Under the Shadow – A sober review

I can heartily recommend the Iranian horror ‘Under the Shadow’. In the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Shideh is told that she will be no longer able to continue studying for her medical degree, due to her previous political leanings. On returning home, the first thing she does is remove her hijab – a foreshadowing of the political allegory to come. Her husband’s response to this is ‘it’s for the best.’ Shortly after, he leaves for the front, leaving mother and daughter behind.

Shideh’s daughter becomes convinced that there are djinn in the house. Inadvertently, her Shideh throws away a charm that was supposed to protect her daughter. When an Iraqi missile strikes the tower block Shideh’s daughter starts to claim to see djinn. Her favoured doll (which she always runs to grab when the air raid sirens sound) goes missing, taken, she says, by the djinn and locked in the apartment above, where the missile struck. A crack in Shideh’s ceiling suggests something of a portal between two realities.
One by one, the tenants of the tower block leave, leaving behind just Shideh and her daughter.

There is a real sense of isolation – the idea of an empty apartment block is oppressive – there is something wrong feeling about being connected to an empty space where humans should be. Outside the block, the cultural police roam, at one point arresting Shideh for being out without a hijab, not caring that she was fleeing the horrors in her home. In her home, the djinn make themselves known. Babak Anvari does use jump scares, but these are well done, helping, rather than breaking, the sense of creeping dread that is so successfully built up. The film deals with the oppression of women in Iran (it had to be filmed outside of Iran, as there are shots of women without hijabs, and scenes of Shideh working out to an illegal Jane Fonda video) and the anxiety of an ostensibly single mother trying to be everything to her daughter, as she slowly gives up her own needs, as well as the plight of innocent civilians caught up in the longest running war of the 20th century.