Horror during Wartime
Thoughts on Babak Anvari’s film Under the Shadow
I am fascinated by the horror genre. I read scary stories, watch horror films, and listen to creepy podcasts. My favorite works in this genre don’t just thrill me. They also rattle my mind and push me to grapple with heavy questions about human nature: about how humans react to threat or danger, or about how humans can be capable of committing horrific actions.
This is why Babak Anvari’s 2016 film Under the Shadow is among my favorites in the genre. The movie tells the story of a family living in post-revolution Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Shideh (Narges Rashidi), her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi), and their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) have to grapple with the conditions of these chaotic times. Shideh is prohibited from resuming her medical studies at the university because of her political activities during the revolution, and this causes her to worry about her uncertain future. While at home, alarms for bombings often go off, causing the family and their neighbors in the apartment building to rush to the lowest level of the building for safety. Rumours spread about missile strikes targeting Tehran, where the family lives. One character explains that alarms would not be able to provide warnings for missile strikes fast enough. Soon, Iraj is drafted and must serve in an area where the fighting is heavy, leaving Shideh and Dorsa.
The film’s atmosphere is already tense, ominous, and filled with dread. In these early scenes, the foreboding music expresses to us viewers that we are watching a horror film, but we do not see the typical figures associated with the horror genre, such as ghosts and creepy creatures, in the first act. The movie instead takes its time to show the terror and anxiety civilians face during wartime, suggesting that the dangers of war and the uncertainties of the future are frightening enough for the movie to be a horror film. This reminds us of an important lesson: Human beings are capable of doing horrible things. Monstrosity is not reserved for supernatural beings. To me, this reminder of humans’ capacity for committing atrocities is real horror. Thus, the title, Under the Shadow, on one level, refers to the looming threat of harm during wartime. During war, lives are destroyed, families are torn apart, towns and cities are reduced to rubble, and the people who survive suffer from trauma and often also have to bear horrible injuries. These dangers cast a shadow over all of the characters in the movie.
But, after the film’s first act, supernatural occurrences begin. And the tension and terror only escalate from there.
Something significant happens at the apartment building, after which it is believed that djinn have arrived to haunt the place. A little bit of background info: According to Encyclopedia Britannica, djinn are supernatural beings from Arabian mythology. Djinn are also mentioned in the Qur’an and are featured in works such as The Thousand and One Nights. As someone who heard stories of djinn during his childhood, I thought it was awesome seeing djinn included in a horror movie. Because I was familiar with tales about these beings, I felt a deep-rooted fear during parts of the movie. But this does not mean that familiarity with djinn is required for the film to be scary. For viewers unfamiliar with these figures, the supernatural threats perhaps become more ominous than they are for viewers who know about djinn. Also, the movie does an excellent job of explaining djinn just enough for the plot to make sense without diminishing the eeriness and mystery surrounding the paranormal beings.
While Shideh and Dorsa try to grapple with the supernatural horror that has invaded their home, the real-life horrors do not cease. The bombing alarms still go off. By placing real-life and supernatural horrors side-by-side, the film diminishes neither. Instead, the movie pushes us viewers to contend with questions about danger and safety. Where can the film’s characters find safety? During one powerful scene, Shideh and Dorsa flee their home in the middle of the night due to supernatural occurrences there, only to find a real-life threat on the streets outside. The film’s inclusion of supernatural phenomena also adds other layers of meaning. In my interpretation of the film, the djinn have metaphorical resonances related to the experiences of people during times of crisis.
Execution is key for a horror film. A scare can fall flat if it’s poorly shot, or it can feel cheap if there is not enough tension or suspense leading up to it. I remember one horror film I saw one or two years ago that was so poorly executed, it was not scary or suspenseful at all. There was no tension. There was no terror. The entire movie was just a series of grotesque images and off-putting scenes.
Under the Shadow is the exact opposite of that poorly-made horror film. It is skillfully executed. The camera angles keep me on the edge as I anticipate what might or might not appear in the background of a shot. When the camera shifts during certain scenes, I feel scared about what might be lurking just beyond the frame. Furthermore, Anvari’s script fleshes out the characters very well. They are flawed and complex and immensely sympathetic. The performances from all the actors are excellent. The characters feel like real people, and while watching, I was deeply invested in their struggles.
Under the Shadow is both scary and meaningful. It is currently available to stream on Netflix. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a compelling movie to watch at home, as well as to fellow fans of the horror genre.