Under the Shadow review – Babak Anvari’s refined, allegorical horror set amidst a war-torn Iran

Within modern Western culture the Djinn (also spelled Jinn and commonly known as a Genie) has been popularised as positive entity, if one with a trickster-like attitude. In the West we view the Genie as something that grants wishes, but who might seek to deceive you in the process. This is partly due to Disney’s Aladdin, which presented the Genie as a friend an ally. In more recent years the TV show Supernatural brought the myth back to its more sinister origins, presenting the Djinn as a blue-eyed creature who creates a false reality (a dream-like state) for you to dwell within, while they feed off of your life force.

In Eastern culture, which is where the myth stems from, the Djinn has always been something to be feared. These creatures are even mentioned frequently in the Quran and in other Isalmic texts. The Quran states that Djinn and made of a smokeless and scorching fire, and that the make up one third of the three known sapient creations of God: humans, angels, Djinn. Like humans, Djinn can be good, evil, or neutral, and therefore have free will, but the primary Eastern view on them is that they are to be feared and that one had to protect oneself from them.

With Under the Shadow, British Director Babak Anvari seeks to take the Djinn back to its more sinister roots. The film notes: where there is fear and anxiety, the winds blow (the ‘winds’ referring to mysterious, ethereal and magical forces), explaining that Djinn appear in times of fear, such as citizens living in fear of bombings. Having penned story too, Anvari presents viewers with a horror that is also steeped in historical acuity and feminist allegory. The film is set in the post-revolution, war-torn Iran of the 1980s, where falling Iraqi missiles are a frequent fear and political activism is frowned upon.

Shideh's daughter clutching her beloved soft toy.
Shideh’s daughter clutching her beloved soft toy.

Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a Mother who is attempts to return to higher education, but who is refused outright due to her politically active past. When her husband (Bobby Naderi) is called upon for war once more, Shideh is left to care for her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), who fears the presence of a Djinn in their building. Below you will find our review of Under the Shadow, which does contain some spoilers.

Given the film’s Iran setting and the restrictions placed on women there at this time, this film undoubtedly holds strong feminist undertones. Firstly there is the fact that the male higher ups are very reluctant to allow Shideh to return to education to become a Doctor and even her husband states that perhaps this refusal is “for the best”, highlighting the Middle-Eastern male view that women should stay at home.

When Shideh accidentally goes outside without covering her head, she is told that a woman should be scared of exposing herself and that she should be ashamed for doing so, and that it is a crime punishable by lashes. Later on in the film, Shideh forgets that she’s wearing the head scarf and the sight of herself in a mirror frightens her. She tosses the headscarf aside angrily, indicating her frustration at the scarf and at society’s repressive laws.

Alongside the obvious feminist scenes, the horror content itself holds feminist allegory also. If you look at the style of the Djinn, it shows itself as a large hooded cloak, which is reminiscent of the garb that Iranian women are forced to wear. Although this figure haunts Shideh, she is often not afraid of it and even runs towards it on occasion. There is even one scene where she throws herself wholeheartedly under the Djinn’s cloak, to find Dorsa, becoming lost in its endless, fluttering fabric. This could be seen as Shideh fighting against the Middle-East’s repression of women through clothing laws (just as she actively fights for her education), and getting lost against the waves of opposition (Middle-Eastern men) in the process.

Shideh fighting fear in the darkness.

When it comes to scares, subtlety is key in order to craft an effective horror. Where films like The Babadook (which this film will no doubt be compared to) fall down by showing the creature in full (and awful) CGI, Anvari takes a smarter approach. While he does show the Djinn to a degree, what he does show is only the creature’s flowing, hooded cloak, or the odd glimpse of the Djinn in human form, running off screen. What results is a film that manages to retain believability, and while not a horror that will keep you up at night, it does have its effectively suspenseful moments.

All of this comes off the back of Anvari’s refined filmmaking style – which is very impressive given that this is his debut full length feature – and also the performances within the film. Narges Rashidi carries the weight of the film so well, providing a realistic character who can be both irate and aggravated, and also caring and brave. For much of the film she wears a dour expression on her face, but there are other very simple moments like her sitting down to play pretend tea party with Dorsa that reveal her softer side.

We personally know people who fought in the Iraq/Iran war and we’ve heard their stories, so we’re fully aware of the horrors and weight that this war had on the Middle East and on the simple people who were roped into it. It’s a subject matter that doesn’t really get enough commentary in modern cinema, so we’re glad to see a talent as strong as Anvari create such an effective tale about how this war affected those left at home.

Under the Shadow is a wonderfully refined and expertly suspenseful feminist horror that greatly surpasses the likes of The Babadook, resulting in one of the best horrors in recent years. Although we’d have liked a more impactful ending, the outcome of the whole is a film that you won’t soon forget and one that will hopefully inspire more filmmakers to touch upon this subject matter, or to seek to make similarly effective feminist-driven narratives.

Image credits: Wigwam Films


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