If horror films played poker, Under the Shadow would see and raise The Babadook. The hands they're playing seem so similar: mother alone in her cavernous home with precocious tyke who ping-pongs between vulnerable and that special screaming-child brand of obnoxious; a fairy-tale beastie on the hunt; a blessed lack of gore; a larger sense that this monster may be the ugly truth of motherhood itself. Even in the horror genre, where certain formulas are recycled every time new generations of storytellers come to the campfire, the repetition and timing here comes dangerously close to been-there, spooked-that. Yet this British/Qatari/Jordanian co-production bests Jennifer Kent's 2014 cult hit with its own kind of royal flush: a broader social and political context, one that deepens the impact of the showy scares by hinting at the real-life ones beneath the surface.
Iranian-born writer-director Babak Anvari, making his feature debut, gives his creeping tale that extra oomph by setting it in 1988 Tehran, as the Iran-Iraq war is winding down. Young mother Shideh (a superb Narges Rashidi) has dreams of becoming a doctor, but her radical past keeps her out of medical school, and her doctor husband would seem to prefer she stay at home with their young daughter, anyway. But it's at home where the real danger is, as we see in an early, telling scene when a warhead plows into the upper floor of Shideh's apartment complex. It doesn't explode when it lands: it just perches there, menacing the other helpless families in the building with its suggestion of sudden, violent death, until authorities can wheel it out.
That warhead is, almost literally, Alfred Hitchcock's proverbial "bomb underneath the table" — the one we know must go off at some point. And there could be no more effective way to begin a horror film than with such an era-appropriate, authentic horror. But war is not the beast in the shadows here, merely a catalyst for it. Other residents tell of the djinni, a familiar evil spirit from Islamic folklore that can haunt a home — stealing objects and crafting nightmares until it preys on the people themselves. When Shideh's husband is called away on duty, and her daughter Dorsa (first-time actor Avin Manshadi, convincingly terrified throughout) claims her favorite doll has gone missing, there is nowhere else to go, nowhere else it could have gone: only to the further reaches of her mother's mind, and that way assuredly lies madness.
As the heroine, alone in the prison of her home with little more than supernatural phenomena to keep her company, begins to lose her grip on reality, Rashidi's performance becomes more illuminating. She displays an assertiveness, a remnant of the radical past she doesn't quite want to shake, that sinks further into despair and submission the more she is terrorized by forces beyond her control. In the grand tradition of Polanski and Carpenter, Anvari's filmmaking descends into madness along with her, finding off-kilter angles with which to explore the same four rooms. One superbly creepy shot comes from Shideh's groggy, half-asleep point-of-view as she lies in bed staring at the ceiling, just catching the sight of something sinister out of the corner of her eye in the doorway. It's a brief, all-too-effective reminder that going to sleep alone can be terrifying.
Now we come to the context: a setting and time period that Anvari borrowed from his own childhood memories. His film contains an undercurrent of pointed outrage directed at the Iranian cultural revolution, and the remarkable thing is how seamlessly it blends with the scary-movie stuff, in a genre that usually prefers its political criticism to be metaphorical, not specific. Shideh's prized American workout tape would be snatched up by authorities if anyone else found it, yet every day she pops it in — so we know her intimate relationship with this symbol of Western evil will soon be threatened. She likes to remove her headcovering as soon as she's in private, which leads to the film's most harrowing sequence: when djinn-like forces send her and Dorsa screaming into the night, a policeman's first thought is not for their safety, but rather to chastise her for forgetting to cover herself in public. (The movie was shot in Jordan, away from Iran's strict stipulations about what women can and cannot wear and do onscreen, so fans of Asghar Farhadi may be shocked at this film's degree of creative freedom.)
Unhelpful authority figures are a staple of the horror genre, ensuring the protagonist will have to face their deepest fears alone. But in Under the Shadow they are more than merely clueless: they're antagonistic in their own right, making their presence known even in day-to-day domestic life, casting their own kind of shadow over Shideh and Dorsey. The most consistent fear in Anvari's film is that of being a mother and daughter alone in a world that won't help or respect you. Far more so than djinn, this is a fear that doesn't easily dissipate.