Under the Shadow is an internationally co-produced (UK/ Jordan/ Qatar) horror film that has been selected as the British entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. Set in 1980s war-torn Tehran during the Iran-Iraq conflict, it follows levelheaded mother Shideh and daughter Dorsa as they become increasingly unsettled not only by the continuous air strikes on their city, but an apparent supernatural evil that resides in their apartment block…
The backdrop of Islamic culture immediately brings a fresh perspective to the film – as we’re so conditioned in the West to consider anything ‘supernatural’ to basically mean ‘demons and shit’. Here we see the Islamic equivalent, with Shideh and Dorsa haunted not by a demon, but by entities known as ‘Djinn’, who are said to “travel on the wind” and, while inhabiting an unseen realm, are capable of physical interaction.
Or not, as the case may be… Under the Shadow does not entirely reveal its hand in this respect. You’ll be left wondering (at least initially) whether anything supernatural is really going on, or whether it might in fact simply be a psychological trick; the result of a large amount of stress from the harsh war environment in which Shideh and her daughter are living.
This kind of ambiguity is present in a lot of my favourite horror films – the best ones from the past few years; The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch all shared the quality of not holding your hand to explain what exactly is going on. It helps the film ooze intelligence, leaving it to the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks, and it’s a quality worth treasuring.
Cheap jump scares are thankfully kept to a minimum (save for one scene in which its use is forgivable). Instead, the reliance is on slow-building atmosphere. While it may take longer than some viewers would like for the payoff to kick in as the film sets the scene and builds its characters, once it starts to arrive, the movie quickly gathers pace towards a nerve-wracking finale.
Straight up, this is one of the best films of the year – at least the smartest, something I can imagine informing the field of film study in years to come – and another home run for the horror genre. If you have the slightest interest in good storytelling, horror in particular, you absolutely owe it to yourself to watch Under the Shadow.
10 / 10