Why should Christianity have all the horror movies? The most celebrated genre efforts of all time are famed for tapping into religious anxieties and exploiting the fears of anybody who doesn’t want their faith tested. From The Exorcist to The Omen, these overt religious themes have helped them stay so memorable in the widespread public imagination. Even religious films themselves have tapped into the idea of the pop culture connections between scary movies and biblical texts – what is The Passion of the Christ if not the ultimate torture porn splatter movie?
As somebody with no faith to speak of, these themes are the primary reason as to why I struggle to get fully terrified by many horror classics. There’s no denying The Exorcist is a well directed movie, but as it taps into satanic fears I don’t share, it doesn’t come close to giving me the shivers. I do have an interest in theology, yet with the notable exception of The Witch (one of my favourite movies this year), no film that explores religious themes has ever threatened to terrify me.
Under the Shadow is a deeply Muslim horror movie, yet as we are seeing the events unfold through the eyes of a non believer, it’s incredibly easy to become enveloped in the nerve shredding insanity. Many audiences will write this off as a simple Babadook retread. However, by transporting a familiar possession narrative to a locale rarely seen in cinema (in this instance, war torn Tehran in the 1980’s) and using religious themes mostly alien to Western audiences, familiar horror tropes are enlivened and made newly terrifying once again.
Mid 1980’s Tehran is torn apart by a prior revolution and an ongoing war with neighbouring Iraq. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) has limited freedoms in the city, yet stubbornly refuses to leave with her husband, a medial doctor who has been assigned to an infamously war torn area. As the war continues and other occupants of their flat start leaving, they are ominously warned about a Djinn (an ancient demon from the Quran) possessing the building. Laughing it off as superstition, Shideh is soon terrified as her daughter’s doll goes missing – and she believes it has been taken to the abandoned flat above.
Of course, this is a harder sell than the aforementioned Babadook, as the psychological horror of Jennifer Kent’s film is eschewed in favour of a straightforward religious possession – in this case, from the demonic Djinn, whose possessive attitudes are detailed frequently in the Quran. Multiple viewings may reveal a more subtle psychological element at play here, although to my eyes debutant director Babak Anvari never depicts the horror as existing solely in the character’s imaginations; even the semi-ambiguous ending hints towards a manifestation of pure religious evil, not wartime terror.
What makes Under the Shadow stand out amongst religious themed horror movies is that instead of being defined by faith, the film is viewed through the eyes of a coded atheist who is the victim of religious oppression, all because of the fact she was born with a vagina. Many will view the character of Shideh as being nothing more than a Middle Eastern variant on the same stressed mother character from The Babadook, when really there are far more interesting thematic reasons for her descent into psychological trauma. She was a prior political activist as a student, something which refrains her from being allowed to resume her medical studies, as she;s constantly reminded of her political past in a land where the populace are supposed to blindly follow religion. Even as she flees from her house with her daughter to escape a possessive spirit, she is reprimanded by armed officers who throw them in the cell for not wearing a Hijab (“What is this, Europe?”). It’s enough to make anybody who doesn’t share those beliefs go crazy.
By grounding the mounting psychological horrors in the same realist vein as the works of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, unsuspecting viewers would likely expect a paranoid work of social realism, depicting the strain of everyday life in a war torn nation. Yet slowly, Anvari introduces classic horror themes – mute children who whisper about the oncoming threat, beloved items going missing and of course, new imaginary friends appearing out of nowhere. It’s a good, old fashioned fright-fest that manages to equally prioritise an eery atmosphere (something maximised as peripheral characters start fleeing the city, leaving only the central mother/daughter duo) with jump scares that make this accessible to modern horror fans.
Undoubtably one of the best films of 2016, this fantastic directorial debut is one of the essential foreign language works of the year – and further proof that 2016 is the greatest year for horror cinema in my lifetime.