Film Review – Under the Shadow (2016)

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Set in the late 1980’s during the Iran/Ba’athist Iraq war, and made by a film-maker who survived a childhood forged in post-revolutionary Tehran, Under the Shadow makes a real case for being the most politically edifying horror film of the year.

But is it actually Scary ?

Feisty Shideh is struggling to cope with her anxious young daughter Dorsa after her husband deserts them for the front line. With nothing but a rapidly degenerating Jane Fonda Workout tape to preserve her sanity, the pressure mounts for her to abandon the beleaguered capital.

But, the ferociously stubborn Shideh refuses to be seen as human “shrapnel” in the eyes of her extended family, and elects to batten down the flimsy hatches of her apartment instead.

As the bombing offensive intensifies so does Shideh’s nightmare existence, and when a missile punctures her building but fails to detonate, they appear to of had a lucky escape. However, it soon transpires that the projectile has still managed to deliver an explosive payload….. of pure evil.

In order to clear the decks for some serious scaremongering the deceptively profound Under the Shadow triggers a number of narrative trapdoors quite early on, ensnaring Shideh in a folklore fashioned maternal straitjacket and subjecting her,and us, to a relentless assault of wonderfully orchestrated jump-scares.

These nerve vandalising set pieces are cemented liberally betwixt the powerful strata of social commentary and brooding feminism. They are manufactured from subtle camera tricks culled from the great masters, and seamlessly blended CGI chicanery that will put the willies up you for weeks.

The acting is solidly authentic, especially from the classy Narges Rashidi as the gracefully tough lead. There are times when you worry  for her safety at the hands of the religious regime just as much as the diabolical djinn and that is a credit to her artistry.

Just like our heroine in his debut film, director Babak Anvari found solace and distraction in an illegally owned VCR. An adolescence spent gorging on a diet of VHS horror leaves behind a fascinating filter, through which this intimate depiction of the hopeless isolation of war, must pass.

Of course, this terrifying tank of slow burn anxiety-fuel leaves a flammable trail that leads directly to The Babadook. Paradoxically, the mother and child meet malevolent mind-fucker scenario is rendered with less subtlety here, and yet Under the Shadow attains a more richly complex, thematically layered texture.

Be warned, one configuration Under the Shadow clearly shares with the intelligent Aussie shocker is the secret recipe for industrial strength cinematic Marmite. Gorehounds will be left licking their own balls with boredom as they endure a total drought of the red stuff, and many a rave review will be met by a wave of baffled indifference.

To be honest, a low budget, Persian language, supernatural drama may not top your horror shopping list. But, in reality, whilst Under the Shadow may not occupy the same shelf space as mainstream fright films, it definitely owns the aisle.

The unorthodox geographical and cultural backdrop spices up familiar genre tropes no end, but this muscular little fright-flick never forgets its primary mandate is to put the fear of god into its audience.

There is a bitter-sweet irony beating at the heart of Anvari’s mosaical masterpiece that will see this picture surface in his homeland, not as a celebrated triumph, but in the same illegal, bootlegged form that originally spawned it.

And yes……. it’s fucking scary.

[rating=5] | Bradley Hadcroft

Horror, Supernatural |Iran, 2016 |Cert 15 |84 mins|USA Vertical Entertainment, Limited cinema and VOD October 7th, 2016/ UK Vertigo Releasing, Limited cinema release Out Now  / Netflix | Dir. Babak Anvari|Cast. Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi