Under the Shadow (2016) by Babak Anvari
Review by Andrew Swafford
Next week I get to once again start teaching Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis to my 10th grade English students, which is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. They have an intuitive sense of how to analyze the text thanks to the comic-book format, and generally find it impossible not to relate to the story of a strong-willed teenager (who really just wants to make her own fashion choices) living in an repressive society that attempts to play morality police for every aspect of public and private life. I love how this story connects my students to a complex moment in world history and Islamic culture (often vilified by the American media), as well as to ideas of Marxism and Feminism that otherwise might remain completely inaccessible and obtuse to them.
When I heard about Under the Shadow--a supernatural horror film set during the Iran-Iraq war that features a young doctor-turned-housewife as a protagonist--I was immediately sold. Like Persepolis, the concept feels fundamentally educational, making a specific cultural experience immediate and accessible for a wide audience. And Under the Shadow goes one notch further: externalizing the anxieties of women living under Islamic theocracy as a monstrous spectre that uncoincidentally happens to look like a floating chadour, the most common type of Islamic headscarf worn in Iran.
It should be obvious at this point that Under the Shadow is a horror movie of ideas, one that doesn’t shy away from the monster-as-metaphor trope that has become canonized by Nosferatu (= the black plague), Godzilla (= the atom bomb), Alien (= the fear of rape), and most recently The Babadook (= the feeling of grief). Unlike a film critic friend of mine who sees this horror cliché as overly didactic or reductive, I happen to really admire this way of setting up horror movies as little allegorical fables--it feels true to the spirit of the horror genre, which can be looked at as a type of spiritual mythos meant to make sense of our society. The Greeks had the Cyclops and the Hydra; we have Leatherface and the Xenomorph.
As a horror movie of ideas, I greatly respect Under the Shadow for having its heart in the right place. This film really wants to do something meaningful by exploring ideas of gender, religion, and war--all of which obviously make for just as inflammatory issues in Iran today as they were in 1988, when the movie takes place. It literalizes a spiritual being referenced in the Qur’an--djinn--as means of placing its horror in a societal context and making its characters fear of the creature (which, in the world of the film, may or may not even exist!) more believable. It uses the setting of Iraq’s constant bombing of Iran to trap its characters in a single location--a Polanski-esque apartment building--for almost the entire runtime in order to let claustrophobia and paranoia set in.
And this film’s look at femininity and motherhood in Iran makes movies like We Need to Talk About Kevin and the aforementioned Babadook look like White People Problems. In the opening scene, the protagonist of Under the Shadow is refused enrollment in medical school (one she’s already been attending) due to being “politically active” during Iran’s Cultural Revolution, and later on she is literally imprisoned and threatened with lashing for walking outside without her husband or a head scarf. Consider the fact that her husband has been drafted into the Iranian military against his will, and the claustrophobia of being trapped in the apartment building feels much more acute. Narges Rashidi, the actor playing the central mother figure, does a fantastic job at expressing the stress and weariness that her character feels--and the make-up artists put a lot of worthwhile effort into making her eyes/face look tired as hell, which could have been a simple rush job in the hands of a weaker crew.
So while Under the Shadow has all of the substance and vision to be a truly great horror film (in a year where we’ve mostly been presented genre exercises of varying quality: Don’t Breathe, Blair Witch, Green Room, The Shallows, etc.), it falters in meeting its genre’s more mechanical demands: how well can it scare us? Anything can scare an audience with a well-timed jump or loud noise (Nigel Floyd and Mark Kermode refer to this technique as “Cattle Prod Cinema”), but not all scares are created equal. In the case of Under the Shadow, the scare-factor is deeply inconsistent.
There are many scares that do truly work on a surreal, Buñuel/Lynchian level (especially those that involve characters waking up from dreams only to find themselves in another one) and utilize sweeping camera movements to re-create the feeling of jumping out of bed; there are others that work well in a more Shyamalan sense, by withholding visual information from the audience (think the cornfield scene in Signs where we barely see an alien’s foot, or the scene in The Village where a slowly panning camera keeps the monster almost out of the frame), and these are so arresting in the moment that I won’t spoil them here.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of other scare moments that are either cheap (including plenty of jump scares that are too predictable to be effective) or worse, laughable. The moment that I realized this was not a great film is worth spoiling: the protagonist is running to escape the apartment that is being terrorized by the djinn, but turns around when she hears her child still inside, crying. She finds the girl being pulled under the bed by an evil spirit, but can’t see her face, as her head is facing the floor and and covered by a hoodie. All of a sudden, the head jerks up to look at the mother, and we see...teeth. No face under the hood--just big, silly teeth that reminded me only of that derpy shark meme and those wind-up toys from your dentist’s office. This is the climax of the film, and a funeral for its dramatic tension.
Additionally, this movie is short (under 90 minutes) and is one of the rare cases where it really needs a longer runtime and more character development / world building to ground the film and make it feel complete. As it stands, Under the Shadow has an overall feeling of a thin narrative, and a bit of a jumbled message, despite all the “monster as metaphor” stuff outlined earlier. As I mentioned in my Conjuring 2 review, a monster ceases to be scary when it doesn’t feel tethered to any sort of reality or mythos anymore, and this is certainly a problem in the last act of Under the Shadow, which gives the djinn seemingly unlimited powers to do things like turn concrete floors into quicksand, for example. If this thing comes from a sacred text, why not be true to the sanctity to show what the Islamic belief system actually gives us to be afraid of, like The Exorcist did with Catholicism?
Still, Under the Shadow is one of the most unique and ambitious horror films out there this year, even despite my misgivings about it--and I do recommend it as part of your October horror film marathoning, if only to break up the monotony of American cultural fears by putting things into a global perspective. Flannery O’Connor once said that “while the [American] South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” The same, I imagine, could be said about Iran and Islamic Fundamentalism, and visualizing that haunting is where Under the Shadow really succeeds as a piece of art, if not a perfect genre picture.