Headstuff writers revisit memorable horror movies in the run-up to Halloween.
A brilliant horror that employs requisite jumpscares while portraying the impact of suppression and war trauma on people’s lives and psyche, Under the Shadow (2016) marks Babak Anvari’s directorial debut. In a manner akin to Get Out (2017), a successful horror movie that conveyed emotions and realities of racism, Under the Shadow, dedicated to its primary genre, embodies Shideh and her daughter Dorsa’s emotional response to the sociopolitical transition of post-revolutionary Iran and the trauma of Iran and Iraq’s war. Had it been produced using the English language instead of Persian, Under the Shadow could probably have gained more success at the box office, but Anvari was dedicated to creating an authentic depiction of Tehran in the 1980s, for which he recruited performers of Iranian descent who could speak Persian fluently.
In the movie’s opening scenes, Shideh’s life is disrupted due to the upheaval caused by sociopolitical changes and war. Following the recent loss of her mother, she faces the harsh consequences of being denied re-entry into medical school in post-revolutionary Iran due to her previous affiliation with a leftist party. Meanwhile, her husband, Iraj, a doctor drafted into military service, proposes that Shideh and Dorsa temporarily reside with his parents. He expresses concerns about Shideh’s ability to protect their child. After the departure of Iraj, the world seems to be gradually turning against Shideh. Dorsa keeps telling Shideh about supernatural elements around them, but Shideh, as a positivist, fails to believe any of them and believes she invents stories because she is scared.
After a missile strikes their building, shattering windows and puncturing the roof, several residents say they have seen or felt evil spirits and Djinns in the place. Gradually all neighbours decide to evacuate the building because Tehran is under bombardment. Shideh still resists leaving and decides to stay there. While Shideh is trying to rationalize all the strange incidents, she finds Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi’s book Ahleh Hava – translated as Those from the Air– a monograph on Southern Iran’s superstitions about those haunted by supernatural elements and how the wind is associated with them. Despite being a positivist, Shideh reads the book.
Mentioning Sa’edi and his book are significant for two reasons. He was a psychiatrist, had leftist tendencies, and passed while being in self-imposed exile in Paris. Referencing him reminds us of Shideh’s lost career and the fact that Shideh, just like him, probably has no choice but to go on self-exile and leave the haunted place, a choice the ominous supernatural element is forcing her to make. Shideh, who is now partially convinced that an ominous force is haunting them, comes across these lines in the book: “Winds are all the mysterious and magical forces that exist everywhere… Where there is an abundance of fear and anxiety, there is an abundance of wind.” These lines can be read as a summary of Under the Shadow, linking physiological pressure, PTSD, anxiety, and fear to the reinforcement of the ominous element, which, in the final scenes, reveals itself to be a chador – a veiling garment that represents the imposed Hijab on women in the post-revolutionary Iran.
Under the Shadow is an enticing horror film conveying all the emotions and psychological troubles experienced by a woman whose dreams are shattered and who has to fight the unknown evil spirits single-handedly. Most of the significant conversations take place in the early scenes, and later on, the picture speaks for itself, not making it burdensome for the non-Persian-speaking audience to watch it reading the subtitle.