UNDER THE SHADOW
Whatever the reasons might be, the last couple of years have seen a sudden and abrupt upsurge of interest in the Islamic horror film. Iranian expatriate Ana Lily Amirpour made the unique A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) with its unforgettable image of the vampire girl skateboarding through the street as her long black chador flaps behind her. While not specifically Islamic in its themes, Can Evrenols gore-drenched Baskin (2015) came out of the very Islamic Turkey. And now we have Under the Shadow from Iranian director Babak Anvari. Certainly, both A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Under the Shadow are made by Iranian expatriates and shot outside of their countries (A Girl Walks Home was made in California, while Under the Shadow was made in Jordan) rather than by people within their homeland, which makes the case slightly different (although equally provides far greater freedom for the filmmakers to deal with themes that might otherwise be censored).
Under the Shadow is everything that Djinn wanted to be but wasnt. Djinn was just Tobe Hooper rehashing a cliche Western horror film plot with a few Islamic settings. By contrast, Under the Shadow takes a very similar plot and tells it in a culturally authentic way that never would have occurred to Tobe Hooper because that wasnt his background.
Under the Shadow is essentially an Islamic version of The Babadook (2014). Narges Rashidi is a Tehran wife who suddenly found herself displaced in her own society after the Cultural Revolution of 1980. She resents wearing the hijab and in the midst of the increasingly frantic situation frequently runs out of the apartment forgetting to put one on, later being arrested for fleeing out onto the streets with her head unclad. In one of the more amusing scenes, she exercises to Jane Fonda workout tapes but has to hide the fact that they have a VCR in the house, as possessing one is illegal under the new regime. The film opens with her pleading with an official to be allowed to return to her studies to become a doctor only to be rejected because of associations with a student political group during the revolution (we never find out if her affiliation was genuine or it was just youthful naivete and wrongly chosen friends as she claims). Against all of this, she is portrayed as a modern Western-leaning woman who automatically rejects it as nonsense and superstition when her more traditional neighbours start claiming that there are djinn in the building.
The entire arc of the film is about her unravelling from a modern Westernised woman to becoming haunted by the superstitions of the society around her. Indeed, much of what she experiences throughout seems to act as punishment for her refusal to accept the traditional, submissive role that is expected of her in the new society she is arrested for lack of head scarf, banned from her studies for having the wrong friends at university, the entity tears up her Jane Fonda workout tape and steals her precious medical encyclopaedia, while in a possibly ghostly trick even her husbands voice comes down the phone calling her a bad mother. I am not entirely sure what Babak Anvaris message was here I find it hard to fathom that this is a film that holds a hardline approach and reads as it does on the surface about the forces of religion punishing a woman for her liberal ideas. Or is the film perhaps intended as an allegory for Irans descent from Westernised free society to a fear-filled totalitarian theocracy. I left unsure of what the message I was meant to take away was.
That said, Under the Shadow works well as a horror film. You can make a good deal of comparison to The Babadook. Under the Shadow is less atmosphere driven and works in more psychological ways. It is a film more about Narges Rashidis psychological fracturing from a woman of reason to a state of fear and superstition. One of the most effective scenes is not any haunted one but simply where Narges is driven to tearing the entire apartment apart in the increasingly frantic search for her daughters doll. It is not a film without its ability to deliver more than a few jumps too with Babak Anvari doing a great job in producing unearthly images of a spectral woman with no face in a black-and-white patterned burka, or Nargess husband turning up in bed and figures bursting through the ceiling.
(Nominee for Best Original Screenplay at this sites Best of 2016 Awards).