Under the Shadow

Caught between an endless war, a repressive regime, and a vengeful spirit

Avin Manshadi and Narges Rashidi star in UNDER THE SHADOW
Avin Manshadi, Narges Rashidi

United Kingdom/Jordan/Qatar. Directed by Babak Anvari, 2016. Starring Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi. 84 minutes.

Life in Tehran, the capital of Iran, was dangerous in the late ’80s, caught between the repressive regime of the Ayatollah Khomeni and the destruction of the seemingly-endless war with Iraq (as Saddam Hussein prepares to pelt Iranian targets, including Tehran, with Scud missiles). Air-raid sirens are a familiar sound; innocuous luxuries such as a Betamax recorder and Jane Fonda workout video must remain out of sight, lest one gain the attention of the wrong authorities. Against such a backdrop, the horrors of a supernatural monster might seem almost mundane.

That’s the environment in which Under the Shadow, the début feature from writer/director Babak Anvari, plays out. When Iraj (Bobby Naderi), a doctor living comfortably in a Tehran apartment block, is called to the front to tend to the causualties of war, his wife Shideh (Narges Rashidi) must raise their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone. Iraj’s departure coincides with the apparent arrival of a djinn, a malevolent spirit, seeking to do harm to the building’s residents; and it seems particularly interested in Dorsa.

We recognize this archetype, the fiercely defensive mother-figure fighting to protect her young, and Under the Shadow has earned several comparisons to The Babadook, the current “reigning” definitive treatment of the trope. Both films use its monster as a metaphor for larger issues, and neither shies away from the darker aspects of parent-child relationships.

But Under the Shadow’s subtext possesses a few more layers than we might expect from a horror film. Danger besets Shideh and Dorsa from all sides, with one peril feeding into the next. If it’s not the djinn, it’s the threat of the missiles (and the film’s most affecting shot depicts a Scud having broken through the roof of a top-floor apartment), and if it’s not the missiles, it’s the culture. We may breathe a sigh of relief when Shideh grabs Dorsa and flees the haunted block of flats, but our hearts almost immediately sink when we realize Shideh forgot to don her hijab first.

While Anvari subjects his ideas to complex development, his visual style relies a bit too much on the fundamentals, deploying jump-scares and “it was all a dream!” fakeouts several times too often. That doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have visual merits, and his use of peculiar camera angles to emphasize the off-kilter nature of a situation that’s already skewed to begin with stands out. He also indulges in a few creative visual set-pieces, memorably imbuing a simple head-scarf with a sense of palpable menace.

Under the Shadow provides a valuable window into a culture and time period not familiar to most Western audiences, and is quite excellent (even if it didn’t blow my mind as I’d hoped). As a fresh new talent, Babek Anvari has announced himself as someone to watch and I look forward to his future work.

Under the Shadow poster

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

An engrossing, richly-realized pulp landscape, destined to be regarded as a future cult classic.

United States. Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014. Starring Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mashall Manesh. 99 minutes. In Persian, with English subtitles. 

Bad City: a decaying ghost city populated by restless loners, lost souls, and exploitative creeps. Arash works his fingers to the bone for years to buy a vintage hot rod, only to lose it to a crime lord who claims it as payment for his junkie father’s debts. Atti, an aging prostitute (if 30 counts as “aging”), dreams a dream of escape that seems more ephemeral with each passing day. Party kids dose heavily and lose themselves in swirls of dance and EDM. And in the shadows, she lurks, the hijab-clad vampire girl, prowling the streets at night.

Adapted by director Ana Lily Amirpour from a graphic novel she wrote, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night styles itself “the first Iranian vampire Western.” If it’s a Western, it’s in the same sense that many John Carpenter films (such as Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York) are Westerns, with the Girl standing in for the outsider/avenger. Amirpour places Bad City in Iran, but the location work trades so heavily on the familiar iconography of the rotting industrial wasteland that the one can’t help but read one’s own experiences into the imagery, a sort of Rorschach blot test. (For the record, Amirpour actually shot the film in SoCal.)

But that’s not all. The stark monotone photography and soundtrack selections–a bit of Tex-Mex guitar here, a band that sounds like a cross between Echo and the Bunnymen and the Rapture there–create a spooky, gothic mood. The sparsely populated environment gives the viewer a sense of the postapocalyptic. (It’s taking me all the self-control I have to not describe A Girl Walks Home as science-fiction.) In Bad City, Amirpour delivers a richly-realized pulp landscape. It ain’t subtle–the villain of the first act has the word SEX tattooed on his neck–but it’s never less than engrossing.

This is less of a story to be told and more of an experience to be, well, experienced, but the environment engages the audience and carries it along for the ride. The characters function on the level of archetypes and don’t require extensive development, just enough to get senses of longing, sadness, tragedy. The film requires the cast members to prioritize the physical aspects of their performances, and all of them deliver strong work. However, Sheila Vand (the Girl) shines in particular, able to communicate a universe of contradictions in a single glance. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for someone so slightly-built, standing what seems not much more than five feet and maybe a couple of inches, to loom with such menace.

Normally I shrink from making predictions, but I can say with full confidence that future commentary will regard A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night as a cult classic. If you’re interested in genre filmmaking, you owe it to yourself to see it.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night poster