There’s something to be said for the horror genre repeating itself. Like other genre fiction, horror has some very specific tropes and archetypes it returns to. Recently, it’s been thorny parent-child relationships in movies like “The Babadook,” “Goodnight Mommy,” and, now, the haunting “Under the Shadow.”
It’s hard to blame Shideh (Narges Rashidi, “Tigermilch”), the troubled mother at the movie’s center. Having marched for leftist groups in the Iranian Revolution, she can’t return to medical school to complete her degree. Soon after, her husband, a doctor named Iraj (Bobby Naderi, “Boys on Film 14: Worlds Collide”) is drafted to the ongoing war, leaving her and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in war-torn Tehran. While others evacuate the city, a strange boy moves in with Shideh’s neighbors, bringing something dark with him.
“Under the Shadow” is an eerie haunted house movie where the house is a dilapidated apartment complex and the haunting is a country’s brutal, unending war. Strangely for a horror movie, Shideh and Dorsa’s biggest concern isn’t the thing stalking them, it’s the destruction of their homeland. That subtext is obvious, but it’s so potent and integrated into the narrative that it only adds to the horror. Add to that Shideh’s strained relationship with her daughter, and the movie deepens even more.
With so many factors tearing at the characters, it’s hard to know what’s the most dangerous. Shideh and Dorsa are at war for their home, bodies and souls, and it’s not always clear if they’ll win. Narges Rashidi as the put-upon matriarch and Avin Manshadi as her willful daughter are electric together. In many ways, the friction between them is the heart of the movie. Anvari withholds easy answers to their problems but never pushes their understandable antagonism too far.
What’s remarkable is that the movie relies on a few repeated scares. Director Babak Anvari is a horror technician, though, and each jump is earned, and each repeat is justified. Every time, the stakes aren’t raised so much as reinforced. Even before things get supernatural, viewers know what can be lost. Everything just comes together so well. Even the relatively poor CGI is used well even though it’s hard to take seriously in large doses.
Even so, the movie brings 2016, a great year for horror, to a strong close. To get this and “The Witch” in the same year feels like cheating; the world has suffered greatly since 2010, but the best horror of the decade turned its eye towards that suffering and revealed the power within it. Like “The Witch,” “Under the Shadow” makes an art of revealing that power. It’s a subtle masterwork, politically relevant and terrifying all at once.