Highly praised throughout last year, Under the Shadow was lauded as one of the best horror films of the year. Expectations were high. The bar was at an altitude that requires an oxygen mask. In other words, it was set up for this reviewer's harsh critique...I know I tend to be more critical of films with a lot of hype or acclaim. And while I feel I approached this film with the same perspective, it did mostly escape unscathed.
Under the Shadow follows a mother and her daughter as they attempt to survive a haunting in the middle of war-torn Tehran in the 1980s. While the husband is drafted to provide medical services for the military, Shideh (the mother) and Dorsa (the daughter) stay behind in Iran's capital. As the violence of the war begins to engulf the city at a festering rate, a dud missile goes through the roof of the apartment building in which the family is staying. A djinn haunting ensues that leads Shideh into a fight for the survival of her and Dorsa.
This film manages to touch on various key elements of Iranian cultural critique, and still was able to maintain sound storytelling while properly communicating each message seamlessly. This alone was remarkable and commendable. If nothing else, this film deserves high praise. But it still managed to be an effective horror film in the process, which is all the more impressive.
Narges Rashidi (Shideh) and Bobby Naderi (Iraj, the father) were both incredible in their roles. Every argument and emotion, meaning, and a sense of realism that is often absent. The film was flawless in its transcendence of cultures, as even an undead American I could follow the plot and motif with ease. This can be a struggle in some films, but so many attributes and struggles of humanity are shared in all cultures, and that aspect was delivered perfectly.
Unfortunately, the weakest point of the film was the haunting/possession horror aspect. It wasn't necessarily its efficiency, but its impact. The film built a rather unsettling atmosphere. The slow build was paced at a constant crawl. It was so constant - the increased dread - you could put a clock to it. It was impressive. But such a build requires a significant pay-off, and I felt this area was lacking, if ever-so slightly. There were several moments in the film in which I applauded the cinematography and creative visuals, but fear was never a genuine response I felt. Now, given I'm undead and am admittedly desensitized at this point by horror films, I was still a little disappointed and was hoping for a bit more in the scares, based on what I had heard.
Still, this film deserves ending on a positive note. The film has an incredibly high quality to it, far exceeding its budget, regardless of what that budget may have been. I felt like I was watching a quality piece of cinema that was a work of art in its own right. I won't let a little lack of effective horror bring down an otherwise fantastic film, but, at the same time, this is a horror review site and we cross our fingers we'll see the goods delivered. This film just didn't have quite as much goods as we were hoping.