Under the Shadow (2016)

I had two best friends throughout my tenure at Friends School of Baltimore (12 whole years). One was a goofy yet deep artist who taught me about comic books and the other one was a more serious guy who was the first to teach me about cars and pro-wrestling. That second one was also a child of divorce who had been raised Muslim and Christian. When I was in elementary school (my school called it ‘Lower School’), we would spend lunch and recess running around a vast playground. I distinctly remember that one day, my friend began to tell me about the djinn. He told me that they were not anything like genies, granting wishes, they were evil spirits created by Satan and not to be trusted. He seemed absolutely certain that these spirits were real and that we could see one in America. Later, we were reading comic books in his room during a sleepover and his mother called up to look out the window at the Police helicopter flying by. I moved to comply and he blocked my path. He told me that it could be a trick and that Satan could be mimicking his mother’s voice in order to trick us into looking. It frightened me deeply.

I live in Baltimore, Maryland in the United States of America. Things might feel bad right now (as of 2018) but they are nowhere near the experience of areas in the Middle East. For most of my life, I have lived in a big city with a notoriously high crime rate. Almost every day I see reports of people getting shot or shot at in the Baltimore area. People jokingly call the place I live ‘Bodymore, Murderland” which is probably one of the greatest examples of dark humor I know of. However, only once in recent US history have we actually been attacked by a foreign power. In countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and others, things are very different. We do not get bombs dropped on us in this country. The idea of sitting in my apartment in Baltimore on the east coast of the USA and worrying about a military accidentally dropping a bomb on me is unthinkable. Yet, that is a valid fear in other countries. The idea that you could be obliterated because of political differences between your nation and another is something politicians use as a political tool in the US but has not really been a strong possibility for decades. The concept itself is scary.

Once again, we have a horror movie with fabulous acting. It is a pattern that horror movies with a more psychological bent have good acting while gorefests usually have bad acting. Of course, there are exceptions but that is the general rule that I have observed. Narges Rashidi plays the lead character, a mother tired of being oppressed by the Iranian government especially considering she was attending medical school before the war. She is joined by her daughter played by Avin Manshadi who is a good little girl in the middle of a war. Most of the movie deals with the interactions between the mother, her daughter, and the supernatural. This is why this movie is often called ‘The Persian Babadook’. Like in that movie, the interactions between mother accentuate the experiences with the supernatural, making things tenser. The movie also does show a lot of slice of life scenarios in a war-torn Iran which is something we do not often see here in the US.

The camera work is great in this movie. There is a lot of it that reminds me of Veronica, The Haunting of Hill House, and The Shining. Great shots help make a great movie and this movie definitely captures that ‘every frame is a painting’ quality. Every shot really means something in this movie which feels rare these days. The movie does a lot with camera tricks, editing, and practical effects to make things scary. I have to admire a movie that does not have to rely on elaborate CGI, monster makeup, or puppets to make things scary. Like comedy, horror is all in the timing and a big part of that is editing which is on point in this movie. The movie draws on maternal fears for a child’s safety and self-doubt to create a horror story almost entirely in the mind. The pacing is great, starting slow but speeding up almost exponentially as the movie goes on.

Overall, I loved the movie. When it started, it was set on English which sounded really weird because the voice over sounded a bit dispassionate. I quickly switched it over to the original Persian so I could get the full breadth of emotions. Your mileage may vary, of course. The movie is very gripping and really made me feel for both the mother and daughter. The emotional tension got me good and keyed up for the supernatural bits. I love this direction in horror just as much as the cheesy Freddy stuff I crow about in this blog. However, I feel movies like this will have a more lasting emotional impact.

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