The anxieties of motherhood have fueled many a great horror movie, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Babadook, and in Babak Anvari’s mostly terrifying Under the Shadow, maternal angst does battle not just with demons from the beyond but also social and political upheaval. The film is set in Iran in the late 1980s. Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution is nearly a decade old, and Saddam Hussein’s bombs have just started to fall on Tehran when we meet our protagonist, Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a once-promising medical student who had to leave school after being accused of left-wing activity. With air raid sirens going off and her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) called to the front, Shideh refuses to take her daughter Dorsa to her mother-in-law’s, away from the big city with its big targets. To her, such advice sounds awfully like patronizing criticism of her abilities as a mother.
Shideh is a modern, well-educated woman, with little use for the country’s strictly enforced dress code. She keeps an illegal VCR at home and has Jane Fonda exercise videos stashed away in a locked drawer. And, as one does, she discounts her neighbors’ talk of spirits as superstitious hooey. She even dismisses the warnings of Mehdi, a mute boy who lost both parents to a bomb and has secretly begun communicating with Dorsa. Mehdi has been telling the girl about djinn — malevolent spirits from Islamic mythology that travel the winds and attach themselves to people via beloved objects. Soon enough, Dorsa is seeing things and speaking to invisible figures — figures that seem to suggest that they’d do a better job of parenting than Shideh. Oh, and the girl’s favorite doll has gone missing, and she refuses to go anywhere without it. As neighbors flee the city, mother and child are stuck at home, forced to contend with bombs on one side and evil spirits on the other.
Under the Shadow starts out a bit rough: Early scenes feature the kind of clunky backstory and facile psychologizing that you might expect from a more schlocky effort. And the film doesn’t entirely reimagine some of its more predictable horror conventions: the mute boy, the creepy doll, the young child speaking to her “secret friends.” But once things get going, the tension builds nicely and gathers complexity. As supernatural forces tighten the screws on Shideh, so do the not-so-supernatural ones: She runs out of her building in fear and is promptly picked up by the religious police for not covering her head; spending the evening in detention, she gets off with a warning and a stern reminder that the typical punishment for her crime is a whipping.
Horror films often live under a shadow. As is frequently noted, scary movies in the U.S. become big business whenever social and political turmoil starts to get out of hand. But that’s a resonance that usually exists outside of the texts themselves. The connections between the ‘70s horror boom and the specter of Vietnam, or the torture-porn craze of the 2000s and the War on Terror, were rarely explicit; they were acts of collective cultural imagination. Under the Shadow, on the other hand, makes such connections overt: The shadows in question are clearly not just supernatural, but also psychological and political. And Anvari’s great accomplishment with this film — especially in the second half — is allowing his story to gather moral, symbolic force without shortchanging the simple pleasures of genre. The jump scares are solid, and earned. The suspense is genuine. And Under the Shadow never loses sight of the basic human reality of mother and child, trapped at home, encircled by a variety of evils, both real and imagined.
Under the Shadow
Written and directed by Babak Anvari
Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films
Opens October 7, IFC Center