This article appears in our 2017 Spring issue, Family Values. Subscribe today!
Under the Shadow, an Iranian horror film from director Babak Anvari, will quickly remind viewers of 2014’s The Babadook as viewers watch a mother and child battle earthly and supernatural dark forces together. Set in Tehran, Iran, in 1988, Under the Shadow follows Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a wife and mom whose husband, a doctor, gets drafted to the Iran–Iraq War. At home with her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), after her husband departs, Shideh must face motherhood and depression alone.
The film opens with Shideh being told she is banned from completing medical school because she was a radical leftist activist during Iran’s revolution. Shideh’s dream of being a doctor is dead, but that disappointment is only one dark power she must face.
Throughout the movie, sirens blare to alert residents and viewers that missiles are coming. Viewers begin to dread the sound, knowing it will drive Shideh and Dorsa into the basement to seek shelter with their neighbors. (Everyone knows nothing good can come from a basement.)
After a missile lands in their building, leaving a large crack in their ceiling, both Shideh and Dorsa begin to have increasingly bad nightmares. Dorsa tells her mother there are djinn, mythical creatures who travel on the wind to wherever there is fear, among them.
The film can be slow moving and at times feels intentionally claustrophobic; most of it takes place inside the apartment building. Shideh is also trapped in a way by being alienated from her support system. Her husband at war and her neighbors fleeing, she’s left alone to face the challenges and disappointments of motherhood, the horrors of war, and the supernatural forces haunting her and Dorsa. Shideh feels helpless to protect her child from the countless terrors that have them surrounded.
Only when mother and daughter learn to trust one another are they able to defeat what haunts their home and their relationship, saving each other from forces that are greater than they are and beyond their understanding. Under the Shadow may not be as jump-and-scream frightening as The Babadook, but the mother-daughter narrative of surviving war shouldn’t be missed.