Babak Anvari's debut feature is a satisfyingly tense and atmospheric haunted-apartment thriller set in 1988 Tehran.
Those cracks in the ceiling are hiding a lot more than dry rot in “Under the Shadow,” a satisfyingly tense and atmospheric thriller set in a haunted Tehran apartment during the terrifying final days of the Iran-Iraq War. Slyly merging a familiar but effective genre exercise with a grim allegory of female oppression, Babak Anvari’s resourceful writing-directing debut grounds its premise in something at once vaguely political and ineluctably sinister; imagine an Asghar Farhadi remake of “The Babadook” and you’re halfway there. Acquired for streaming by Netflix before its Sundance midnight premiere (with XYZ Films and Vertical Entertainment partnering on a day-and-date digital/VOD/theatrical release), Anvari’s film looks to scare up more coin than “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (2014), to name another Park City-premiered horror movie by a director of Iranian descent; unlike that more austere chiller, “Shadow” delivers the sort of sleek, swiftly paced freakout that streaming customers will gladly look past subtitles to experience.
Deep knowledge of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) is not required to follow the events of Anvari’s screenplay, which quickly outlines the sense of panic and terror that has gripped the population of Tehran as sirens and explosions rattle the city. But Shideh (an excellent Narges Rashidi) is less concerned than most about the possibility of death by Iraqi missile; an aspiring doctor, she’s determined to resume her medical studies but is rebuffed by a university administrator, who cites her past political activism as the reason she’ll never receive the benefits of higher education in Iran.
That Shideh’s husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is himself a doctor seems to exacerbate their own marital tensions, as Shideh feels increasingly resentful of having set her studies aside years ago, before the revolution, to raise their young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). When Iraj is called away to the front lines of the conflict, Shideh is left to stay in the apartment and look after Dorsa — a task that turns out to be rather easier said than done amid the air-raid warnings that frequently send them and their neighbors downstairs to some sort of makeshift bomb shelter. When a falling missile embeds itself in the ceiling of another resident’s apartment but mysteriously doesn’t detonate (it would almost be less ominous if it did), it’s hard not to sense that the perils of real-world warfare have ushered some possibly supernatural horrors into the building.
Much of the movie’s mythology is helpfully spelled out by a superstitious neighbor who believes the culprit responsible is a djinn, an evil Middle Eastern spirit that travels on the wind. There are other eerie wink-wink portents as well, like the young boy who’s temporarily staying with Shideh’s landlord (Ray Haratian), and who has been mute since his parents’ recent untimely deaths. But in the end, the malevolent energies at work seem to have focused themselves on Dorsa, who carries on conversations with an invisible visitor and regularly screams at Shideh for having removed her cherished doll — an accusation that takes on a sinister significance, in light of the rule that a djinn must steal something from a person in order to possess them.
As the apartment building begins to empty out, Shideh stubbornly elects to remain behind with her daughter, and the second half of “Under the Shadow” becomes an increasingly shivery exercise in shattered glass and frayed nerves, its dim brown-and-beige interiors giving rise to the sort of jolts and nightmarish hallucinations that have a way of blurring into waking reality. Breaking away from the more locked-down framing of the early scenes, the camera starts racing from room to room, up and down staircases; Anvari and his d.p. Kit Fraser have fun cleverly manipulating the widescreen aspect ratio, whether by rotating the image 90 degrees or panning just a few inches to the left to reveal something previously unseen.
Rashidi plays Shideh like an instrument slowly going out of tune, modulating skillfully between maternal tetchiness and scream-queen abandon. Whatever the specific political implications of the evildoer persecuting her and her daughter, “Under the Shadow” has mercifully little interest in spelling it out. The movie works first and foremost by feeding on the unspoken anxieties of a major historical trauma (one that Anvari and his own family lived through), its bump-in-the-night terrors taking root under circumstances where it wasn’t at all hard to believe the end was near.
That the movie mostly avoids easy symbolism, however, is no reason to overlook the feminist anger blazing at its core. No less than any non-genre Iranian classic, Anvari’s film is deeply concerned with the plight of women under the post-revolution regime, and not just because of a brief subplot in which Shideh is arrested for going outdoors without her chador. (You can sense her rage in the recurring scenes of her stripping down to a tank top in her living room and sweating her way through a workout video.) In its harrowing final moments, “Under the Shadow” reveals itself as a horror story rooted in the dreams and pathologies that mothers pass down to their daughters, and the defiant gestures it may take for cycles of persecution to be broken.