Babak Anvari’s Farsi-language Under the Shadow blends the terrifying setting of the Iran-Iraq War with that of the haunted house genre, creating a wholly unique backdrop that builds strong tension and powerful characters. But even though it thrives on the very real nightmares of war and uses that setting to heighten the impact of its supernatural twist, Under the Shadow is a largely by-the-numbers horror film that dilutes its own tension by repeating familiar tropes. In it, as a mother and daughter struggle to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war-torn Tehran of the 1980s, a mysterious evil begins to haunt their home.
Right away Anvari sets the tone of his film by giving the audience a glimpse of what life was like in Tehran during the 1980s—the sound of an explosion echoing through the city was an everyday norm, so much so that families regularly retreated to the basement of their homes. It’s that horrifying reality in which Under the Shadow is based that gives the film a sharp edge, especially as it transitions into the world of the supernatural. The way the film slowly leans into horror, taking the time to create a world and the characters within it, showed great confidence, and Anvari’s patient approach to building tension was refreshing.
But it was that very transition into horror, as an evil spirit begins to torment a mother and daughter, that the film steps away from what was so wonderfully established—while its setting is no doubt unique, the actual supernatural elements are weak and familiar. What starts out as a haunted house film unlike any other, ultimately stumbles over the same horror tropes we see time and time again—outside of a couple legitimately creepy scenes, there’s just not enough strong horror elements to make the film stand out; it just proves that horror is so much more than the environment it takes place in.
It’s not a bad movie by any stretch, it’s just a familiar one. I still enjoyed it well enough despite that, and I really like Anvari’s style—the way he frames his shots and holds onto a scene, squeezing every ounce of tension from it, was terrific. And how he uses the overwhelming fear of war to his advantage by leading the narrative straight into one of horror’s most classic tales—the haunted house—was a brilliant way to blend the natural with the supernatural.