Babak Anvari’s remarkable debut feature, a Tehran-set spook-fest entitled Under the Shadow, could just turn out to be one of 2016’s best surprises. The director, somebody who has an obvious cineliterate understanding and love for the horror genre, crafts a film that manages to earn its frights through a type of storytelling that is so regularly absent from the multiplex that it deserves your absolute attention.
The most obvious comparison to make of Anvari’s work – a comparison everybody is making – is to Jennifer Kent’s 2014 hit, The Babadook, with both films featuring a central relationship between a mother and her child. The relationship here is between Shideh, a woman who is struggling to find her place in a repressive 1980’s Tehran, and her daughter, Dorsa, who is an average young child outside of her nightmarish visions of people walking around her home at night.
The comparisons between the two films run much deeper than a story that revolves around a mother and a child, however, as each shares an ambiguity surrounding the mental health of their female characters. Opening with a scene in which Shideh tries and fails to resume her medical studies due to her previous association with a leftist political group, her inability to escape the confides of being a wife and mother appears to be the trigger of an oncoming breakdown. And as the character’s frustrations grow to the point where she can only find solace in rigorously exercising into the early hours of the morning, we begin to question her increasingly frequent visions of the Djinn (demons) that seem to have hitched a ride to her apartment via missile.
It’s these seeds of doubt which Anvari gently places in our minds, that grow into something that’s equally as terrifying than the ghosts themselves; an idea that this could all be a result of a bombardment (quite literally) of outside circumstances which have affected Shideh’s state of mind, and, perhaps, put her daughter in even more danger. This is just one of the many layers that make Under the Shadow a fuller and richer experience.
But, in spite of its clear likenesses to The Babadook and other horror films such as Don’t Look Now, it’s the hints of early Guillermo del Toro that prove most exciting of all. Like the director of Pan’s Labyrinth, Babak Anvari seems to understand that a horror film becomes all the more terrifying when reality and fantasy became inexplicably intwined (the Spanish Civil War is switched with the war between Iran and Iraq here) and creates a very real backdrop to the terror.
With this similarity between the filmmakers in mind, the future prospect of Babak Anvari’s career is just as exciting as Under the Shadow itself. Brilliantly performed by Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi, as well as boasting some distinctive cinematography from Kit Fraser, it ideally needs to be seen on the big screen. But, as it’s also available on video steaming services such as Amazon and ITunes, there really is no excuse for you not to seek it out. You won’t regret hunting it down either way.
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