UNDER THE SHADOW **** UK / Qatar / Jordan / Iran 2016 Dir: Babak Anvari. 87 mins
A multi-layered horror film with a unique cultural / political backdrop: Tehran during the seemingly endless Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s, where residents of an apartment block live in constant fear of an Iraqi missile strike and persistent rumours of the city being levelled. While others flee the omnipresent threat, former activist / med student Narges Rashidi sees her husband drafted but refuses to head North for (relative safety); her young daughter (Avin Manshadi) also begins seeing Something around the house as fears of the Djinn are stirred up by another traumatised kid in the building. The period detail and remarkable sound design capture a vivid sense of time and place, from the Jane Fonda workout tapes and Yazoo music videos to the reminders of structural damage caused by an earlier missile strike. Echoing the authenticity of THE BABADOOK’s parent-child relationship within a supernatural framework, the mother-daughter interaction is entirely convincing, with Manshadi unusually good at conveying the alarming behavioural shifts, nightmares and terror of a little girl whose everyday thoughts of bombs are invaded by something far less grounded. Director Anvan is influenced by J-horror, with a superb, frightening switcheroo late in the story seemingly inspired by a major scare in DARK WATER, but the film – which rarely leaves the apartment building – avoids cliché as it builds carefully to scenes of genuine alarm. The more overt visual frights are well positioned, and it bows out with an eerie, subtly resonant ending. Unusually believable in its relationships, this is a vivid portrait of forgotten people in an unfolding nightmare brushed over by the Western media coverage of the time – and it just happens to be a great scary horror picture too.
Review by Steven West