Under the ShadowThe Iran-Iraq War was an interminable sequence of horrors, largely unseen by the West and then quickly overshadowed by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War. The conflict stretched from 1980-88 and featured some of the most brutal warfare since the First World War including child soldiers, chemical weapons, trench fighting, human wave offensives, and wide-scale civilian bombing. To set a fantastical horror movie within the horribleness of this conflict would seem to risk trivializing the tragedy, but the eloquent, understated film Under the Shadow amplifies the terrors of the war and the all too real consequences for the populace.

In fact, to classify Under the Shadow as a horror movie is misleading. The film uses certain conventions of the genre to tell its story, but director/writer Babak Anvari clearly intended to use this framework as an allegory for the damage the war inflicted on his native country of Iran even as its society was absorbing the convulsive impact of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. He employs a familiar ghost story format for this undertaking, focusing on a woman stripped of her ambition by the Revolution and left alone with her daughter by the war. The cinematography neatly underscores the time and place; the film was shot in a muted palette, as if dirt and dust from an explosion has settled over everything.

In certain ways, Under the Shadow resembles The Babadook, the outstanding Australian horror movie of 2014. Both films show a single mother under the stress of raising a child in a difficult setting who is then threatened by an evil presence in the home. Shideh (Narges Rashidi in an award-worthy performance) was expelled from medical school by picking the wrong political side during the Revolution and is rudely disabused of the idea that she will be able to resume her studies at the beginning of Under the Shadow. Her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi), who is a practicing doctor, is unsympathetic and more concerned about their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) and his own immediate fate in the face of the upcoming annual military service draft for doctors.

Iraj is sent near the front; Shideh refuses to abandon their Tehran apartment and take Dorsa to her in-laws despite the scud missiles that now arrive in the city without sufficient warning. A mute boy comes to the apartment building after his parents are killed, and there is suddenly talk of djinns, supernatural spirits whose affect ranges from simple mischief to evil possession. A doll goes missing, nightmares interrupt sleep, doors slam shut on their own even as the building’s inhabitants flee regularly to the basement to escape the bombs and women who rush from their homes in fear are taken to the police station for failing to cover themselves.

Tehran becomes a ghost town as as its occupants depart even as Shideh and Dorsa remain. Iraj is another ghost, a disembodied voice on a phone line who berates Shideh for not leaving. The madness of war spills into the insanity of being stalked by an evil spirit until there is no border between the two and no solution to either. Under the Shadow shows the horror of helplessness when a young woman is powerless to stop evil, whether real or supernatural.

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