Sundance Review: UNDER THE SHADOW

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UNDER THE SHADOW is top-notch horror film.

UNDER THE SHADOW tells the story of Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her family, who live amid the chaos of the Iran-Iraq war (known colloquially as The War of the Cities). Accused of subversion by the post-Revolution government and blacklisted from medical college, she falls into a state of malaise.

Conscripted to the army, her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is sent to the front-lines leaving Shideh all alone to protect their young daughter Dorsa (newcomer Avin Manshadi), all the while Tehran is under the constant threat of aerial bombardment. Not long after, a missile hits their apartment building and while failing to explode, a neighbor dies in mysterious circumstances. Following this Dorsa’s behavior becomes increasingly disturbed and Shideh is slowly drawn into a mania, in which she struggles to cling onto what is real and what is not.

Searching for answers, Shideh learns from a superstitious neighbor that the cursed, un-exploded missile might have brought with it Djinn – malevolent Middle-Eastern spirits that travel on the wind. Convinced that a supernatural force within the building is attempting to possess Dorsa, Shideh finds she has no choice but to confront these forces if she is to save her daughter and herself.

There are those moments when you know you are seeing something special. For me those times have included seeing Jim Mickle’s STAKE LAND, and knowing that his incredibly creative debut feature MULBERRY ST. was no fluke. Or Jeremy Saulnier‘s MURDER PARTY, then later his follow up, the brilliant BLUE RUIN.

Even more profoundly, and going back even further, the discovery of foreign horror in general, reaching beyond Hammer’s Gothic England. Exploring takes on the genre from Japan, France, Spain, and even India became part of the overall lexicon, the foundation of a serious fans understanding of what horror films are, were, and can be.

Fear is universal, yes. But the cultural lens can vary in a profound way.

Well, clear an extra space on the top shelf, because from Iran comes writer/director Babak Anvari’s feature debut, UNDER THE SHADOW. Not only has it been the best horror film I’ve seen so far at Sundance, it’s one of the best horror films I’ve seen in the last few years. To compare if comparisons must be made, it could be called (or rather sold as) this years THE BABADOOK. Mother and child in peril, besieged by a supernatural threat, mayhem ensues.

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The beauty of UNDER THE SHADOW first lies in it’s characters.

Complex, yet completely relatable, actress Rashidi gives an amazing performance as Shideh, a mother filled with doubts both external and internal. Struggling with her perceived failure as an Iranian citizen, and with her modern views of the world and her place in it, Shideh is at war with herself as much as her home country is with it’s adversary.

As she and little Dorsa hold out as Tehren’s citizen’s flee the bombings, real world terror’s give way to supernatural ones. At first, the entity known as the Djinn makes itself known only subtly. Prized things go missing. A small doll treasured by Dorsa, or Shideh’s coveted and secret Jane Fonda work-out tape. Then things begin to escalate. Intense nightmares, wide awake visions of a glimpsed shadow, and a presence that begins to make itself more and more known.

Soon Shideh and Dorsa are fighting to save each other from the Djinn, who feeds on misery and turmoil and has found a perfect storm in the upheaval of the mother and daughters’ lives.

What results is a truly frightening experience, and an incredibly assured piece of work from writer/director Anvari. Reminiscent of the aforementioned THE BABADOOK, and with stylistic nods to Polanski’s ROSEMARY ‘S BABY as well as THE TENANT, Tobe Hooper’s POLTERGEIST, and even THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, UNDER THE SHADOW also has a faerie tale quality. No doubt brought on by the cultural references that may not be familiar to Western viewers (at the Q and A for the film, one question was “What is a Djinn?”), and the exotic setting (even though most of UNDER THE SHADOW takes place in an apartment), Mr. Anvari’s film is an incredibly rewarding experience.

Seeing this terrifying treasure will be relatively easy for horror fans now as well, as Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films have partnered to release it globally. A day-and-date release is being hashed out, as well as a limited theatrical run. After that it hits Netflix. Exact dates are yet to be announced, but as soon as they are, you’ll find them here at SHOCK.

UNDER THE SHADOW is the exact type of film I personally love, and think the genre needs more of right now. Forward thinking, culturally diverse, and just plain ole’ awesome and scary. Mr. Anvari is absolutely a filmmaker to keep our eyes on.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fhejr94P14