only linger in the mind but stick there like gum.