Set in 1988 Tehran during the final months of the Iran-Iraq conflict, Under the Shadow centres on a young mother, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) as the violence of their war-torn country begins to collide with the supernatural.
Forbidden to continue her medical degree due to her part in the cultural revolution, Shideh’s anguish is fuelled by her husband Iraj’s (Bobby Naderi) suggestion that it may be ”for the best” and his implications that she was more interested in her studies than raising their daughter. As tensions start to mount, Iraj is sent to the frontline and Dorsa becomes convinced that evil forces are to blame for the disappearance of her treasured doll Kimia.
Much of the inspiration for Under the Shadow was drawn from director Babak Anvari’s experiences growing up in Tehran during the war. The 33-year-old and his elder brother have been plagued with nightmares since childhood, but it wasn’t until he asked his mother about his fears that he learned she blamed herself for passing her own anxieties onto her children. It is this idea that Anvari played on when creating his heroine.
For all the film’s spectacular jump scares and haunting suspense, its true triumph is its leading lady. Frustrated by the constrictions of her society and her husband’s hypocritical attitude towards the loss of her career, Shideh seeks a sense of independence wherever she can find it. From her illegal VCR and Jane Fonda exercise tape that provides a gateway to the western world, to her removal of the compulsory chador at every opportunity and even her driver’s license – something no other woman in her apartment possesses. Her courageous character reflects Anvari’s attitude towards Iranian woman who are always ready to fight oppression.
When the drama unfolding on screen begins to morph into horror, Anvari evokes a dream-like quality to Shideh’s visions that reflect the boundaries between imagination and reality. As these ghostly encounters become increasingly vivid, Shideh attempts to convince her daughter, and later herself, that they are merely a result of paranoid superstition.
While the many scares in Under the Shadow are frightening enough to make you want to bury yourself behind a pillow whenever you sense another jump coming, it is a concept any horror fan will recognise. What is truly unique and exceptional about Anvari’s film – that is already being hailed as a horror classic by some – is his strong, deeply emphatic characters and the masterful way in which he merges the real-life horrors of war with the sinister threat posed by the supernatural demons.