Under The Shadow is one of those films that’s as easy to admire for the ingenuity and economy of its making as for what it actually is.
Eighty percent of the film takes place on a single set, with another ten percent contained in the basement of said location. As much as seventy percent of the film is set aside to two actors, one of whom is a child. And a convincing period setting is achieved with little more than an old television, a Jane Fonda workout tape and a rotary phone. Under The Shadow is a virtual primer on making the most out of almost absurdly limited means. Film students and independent filmmakers would do well to study it.
Under The Shadow is such an act of ingenuity as filmmaking that it is tempting to over praise it as a film. Not that it is ever anything less than a noble, serious minded genre film. But beneath its unique setting, it’s ultimately nothing that you haven’t seen before and leaves a frustrating portion of its subtext under explored.
Under The Shadow follows Narges Rashidi, as Shideh, a young Iranian mother and medical student who finds herself blackballed from her university for her political affiliations during the 1979 revolution. Iran is in the midst with its war with Iraqi and Shideh soon finds herself trapped in her apartment, her husband drafted, her child sick, in danger of being blown up by an Iraqi missile at any moment and equally endangered by the standards of the ultra conservative regime with which she has fallen out of favor. Oh and her child has apparently attracted the attention of at least one Djinn, malevolent spirits who prey on misery.
As you’d imagine this is a lot of rich stuff, so it’s kind of shocking how much meat Under The Shadow leaves on the bone. One of horror’s great strengths is its ability to literalize metaphor, so exploring the feelings of a woman who is constricted by her government, as well as her own conflicted feelings about motherhood and her less than supportive marriage, by literally trapping her in the home should work. The fact that the Djinn threaten to take Shideh’s child, a child who in Shideh’s darker moments she may very well want gone should add another wrinkle. But Under The Shadow is content to leave this all surface level. The conflict between Shideh’s world view, as a secularized, apparently atheistic woman living in a repressive theocracy, and the new reality she finds herself in is also unexplored. Shideh has one westernized neighbor and one pious neighbor, doesn’t really fall into either camp and director Anvari seems to think that setting up the situation is the same thing as examining it. Shideh’s attitude seems to switch from “There are no Djinn,” to “There are Djinn,” without herself even noticing, or caring much about it. Similarly all the potent societal strictures and questions of politics and agency the situation seems to raise go unexplored. At the end of the day the Iranian Theocracy is merely a plot device. Raised as nothing more than another reason Shideh can’t leave her home. Ultimately no more significant or telling in the context of the film than a flat tire or a misfiring cellphone might be in another.
Of course film, let alone horror films, should not be judged on their political content alone. But even as a straight genre exercise Under The Shadow never achieves greatness. It’s never bad, and the central turns by Rashidi and Avan Manshadi as her daughter (in an excellent performance) always sell the reality of the situation. But looked at as a genre film there’s nothing in Under The Shadow that’s all that original or striking. A nice sense of slow burn that eventually succumbs to a series of jump scares and CGI. Only a shot of a bulging fissured ceiling knitting itself back up like a diseased womb genuinely disturbs.
Under The Shadow is good film, well acted and honorably made. The product of people who obviously care. It’s the kind of film that needs festival buzz to be seen but can easily be destroyed by it. You *should* see Under The Shadow, just know what you’re seeing.