The Iran-Iraq War, fought between 1980 and 1988 over borders and social revolution, was a long and deadly conflict. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and displaced. War itself is terrifying enough but what makes Babak Anvari’s film Under the Shadow unique is that it sets a story about evil Iranian spirits known as the Djinn against this backdrop. The director has effectively blended simple scare techniques with the horrors of a war-torn reality and the result is a highly compelling and efficient film that unnerves the viewer.

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It’s 1988 in Tehran, Iran. The Iran-Iraq war is nearing its end when Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is drafted for his yearly military duty. He must leave his wife Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) in their apartment and hopes that they can stay safe. When a missile strike is imminent, a warning siren sounds and everyone in the building must rush to the basement. When one crashes through the roof of their building but doesn’t explode, the residents all begin to leave to find safer grounds. As if the horrors of war aren’t enough, it soon becomes apparent that the missile has brought something else with it. Rumours of the evil Iranian spirits known as the Djinn spread and strange occurrences begin plaguing Shideh and Dorsa. When Dorsa’s favourite doll goes missing, it becomes clearly evident that something is wrong. The child has been marked by the Djinn and they must work to get the doll back before they can break the possession. It’s a race to safety against both the ominous realities of a worsening war and the increasingly aggressive spirits.

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One of the most unique aspects of this film is the setting that this story takes place in. It’s an interesting concept to pair these two ideas together, and it becomes an allegory of the horrors that children face when having to live in a war zone. The atmosphere of war is distressing but to then pair it with a horror story about evil spirits amplifies this fear. The sirens warning of an incoming attack take on a haunting presence that is just as frightening as the scares from the supernatural elements. It’s also interesting to see Shideh dealing with the realities of what life is like for a woman living in Iran coupled with her desperation to save her child.

This film is a great example of the effectiveness simplicity can have in a horror film. So much is done through quiet isolation and the scare moments that don’t take the viewer out of the grounded reality that was established early on. The scare tactics are all done within the bounds of what makes sense in this world. These characters are all on edge to begin with having to deal with living in a war zone, so that paranoia is used to dramatically increase the difficulty Shideh and Dorsa face in battling the spirits and it compliments it very well.

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Director Babak Anvari has proven himself to be a promising talent in the world of horror. His background and experiences as a child living through the Iran-Iraq War brought an interesting perspective and setting we haven’t really seen before save for perhaps a small handful of examples. The Middle East setting and culture is an untapped resource for telling these kinds of stories and he would do well to continue exploring them in his work.

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