Under the Shadow is a slow burn, trading on atmosphere.”

by C. Rachel Katz

Babak Anvari’s creepy, atmospheric Under the Shadow opened the 11th annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival. Hailed as this year’s Babadook, Under the Shadow does for stress what the earlier film did for grief. Namely it gives shape to a personal horror we all experience at some point in our lives.

1980s Tehran was under constant threat of bombing, as the Iran-Iraq war waged on and on. Anvari was a child of that war but his film is not about the horrors of war, per se. Rather it’s about the horrors that war brings to the people who’re caught in the middle.

Shortly after her dreams of becoming a doctor are dashed to pieces, Shideh’s husband is drafted. He wants her and their daughter, Dorsa, to stay with his parents, away from Tehran, where it’s safe, but Shideh refuses to let the war upset her life. When a bomb hits their building and doesn’t explode, Shideh’s neighbours start making preparations to leave. Still Shideh insists on staying put, even when her daughter is struck ill and complains about the djinn who’re stalking her.

Under the Shadow
Directed by
Babak Anvari
Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi
Release Date
7 October 2016
Rachel’s Grade: B+

The Iran-Iraq war serves as a backdrop for the main story being told in Under the Shadow. Although the war may be the prime factor in the djinn’s sudden appearance, it’s Shideh’s mental state that opens the door for them to come into her home. The stress of the war, the ever-present threat of danger, takes a backseat to Shideh’s unhappiness, her personal failings as a doctor and a mother.

Where Under the Shadow diverges from other, similar films, is in its treatment of its monsters. Unlike something like The Babadook, were the characters’ mental state is made manifest, Shideh doesn’t need to believe in the djinn; they exist outside of her, and will exert their will regardless. And when Shideh finally accepts what’s happening, it’s way too late. The point being that whenever the djinn arrive, it’s already too late.

Under the Shadow is a slow burn, trading on atmosphere. When the scares come, and there are a few, they’re nearly perfect. Dorsa’s constant complaining and Shideh’s stubborn parenting fill their apartment with tension, and as figures start appearing out of nowhere, the suspense is nearing its breaking point. Whether the film will make it all the way to the Oscars (it’s the UK entry for foreign language) has yet to be determined, but it speaks to a desire for sophisticated horror that hits close to home.

Like all the features at TADFF, Under the Shadow was preceded by a short film. Justin Harding’s Kookie paired well with Under the Shadow, in that it too is about an unwelcome guest. In an effort to prevent her daughter from eating too many cookies, a mother brings home a monstrous cookie jar. The jar, it turns out, holds more than just cookies. Delightful and creepy, Kookie is a cautionary tale for kids and adults about the dangers of indulgence.

Viewed at Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016