TEhRaN all Night
J-horror meets war drama in smart supernatural shocker Under The Shadow...
“You just know that when the siren goes off you have to run down to the basement, otherwise something terrible could happen,” says director Babak Anvari, describing the nightmare scenario he acted out repeatedly as a child of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. “It was a dark time, it made sense to tell a horror story set there!” He laughs. “I’m surprised nobody had done that before...”
Infusing his real-life experiences with the queasy dream logic of slow-burn horror, Anvari’s feature debut, Sundance hit Under The Shadow, is all about terrors both real and imagined as Shideh (Narges Rashidi) battles phantoms in her high-rise Tehran home. “She’s a smart woman who doesn’t believe in supernatural things,” says Rashidi, who was also born in Iran and experienced the war first-hand. “For me, what was so special is that I never knew; is this really happening or is it just in her head?”
As Shideh’s young daughter reports seeing somebody around their battle-scarred apartment, Shideh’s forced to consider the possibility that, as her neighbour warns, they could be the target of a djinn. “Japanese horror was a major influence,” reveals Anvari, who shot for just 21 days in an apartment block in Jordan, and cites Ringu and The Grudge as tonal touchstones. “It’s interesting how the Japanese use their own culture and mythology to tell these really engaging stories. I thought, ‘I can do the same with the culture I’m from.’”
Boasting an authentic sense of time and place, Under The Shadow also used Iranian culture to inform Rashidi’s performance. As part of her prep for the role, the actress was told to watch Rosemary’s Baby, and Anvari also sent her the kind of Persian music, lyrics and poems – all heavily political – that Shideh would enjoy. And while the film has a meaty subtext, it’s also a nail-biter of a horror film with feminist overtones. “I didn’t set out to write a feminist script,” says Anvari, “it happened naturally because inspiration came from conversations I’d had with my mum.”
It wasn’t all scares, though, especially when it came to creating the film’s terrifying djinn. “Our producer was in a green motioncapture suit jumping around on set,” Rashidi laughs. “That was actually funny, I had to laugh. That was more funny than scary!”
Under The Shadow is out 30 September and reviewed on page 96.
Narges Rashidi gives a great performance as a woman under attack.