Under the Shadow Review


Babak Anvari’s Farsi-language horror is an absolute belter. It’s set in Tehran during the height of the Iran-Iraq war and the city’s remaining inhabitants are well accustomed to the sight of bombs dropping out of the sky. It’s become part of everyday life, so much so that aspiring doctor Shideh (the excellent Narges Rashidi) finds her attention elsewhere. She’s still reeling from the loss of her mother when past political activism catches up with her and she’s barred from medical school.

With her dreams freshly dashed, life in the small, two-bedroom apartment she shares with young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) and husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is anything but sunshine and lollipops. The latter works – of course – as a doctor, a fact that rams home Shideh’s crushing disappointment and serves as a constant reminder of the limitations imposed by an oppressive, patriarchal regime. It’s a superbly handled set-up, Anvari adding some real meat to the bones before the malevolent supernatural forces come out to play.

The shift towards more traditional genre territory comes when Iraj gets called away to the front line. Shideh is left to care for Dorsa on her own and as more and more Iraqi missiles rain down, everything – including recognisable reality – begins to unravel. Crucially, though, nothing is rushed. A rocket comes crashing through the roof of their building, but it doesn’t detonate. Instead of instant death it brings creeping dread, whispers slowly spreading among the twitchier tenants that Djinn may be at their door.

To begin with the stubborn, strong-minded Shideh is having none of it. Stories of demonic spirits who come riding in on the wind to terrorize the living are exactly that – stories. Or are they? As the situation takes its toll the questions start stacking up. Why can’t Dorsa find her favourite doll? Why did Shideh find her 80s-tastic exercise tape shredded up and thrown in the trash? When the missile hit did her elderly neighbour die of a sudden heart attack, or was it something else? Something more sinister?

Aside from a couple of the irritating jump scares that are now par for the course, Anvari judges things just right. Considering this is his first feature he’s impressively assured, mostly opting to keep things quiet and low-key until all the pieces are in place. His patience definitely pays off. A woozy, pulsating score adds to the growing sense of unease and when at last the curtain is fully pulled back the search for a stuffed toy has morphed into a mother’s desperate battle for her daughter’s soul.