Review: Babak Anvari's Horror 'Under the Shadow'

Note: This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

It's often hard to strike the right tone for horror. Often, in an attempt to simply scare audiences, horror becomes silly and more often than not, the scares are replaced with gore and lots of screaming. So it's refreshing to come across a horror film that has horror elements, but still aims to tell a good story without losing its scare factor. Under the Shadow is a balancing act of great dynamics, great scares, and is one of the best horror films to have come along in a while, thanks to writer and director Babak Anvari.
Under the Shado takes place in 1980s post-war and revolution Tehran. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is trying to go back to medical school in order to finish her degree and become a certified doctor. But the universities keep rejecting her because of her political leanings against the government during the revolution. So Shideh is very frustrated and angry--at her husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), at the fact that people think she incapable at being a mother, at the fact that she can't fulfill her dead mother's dream of becoming a doctor. So when her husband goes out of town for a while, Shideh is left with her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), and that's when all the strange things start happening.
Under the Shadow is honestly one of the scariest films you'll most likely see in 2016, and one of the genuinely scarier films I've seen in a few years. It combines fantastic filmmaking with the use of horror elements that weave together almost seamlessly. The plot plays on Shideh's insecurity as a mother and her failures at becoming a doctor and the use of the concept of Djinn, who appear in the Quran, works wonders at bringing the scares as well as making it a story of human vulnerability amidst a war and uncertain times.
Narges Rashidi truly shines in her role as Shideh, bringing various emotions to her performance. She's frustrated, feels stuck in her life, but regardless of the way she acts, you know that she loves her daughter very much, but is caught up in her recent insecurities. Avin Manshadi as Dorsa embodies childhood innocence and the willingness to perhaps embrace strange things much faster than a logical adult. Manshadi plays scared and angry very well and helps to balance the dynamic between mother and daughter.
Under the Shadow is definitely a must-see horror film. It blends horror with a great story about the dynamics of mother and child, the feeling of inadequacy everyone can relate to. The use of Djinn strikes the right balance and is scary but doesn't play into the silliness that so many other horror films peruse. This is what happens when a great, character-driven story is combined with the horror genre. It makes a horror film worth watching.