Much of mainstream horror relies on sexual misconduct or a twisted interpretation of religious doctrine in order to punish the afflicted, who often feel guilty for something they did. In slasher movies, a sadistic killer normally strikes after young people have engaged in a sexual act or some indecent and reproachable behaviour. Or demons associated with Christian faith will haunt the innocent, often possessing and converting them. Under the Shadow takes a very different route: it punishes its main character for her political activism, and her torturers are spirits associated with Islamic faith. It is a sharp criticism of the post-Revolution, highly conservative political establishment of Iran.
It’s 1988, and Shideh (Narges Rashidi) decides to stay in Tehran with her daughter Dorsa despite the insistence of her husband Iraj. He is a doctor working for the military, and he has been assigned to an area of more intense fighting. Shideh’s flat is suddenly hit by an unexploded missile, which instead brings evil spirits known as Djinn inside it. The entities are often mentioned in Islamic mithology, and a neighbour explains to Shideh: “They travel in the wind. And they will take away one of your possessions, and will not leave until you find it”. Shideh soons realise that the object in question is her daughter’s treasured cloth doll named Kimia, and that some horrifying spectres have attached themselves to her family. She must now find the toy and leave.
Shideh was earlier a political activist against the Revolution, and this prevented her from going to university. She now feels guilty for not holding a degree, as she also feels that she is not a good mother. She is often heavy-handed and tactless with Dorsa, who does not entirely trust her. In addition, she owns forbidden items in her property, including a VCR and music videos of foreign artists. Her demeanour is censurable, and could even land her in jail. To make it worse, one day she flees the evil spirits in despair running down the street without her headscarf, only to be stopped by the vice squad and nearly arrested. She promply returns to her flat to encounter the entities angrier and more revengeful than ever. The writing is on the wall: misbehave, and we will come to get you – if not the police than the evil paranormal forces.
Shideh isn’t safe anywhere: there’s danger inside and outside. Missiles and Djinns can strike at any time, and the darkness of the shelter underneath the building doesn’t feel safe at all. A curfew might be just the perfect opportunity for the spirits to attack the woman and her daughter. What makes Under the Shadow so effective is that the horror is used very sparingly, and instead the narrative relies on a feeling of guilt, anguish and entrapment in order to keep the viewer hooked. The few scary moments are very cleverly devised and guaranteed to make you jump off your seat.
You can also watch the film trailer here: