Under the Shadow (2016)

Narges Rashidi’s Shideh is already not in a very good spot before her house begins being haunted. Her Tehran is under constant threat of assault from Iraqi bombs and missiles. She is cornered as well from forces within her country. We are introduced to her as she’s pleading for a chance to continue to pursue her dreams and is summarily denied this for being in an unaccepted group during her country’s resolution. On her way home from this calamity, she has to consider her appearance above all else when stopped by armed men, smoothing her hair back under her headscarf in an almost unthinking gesture, but the tears on her cheeks tell how much this is really costing her. It’s an elegant and heartbreaking bit of exposition, and elegant is a word that kept springing to my mind throughout this movie. Scenes are carefully and beautifully composed, and even a simple topsy turvy shot of her sleepless night was so artfully lit and framed it looked like a painting.

Comparisons between this movie and Babadook are going to be inevitable. Both deal with the at-times difficult relationship between mother and child and don’t shy away from how grating that experience can be, even for loving parents. Both play with terrifying nightmare visions being brought out from the dream world into reality, and give one second thoughts about turning out that light. Both build an increasing sense of dread as the characters’ lives become narrowed into traps. The key difference I’d think is that the Babadook represents a deep grief within the mother, and the djinn of Under the Shadow are more representative of what Shideh is scared of in the world around her.

The djinn take power over you by taking something dear to you away, and you cannot excise them until you get it back. The djinn tell her daughter that her mother is of no use, is wrong, and is not to be listened to. Very real and familiar fears for a woman in that time and place.

But Under the Shadow is far more than some kind of simplistic stunt allegory. The dreamlike monsters it provides definitely stick with you (never ever look under the bed) and taking horror out of its typical locales sure offers a lot of new and interesting scare opportunities. Truly a memorable bit of scare fare.

Under the Shadow is playing in theaters now and will be available streaming later as well due to its distribution deal with Netflix. The author recommends seeing it on the big screen if you can because maybe you can scream real loud at the first jump scare and be instantly embarrassed in addition to scared because no one else shrieked except for you, and who do they think they are for not being scared anyway? Then repeat this mix of self-conscious and heeby jeeby for subsequent scares and you’re golden.