“There’s nothing in the dark that isn’t there when the lights are on.” When Twilight Zone writer Rod Serling uttered those famous words, he was clearly being ironic. For when the lights go out, that’s when our nightmares come to life.
2016 release, Under the Shadow, gives us terror of the most cerebral kind. Usually I’m not a fan of horror movies, but after seeing the score this one’s bagged on Rotten Tomatoes – a sterling 98% – I thought I’d give it a go. As chance would have it, the film just happened to be showing at the David Lean Cinema in Croydon, which, if you’ve never been there, is well worth a visit.
Picture the scene. It’s 1980s Tehran. Iran is in the midst of a war with with Iraq. People are frightened. Families hide behind closed doors. And a mother and daughter are about to get the shock of their lives. Personally, I can’t vouch for knowing a lot about the situation in Tehran at this time, but, like most conflict zones, I’d imagine there was a deep feeling of tension and unease about the place.
Dad, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is a doctor, and mum, Shideh (Narges Rashidi), has dreams of becoming one herself. However, circumstances restrict her from doing so. Daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), is your typical young girl: utterly cute in a helpless sort of way. Like many children her age she struggles to sleep at night, for no immediate reason other than being scared of the dark.
As the nightly alarm sounds, them and others on their block take shelter in the basement, waiting for the all-clear. They’re told that a missile could hit any day. In the basement, Dorsa makes the acquaintance of a strange boy called Medhi, whom we learn is a mute. He warns of evil spirits called djinn which lurk in the atmosphere and curse families. As a woman of science, Shideh rejects the idea, but confronts the boy’s cousin, Mrs. Ebrahimi, nonetheless. “Please ask him not to tell Dorsa those kind of stories,” she pleads.
Shideh learns that Iraj has to go away to support the war efforts. He pleads with her to move in with his mum and dad, insisting that Tehran is no longer safe. However, she refuses to give up her home, and stands her ground, resolutely. With Iraj gone, trouble starts to set in. A missile eventually hits, taking out a room on the top floor, and killing an ill father in process.
But this is no ordinary missile. Or at least that’s what we’re lead to believe. Its a bad omen. The disappearance of Dorsa’s doll, Kimia , provides an early warning sign that everything isn’t quite what it seems. Dorsa maintains that it’s been snatched by one of the djinn, much to her mother’ s annoyance, who can’t quite fathom the idea of their existence. Until she comes face to face with them, that is.
Mysterious footsteps and nightmarish forms at the window turn her belief system upside down. The fever her daughter contracts shows all the signs of being a possession, which looks unlikely to subside. Desperate to keep the flat safe, she tapes up the cracked windows and allows her daughter to share a bed with her. However, it’s the crack in the ceiling, left behind in the wake of the missile strike, which alarms her the most. Dorsa is convinced that a monster hides beyond it, and works it way down through the opening each night. She also tells of a mysterious old lady who comes to her bedroom in the late hours. With all the other residents on the block gone, mother and daughter are left to fight the darkness. The only thing holding back their leaving is the safe return of Kimia.
Under The Shadows is not your typical horror film. More chiller than slasher, it makes you jump without stooping to the level of supernatural nonsense. It’s carefully thought out, playing off fears which an adult might experience just as easily as a child. The absence of a hard-hitting soundtrack suspends our anticipation of what to expect next , allowing silence to take hold where an eerie piano might usually feature. Consequently, the inclusion of typical 80s music, via Shideh’s’s Jane Fonda workout tapes, does wonders to immerse us in the time. Other telltale signs of the period include a Renault 5, a dated television set and drab furnishings.
Don’t let the subtitles put you off – this is a must-see movie, not only for horror fans, but lovers of good filmmaking full stop. There’s plenty under the shadows, alright. Catch the film on Netflix now.
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