Sunday, October 9, 2016


Tehran in the 1980s. The revolution has established a brutal theocracy and set back the cause of reform in Iran by about seven centuries. Except for the weaponry. Iran is at war with Iraq. As Shideh sits across from an education bureaucrat, learning that her days of student politics mean that she is indefinitely forbidden to pursue her medical study for the rest of her life. Through the window of the office a building explodes with a plume of black smoke in the distance. Both glance at it with unease rather than horror and finish the interview.

Shideh returns to her family in their apartment to find her husband Iraj, already a doctor, more fearful of the regime than supportive of her. His quiet attempt at placation - "maybe it's for the best" - brings an understandable fury out in Shideh. The already strained marriage is pushed further still by his being drafted. Their preschool daughter Dorsa is not coping with what she can clearly feel in the mood of the home. Iraj goes off to war with the thought that the aerial bombing by the Iraqis will soon turn into missile assaults which will carry no warning. Shideh and Dorsa settle in for a grinding year ahead.

During the next air raid mother and daughter hurry down into the basement with the other tenants and wait it out. Dorsa loses her doll. She has been speaking with some of the other kids and one, an orphan taken in by one of the other families, tells the little girl of the Djinn, a monstrous spirit that can possess anyone through taking something they cherish. Shideh chides her daughter for listening to nonsense and goes to warn the family housing the orphan of the stories he's spreading. The woman of the house (the landlord's wife) seems more likely to be spreading the stories as she is completely credulous. Oh, also, that orphan, he's mute. Shideh has some tough nightmares and throughout the next days of the first missile raids weird things start happening.

This is a story of stress and it reminded me most strongly of another, one of my favourite horror movies of all time, Hideo Nakata's Dark Water. Both films are centred around a mother and daughter pitted against a grey and unsympathetic world which has the power to place strain in the bond. Shideh's sense of imprisonment is palpable. When she and Dorsa flee the house after a horrific scene the soldiers are far more concerned about her lack of head covering. As she is berated by the senior cop at the station for walking around exposed, she sinks back into herself, covered in a supplied black chador, the rage in her show of resignation is unignorable. She just has to bite her lip so she can get back home and get rid of this thing that seems to have gestated in the emotional pressure surrounding them. If you've seen Dark Water you'll remember that the mother Yoshimi makes a point of donning or removing her shoes. It shows us something of her culture but also how tightly woven in she is. It's the same with the head covering. At points of crisis in Under the Shadow it occurs to us to feel anxious that Shideh doesn't forget her scarf.

Like Dark Water, the trouble between mother and daughter takes the gravity and the Djinn, when it begins to manifest (if it does), draws its power from that situation. The stakes raised by this mean that the scares have real weight and resonance. There is one in particular whose jolt finished with shivers consuming my neck and shoulders. It was born of expert tension and dread. We want to see but we can't look. And what do we see? Buy a ticket and witness how simple it is.

I'm steering clear of plot for this one as the situation that emerges is so dependent on the course of the tale and revealing even slight details could spoil it. Cattle prod movies like the Paranormal Activity sequels and anything by James Wan that deliver timed shocks to people who aren't paying that much attention can't really be spoiled as their identikit themeless plots all have the same conclusion. While you might find some familiar things in Under the Shadow you will care about its people. That's the difference.

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