How a horror movie by a first-time director made it all the way to the Oscar race
Fear is a theme that has powered movies from their very inception, but the list of the ones that capture it at its most pure, its most gut-level, remain elusively few and far between.
Just so we’re clear, Babak Anvari’s astonishing feature debut, Under the Shadow, is most definitively on that list.
The 33-year-old now lives in London but grew up in Iran where the war with Iraq provided the soundtrack to much of his childhood – the shrill of the air-raid sirens frequently leading to frantic dashes down into the basement to take cover from incoming artillery. “My brother and I have grown up being scared of everything and anything,” Anvari says. “We’ve both grown up with night terrors, being afraid of being left alone, of being in the dark for too long.”
And then there’s the nightmare. It is always the same. “I wake up shouting at someone in the corner of the room,” he says. “I can feel someone there, and I’m so convinced of it. It takes me 30 seconds or so to realise I am actually alone.”
But if, as Tim Burton once observed, “directing movies is like an expensive form of therapy”, one would imagine that Anvari has managed to expel many of the ghosts of his past with his multi-genre masterpiece.
The movie takes place in the Tehran of his youth and opens with archive footage from 1988. Bombs fall from the sky and onto the streets, before the focus moves to a family feeling the strain of living under the ever-present shadow of war. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is the mother who wants to keep studying to be a doctor but is unable to, having been kicked out of her studies for the political leanings of her teenage years. Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is her successful doctor husband – a fact that isn’t exactly helping matters, domestically – and Dorsa (the incredible find that is young actress Avin Manshadi) is their daughter.
When Iraj is conscripted to the front line to treat the wounded, Shideh and Dorsa are left alone in the family apartment. And when an unexploded bomb crashes through the roof of their building, things swiftly start going bump in the night...
Are these terrifying apparitions the result of Shideh’s increasingly frazzled mind? Or has a djinn – an evil wind-born spirit – really come in through the ominous crack in the ceiling, with designs on possessing Dorsa?
“My mother and I had a conversation,” says Anvari of what inspired him to tell this story. “I asked her why she raised such scared boys. She confessed that she felt so afraid during those months Dad was away, and she’s convinced she passed her fears on to us. She blames herself.”
The resulting movie brought back many real-life memories for Anvari’s mother – “She got really emotional watching it,” he says – but it also excels when it comes to the supernatural elements that power its second half, ratchetting up its terrors to an almost unbearable level.
“I happen to have a very overactive imagination – as my teachers all used to tell me on a regular basis,” Anvari laughs. “And it has been therapeutic sharing my fears with the public. The fact that the public have found my fears scary too has made me realise that at least it isn’t just me, that I’m not that kid from The Sixth Sense. Which is good!”
Under the Shadow has also recently received its greatest accolade so far. The UK has put it forward as its foreign-language entry (the movie is in Farsi) for this year’s Oscars. “The Academy members are looking at it now, and we’re waiting to see if it makes the shortlist,” says Anvari. “But just to have come this far is amazing.”
As for what’s next, there are the inevitable conversations about a US remake, but for Anvari his focus is on the next thing: “a Hitchcockian neo-noir set in the UK” that will be shot in the second half of next year.
“I’m very lucky,” says Anvari. “I was inspired to make Under the Shadow by my Mum and the women I grew up with, and I’m very proud of it. There is a view of women in Iran that they are ready to be victimised. But women in Iran don’t just take whatever is thrown at them. They fight back. I wasn’t trying to make a statement. I just wanted to tell an honest story.”
Under the Shadow is on Netflix now.
Abbas Kiarostami the report (1977)
“Kiarostami is a legend, in Iran and beyond. And he’s also a poet. I love his movies. I looked at a lot of them because I very much wanted Under the Shadow to start out as a social-realist drama before becoming the horror movie it does. For me The Report is perfect. Through the Olive Trees, too.”
Jack Clayton the innocents (1961)
“I’m inspired by loads of directors,” says Anvari. “But for this movie there were some obvious classics that I revisited. Clayton’s The Innocents is an amazingly tense haunted house movie, especially in the way it shows a woman’s [Deborah Kerr] mind slowly unravel.”
Roman Polanski rosemary’s baby (1968)
“Polanski is so heavy on atmosphere, which is what I was trying to achieve. His apartment series was a particular inspiration, with Rosemary’s Baby and Replusion both great reference points. Mia Farrow and Catherine Deneuve are both brilliant in them, too.”