This Farsi-language maternal horror film was one of the great discoveries at this year’s Horror Channel FrightFest.
Opening with an explanatory text that places the film within the context of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Under the Shadow firmly grounds its horror in the doubly terrifying realities of a conflict zone and a harsh authoritarian regime. Slowly building up the tension, the film initially centres on the frustrations of Shideh, a young mother banned from continuing her medical studies because of her past political activism. The grinding down of women takes many forms in post-revolution Iran, from the active repression of the authorities to the incomprehension of her generally kind husband, who seems unable to sympathize with her ambitions.
When he is drafted and sent to the front, Shideh finds herself alone to care for their young daughter Dorsa, stubbornly refusing to leave the city to go and stay with her in-laws. As the bombardments intensify, a missile falls through the apartment above, and superstitious neighbours begin to whisper that it has brought something sinister with it. Rational and modern, Shideh initially dismisses the claims, but soon she is forced to take her daughter’s mounting fears seriously.
The realistic start and slow-burn narrative make the terrors that follow intensely affecting. Shideh is a character out of place in her country, in her apartment block and in her own marriage, and her feelings of inadequacy wildly erupt once the missile has broken through the familiar ordering of reality. The cracks in the ceiling it has caused cannot be closed up, the irrational forces it unleashed now out of control. Maternal anxiety, at odds with Shideh’s longing for a medical career, poignantly seeps through the second part of the film, her conflicted love for her daughter making every scare horribly meaningful.
After A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, this is the second Farsi-language horror film that uses the chador in a menacing way, but where in Ana Lily Amirpour’s film it took on a positive meaning, here it has negative, frightful, oppressive connotations. The use of the chador in Under the Shadow is one example of how the film successfully manages to be both a serious reflection on the position of women in Iran and an intensely creepy horror film. Intelligent and effectively chilling, it wisely avoids providing any facile resolution in its climactic ending.