The scariest moment in Under the Shadow, the Iranian horror movie that hit select theaters on Friday before heading to Netflix, isn’t even all that horrific.
A Persian woman named Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lays in her bed alone during the last year of the Iran-Iraq War. Her doctor husband is gone, having been drafted to the front lines. In a daze, Shideh looks up from her slumber to see the blurry figure of a man standing in her doorway who then promptly walks away and disappears before she can find out who (or what) it is. This typifies the kind of unsettling atmosphere in Under the Shadow, a creepy exercise in subtext that also happens to be one of the best movies of its kind released this year. You mostly have director Babak Anvari’s impeccable vision and Rashidis incredible performance to thank, but also because of Netflix’s ambitious vision.
One could argue that Under the Shadow — which was recently submitted by the UK for next year’s Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category — is barely a horror movie, at least up until its final act. Up to that point, the movie mostly focuses on Shideh’s socio-political strife and the increasing levels of anxiety following the very first scene.
The film opens on her, wearing a hijab, pleading with an apathetic male school official to let her continue her post-Revolution medical studies. Both are sitting fixed between a large picture window looking out onto Tehran, and the scene ends with a large missile destroying a rooftop in the distance. It’s an explosive foreshadowing of things to come once her husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi) leaves.
Shideh fills her empty days with working out to an outlawed Jane Fonda aerobics videocassette or hiding with Dorsa in the basement for safety during air raids. During one, an inexplicably unexploded missile becomes mysteriously lodged into the building’s roof, causing cracks to appear in her ceiling. Soon, stray shadows, strange sounds, and gossip about malevolent entities called “djinns” make their way around the superstitious tenants who begin to leave one-by-one for safety or other unexplained reasons.
The djinn in question, an evil Middle Eastern spirit that travels on the wind, seems to focus its energy on Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), which causes Shideh’s discord with the political atmosphere to get much spookier. Her initially plucky daughter senses a presence talking to her and her prized doll in the family’s austere, beige apartment. Eventually, the young child becomes feverish and screams at Shideh for having allegedly lost her cherished plaything. It’s a sinister accusation, because djinns tend to steal a person’s prized possessions before possessing them.
What follows is a steady 89 minutes that unfolds as a master class in minimalist horror. Dorsa explains that the entity she calls “The Lady” — whose simple billowy shape is gradually revealed — is trying to take her away because it thinks it can do a better job of parenting than Shideh. The fearfulness of child-rearing is nothing new in horror, having been at the root of classics like Rosemary’s Baby to schlock like It’s Alive. Even the recent modern classic The Babadook shares similar DNA with Under the Shadow, which should join it in good company. But something those other movies don’t have on their side — even if they’re available to stream there — is Netflix.
It bought Under the Shadow before the movie premiered at Sundance, and the significance was lost in the streaming service’s buying frenzy earlier this year. Horror movies are kind of the bread and butter of Netflix’s catalogue. Peruse the selections, and there are seemingly more varieties of horror in the general section than just about any other area on the service — even foreign horror is stocked. But Under the Shadow represents Netflix’s first foray into an original foreign-language horror film Netflix can call its own.
Horror films seem like they should be well-trod territory for Netflix, which could have made at least ten movies by now if it employed the Blumhouse model of forking over $1 million a pop or less for spooky originals. It’s done just that with one movie already, the back-to-basics slasher Hush and is expanding its outlook with the upcoming Adam Wingard-directed adaptation of Death Note, but it has mostly focused on thrillers like Rebirth or sci-fi like ARQ for its original features. It did have a foreign-language original, but it was a sequel: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.
Under the Shadow then gains a certain level of prestige not just because it’s an incredible film, but also because Netflix used its unique resources to make it available to the widest audience possible. That is a tall order for a low-budget Iranian horror movie that actually tries to put some larger meaning behind its scares.
Despite its foibles and incessant film snob complaints, it’s a small victory for cinema when Netflix decides to use its clout and sizable wallet to favor creativity and ambition over blatant financial gains with films like Under the Shadow. The only problem is whether we’ll be able to keep watching for fear of being scared to death.