Film Review: Under The Shadow

You Have Everything To Fear, And Fear Itself

Horror like Sci-Fi works best when it’s weeping, trembling core is closer to the societal zeitgeist of the period it was made. They contain the tensions, intrepidations, outright fears and context of the world around then, their futures and indeed their own headspace are in peril. Sci-Fi hopes Man has the solution via technology to the survive the latest quandary of imminent extinction, whereas in horror you just want to hopefully survive full stop, and it’s not guaranteed, it might be even best that you don’t.

Early black and white movies of this ilk from the 50s were basically Hollywood propaganda movies presenting the relentless fear of the Red Russians and their ‘commie’ or socialist ideologies which might infect the good old US of Capitalism (there’s a silent invisible ‘A’ at the beginning), never mind the fact that the Russians had recently pretty much saved mankind from the actual real horror of the Nazis. A thanks wouldn’t have gone a miss, rather than a cold war. Maybe instead of counter intelligence being set up, it should have been emotional intelligence departments.


Another successful form of horror is that typified by Stephen King. Where the most normal of everyday taken for granted situations are suddenly (or creepingly slowly) turned into true gateways to actual or psychological hell, where if you survive, you will NEVER look at the same thing/situation again without the pure residue of unease clambering back up from the depths of your ID to repeatedly smash your RUN LIKE HELL button inside your heart/mind.

The OUTSTANDING new horror film ‘Under The Shadow’ (2016) by the extremely talented Babak Anvari (he wrote/directed it inspired by being born in Iran) has elements of all the above, and though it is set in a war torn Tehran during the 1980s, it has some seriously contemporary traits in regards drawing attention to feminism (or the despairing lack of it) and general treatment of women and females in general. Despite what unfurls, or is unleashed during the movie, some of the most horrific moments are how men treat women, even with just the use of simple words or seemingly innocuous actions. Or indeed it’s clear that the true war zones in life are the families they are part of, and we ALL suffer PTSD our entire lives as a result of these decade long battles.

It’s 1989 Iran, the Iraq – Iran war rages on, though mostly in the distance, like approaching thunder, the bombs are getting louder, closer. Regardless of death being everywhere life presses on, hand in hand with dreams. Oh! And a whole load of nightmares. Explosions glow on the horizon but studying and homework still has to be done. Stalwart mum Shideh (the outstanding Narges Rashidi) is representative of modern women trying to better herself and her family. Training to be a doctor against all the odds being stacked (and constantly maintained) against her from pretty much everyone around. She enjoys some modern (at least in the 80s) treats of western liberal society, as does her young daughter Doras (the also fantastic Avin Manshadi), but there would be severe punishments if they were caught by the religious police, or if one of the neighbours were to inform on them. This is the land of not wearing a headscarf in public or the presence of men leads to brutal results.

Tensions rise as the war and death creeps closer. Neighbours leave for supposedly safer lands and her doctor husband has to leave for the battlefront to help the battle wounded. It’s not just the bombs that bring death and carnage, in all the human horror swirling about, the winds are carrying djinn too, demons.


From the ominous drone even before the opening credits come up it instils a dread in your soul, and it just builds from there. Harpooning a resolute fear that can’t be shaken off, every little detail and moment just wraps an unease layer upon layer. The anger from the treatment of women blends with the frustrations of parenthood, the fears of inadequacies of being a parent, or even just your own sanity in a genuinely insane world, isolated from any apparent salvation. The pace is eerily slow, as you nervously wander the small apartment seeking out a rational explanation for the shapes you think you just saw, or the noises you think you heard. I’d have legged it at the first bump.

Something has arrived in the apartment, and it’s genuinely scary as fuck.

The tension is relentless, and the early screening I was at some poor soul screamed out loud at one point, effectively representing ALL our tensions exploding, but it wasn’t enough of a relief and another one came soon after, equally justified. My nerves were being shredded, but as if from paper cuts, that you didn’t even see happening, and it was FANTASTIC!!!

To it’s credit the power of the fear and it’s success is the dread it instils, it’s masterful. It feels like Lt Ripley and Newt (Aliens) trapped in a mini version of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. There are some stunningly innovate scenes that are some of the finest horror moments I’ve ever scene, they just burn into your retina. It looks brilliant, the period detailing is a joy to behold, the score is unnerving, the script is excellent and there’s even some very funny moments. It’s also the case that I have always found horror movies with subtitles (they speak Farsi in the movie) to add another layer of unease in that you have to focus more intently, which brings even more anxiety, as if the words are about to at any moment jump out and grab you.

Irrespective of what happens, the core thread that permeates the entire movie is the ignorance of men and strength of women. It’s a unnerving joy to behold and I seriously can’t wait to see it again, and gleefully bring others along to see it to hear their screams too. I also can’t wait to see what Babak has coming up next, as he just might end up redefining horror.


‘Under The Shadow’ is out now.

Read Steve’s review of the The Almodóvar Collection here >