Shideh is struggling. When we first see her (Narges Rashidi) she is begging for her university to readmit her so that she can complete her medical degree. She has dreamed of becoming a doctor, and not being allowed to complete her degree has caused her pain. The university dean does not mince his words when he tells her, in no uncertain terms, that she will never be allowed to come back to school. This is due to her liberal sympathies and activities which she participated in a few years prior.
In 1980s Iran, the setting for UNDER THE SHADOW, the country had been at war with Iraq for some time. Not only was the war having a devastating effect on the country’s land, it also coincided with the country’s Cultural Revolution to return to Islamic traditions, and purge all western influence. Men, like Shideh’s husband, were required to participate annually in the military, all while their whole country’s culture was shifting at home. The last thing Shideh needs is a bump in the road for returning to her studies, or so she thought.
In the throes of navigating her life without her husband home, her lack of professional direction, and nightly air raids, Shideh’s daughter Dorsa, (Avin Manshadi), makes a friend. Dorsa is a cute, chubby young girl who clearly misses her daddy and is not immune to all of the stress in their lives. It would make total sense for her to cope by creating an imaginary friend, but she is not so lucky. Instead Dorsa tells her mother that she is repeatedly visited by a djinn, and that the djinn is not necessarily a good one. You can imagine what happens from here.
Were UNDER THE SHADOW made in Hollywood, or from a less competent director, it would have been lost in the white noise of mass released horror films. A hysterical, stressed mother cannot control their child or child’s demon pet, and the family suffers. But like Babadook, UNDER THE SHADOW elevates itself through a sympathetic and flawed mother. Shideh is not the world’s best mom. Heck, she isn’t the best mother in their apartment building. She is passionate and has a quick temper, which makes dealing with young children—even her own—a losing battle. Shideh also has some indirectly acknowledged anxiety issues. We see her repeatedly stack drinking glasses in the cabinet, arranged by size, multiple times in a single scene, as a compulsion to calm herself. The subtlety of these problematic behaviors is a sign of the nuanced hand of the film on the incredibly fleshed-out characters. The fact that we are able to observe these idiosyncrasies, rather than having our noses rubbed in them, leaves the impression that the director respects the audience enough to let them do a little work on their own.
With this soft-handed approach to characterization in UNDER THE SHADOW, it was a little surprising to see how obvious the scares are in the film. There are plenty of cheap jump scares, which I tend to dislike. Yes, it is fun to listen to an entire theater of people gasp all at once, and then exhale with relief, but for me it adds nothing to the film. All those jumps do is lead the audience astray, while sacrificing the opportunity to add something actually terrifying to the plot. Similarly, the thematic representations of what Shideh is truly afraid of are not cleverly hidden in symbols and imagery. Instead of creating a subtle visual metaphor, the images of her fears are plainly presented, with no real need for audience interpretation. It is clear that the oppression of the Cultural Revolution is stifling, especially towards women, but when the materialized djinn resembles a flying, haunted hijab, that message is now shouted at the audience loudly.
This is not to say that the film is at all bad. It is a well-made horror film, however it is not without its flaws. But in the end, I enjoyed the hell out of UNDER THE SHADOW. (I’ll even admit that a few of those jump scares got to me.)