Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Aram Ghasemy
Directed by: Babak Anvari
I can't remember the last time a horror movie actually gave me nightmares. But last night, after watching Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow, I woke up in a cold sweat from a dream in which I was constantly reassuring my six-year-old niece that everything was okay, while rigid with terror inside, knowing full well it wasn't.
Welcome to the world of Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). As if living in war-torn Tehran during the 1980s Iran/Iraq war weren't bad enough, as the sirens wail and missiles drop, the pair are being haunted by Djinn, evil spirits born on the wind, preying on fear and anxiety. Or are they?
Like Amelia in The Babadook, Shideh is somewhat ambivalent about motherhood, seeing it as a second-best option when her hopes of returning to university to become a doctor are crushed. An educated, modern woman, she is dismissive of superstitious talk, snapping at her gossipy neighbour Mrs Ebrahmi (Aram Ghasemy) for filling Dorsa's head with talk of Djinn. Yet, grieving for her own mother, who has died six months previously, and angry at her husband, himself a doctor conscripted to the frontline, who sees her foiled ambition as 'for the best', a habitual sleepwalker whose rest is continually interrupted by air raid alarms and Dorsa's bad dreams, her troubled soul is a fertile breeding ground for malevolent supernatural forces – or a mental breakdown. Are the fleeting glimpses she catches of sheeted figures and skeletal arms really there, or simply a figment of her stressed imagination and shattered nerves?
With echoes of the claustrophobia of Repulsion or Rosemary's Baby, the domestic disruption of Poltergeist and the off-kilter dislocation of Don't Look Now (complete with hooded child), Under the Shadow is a gripping, nerve-shredding horror movie and I loved it. Not only did it plunge me into a world of which I know very little, but it threw me into my favourite grey area: the terrifying gap between sanity and madness, everyday reality and supernatural horror.
In the grand old tradition of MR James, Anvari translates mundane objects (a crack in the ceiling, a doll, a book, a Jane Fonda workout video) into heart-stopping loci of terror – watch out for some cracking 'Whistle and I'll Come To You' moments with bedsheets. Wisely, he reveals very little of the Djinn visually: it isn't images that will haunt you after watching this movie, but a nagging sense of unease, self-doubt and lack of closure.
With a chilling storyline, convincing characters and great performances from the two female leads, and a restrained yet creepily effective use of SFX, Under the Shadow is probably the best horror movie of 2016, as different and exciting as Ringu seemed back in 1995. Don't miss it... but don't expect to sleep well afterwards either...