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The night is black,
A bleak throwback
To when the world was without shape.
A shadow shifts,
The darkness drifts
And snares your eye with no escape.

You crane your neck
To merely check
That all is well outside your bed.
And pray no face
Or graver case
Will give you reason for your dread.
________________

MPAA rating: PG-13

I’m not really into horror generally, but it’s become something of a tradition for me to watch a scary movie alone at night, just to review it for Halloween. Like The Conjuring, The Babadook, and Lights Out in years past, I decided to check out an acclaimed creepfest that focuses more on atmospheric tension rather than gross-out gore. This time, though, I went outside the English-speaking world to watch Under the Shadow, a Persian-language horror (with a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes) set in 1980s Tehran.

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Of course, 1980s Tehran wasn’t the best place to be, especially during the increasingly frequent bombings of the Iran-Iraq War. It’s already a tense setting, as the inhabitants of an apartment building must head downstairs into the basement at the sound of bomb sirens, much to the chagrin of mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Disgruntled by her country’s rigid decrees keeping her from becoming a doctor, Shideh is further unsettled when her husband is sent off to war, and as strange events start to occur late at night, she wonders if there is indeed something haunting her family.

In many ways, Under the Shadow is exactly the kind of horror movie I like, with a creeping dread serving as the main source of fear, knowing that something could happen at any moment and jumping out of your skin when it occasionally does. There’s zero blood on display, and it doesn’t need it. While it taps into the mythology of malevolent air spirits or djinns, it’s surprising how well the frights work when they stem from what is essentially the most minimalist ghost, a floating sheet (technically a chador, a Persian women’s cloak). The uncanny fear conjured by its sudden appearances is potent stuff.

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However, there’s nothing especially notable about the story itself, aside from its unique cultural setting, which is itself a danger, since Shideh can be punished for even fleeing her home without a head covering. Yet the plot isn’t too far from that of The Amityville Horror, and the mother/child dynamic, while showing growth, has been done with better closure elsewhere. Even so, Under the Shadow provided exactly what I look for in a scary movie, while excluding what I avoid in the genre. Well-acted with a slow-burn anxiety, it’s an excellent addition to my Halloween reserve, even if it’s made me look over my shoulder more often than before.

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

© 2019 S.G. Liput
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