As things go bump in the night in ‘Under the Shadow’ you might find yourself jumping out of your seat or grabbing the person next to you. This smart, terrifying and brilliantly feminist Farsi horror is the UK’s first entry in 25 years for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. It’s set in Tehran in the ’80s and directed for pennies by British-Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari.
For two-thirds it’s actually more claustrophobic psychological thriller than horror – similar to ‘The Babadook’ in the way it begins as a portrait of a breakdown. The protagonist of that earlier film had lost her husband – here, young mum Shideh (Narges Rashidi) has been deprived of her identity. A few years ago, as a young left-wing medical student, she was expelled for protesting during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. She got married and had a baby, but the authorities are refusing to readmit her to university. Shideh is also suffocating under Iran’s oppressive new-ish laws – in one scene she's arrested by the morality police for appearing in public without a hijab. Oh, and her apartment block is under nightly missile attack by Iraqi forces (this is mid-way through the Iran-Iraq war). No wonder she’s alienated and depressed.
When her little girl Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) starts seeing djinn demons under the bed, Shideh is initially dismissive (a flawed and interesting character, she's resentful of motherhood and her daughter's demands). But director Anvari rachets up suspense beautifully as she too starts believing. When the ghosties start running wild, the cracks show in the budget, but even still, this is a contender for horror of the year.