There’s a moment midway through Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow that should make you jump out of your skin. Two seats away from me in the screening I attended, a viewer punctuated it with a loud and involuntary F-word – and not for the last time during the film.
We’d been lulled into a false sense of security by the film’s opening section, which comes on like a potent Iranian domestic drama – of the kind familiar from the films of Asghar Farhadi, such as About Elly (2009) and A Separation (2011). Set in 1980s Tehran, during the turbulence of the Iran-Iraq war, it plays out almost entirely within the apartment of a married couple, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and Iraj (Bobby Naderi), and their young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi).
With the city plunged into violent chaos, Iraj is drafted to the frontlines to provide medical support, leaving Shideh – whose own medical career has stalled because of her past political activism – to look after Dorsa. It’s here that Under the Shadow begins its turn of the screw, as frequent air raids and the near destruction of a neighbouring apartment by a falling missile create an atmosphere of creeping anxiety and portent. Disturbed by erratic behaviour from her daughter, Shideh becomes increasingly obsessed with the notion that there are malevolent forces at work in the building. This fear is only stoked by her superstitious neighbour, who ascribes the odd goings-on to an unleashed jinn, those spirits of Middle Eastern mythology that it’s unwise to vex.
For this unholy brew of the domestic, the political and the irrational, Anvari’s film has been drawing ‘Farhadi meets The Babadook’ comparisons since it premiered at Sundance in early 2016. Netflix had already snapped it up even before the premiere buzz was able to anoint Under the Shadow the latest in a recent string of breakout indie horror titles.
The result is exciting times for the film’s Iranian-born, London-based first-time director. “Getting it made and seeing it being so well received is such a relief for me,” he tells me. “Making a first feature is difficult. Making a film is difficult, period. But making a Farsi-language horror film set in 80s Tehran and looking for producers in Britain – it’s a big challenge.”
“When my agent sent the script out,” Anvari continues, “I started seeing producers and a lot of them had a big question mark when it came to language. They asked if there was any way I could film it in English, but I said no. But Wigwam Films came on board and took a huge risk in helping me make the film. I hope they think their risk paid off.”
With Under the Shadow about to put the frighteners on audiences across the UK, we asked him to talk us through the films that helped inspire this uniquely terrifying debut.
Polanski’s apartment trilogy (1965-76)
The very first source of inspiration was Polanski’s apartment series: Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). Like my film, they’re all set in a flat or an apartment block. Repulsion is focused on a female character who gradually starts to unravel and lose her grip on reality. The same with Rosemary’s Baby: it’s about a woman dealing with inner demons and certain paranoias. I read in one of Polanski’s interviews that he always wanted to keep it ambiguous, so you’re not sure if it’s her fears or whether she actually gave birth to the son of the Devil. However, in the film I always felt like it’s more like the latter. I tried to keep my film more ambiguous – though I don’t know how successful I was – so you don’t whether the events are actually happening or whether they’re the effect of isolation and repression.
The Innocents (1961)
My film is a very gothic tale. You’ve heard it before: mother, child, haunted house. I was basically taking The Turn of the Screw and putting it in a different setting that an international audience is not really used to. And talking about The Turn of the Screw, the film version The Innocents by Jack Clayton was a huge inspiration, particularly its atmosphere. That film is all about a woman’s repression and how it starts to manifest in supernatural beings.
The Haunting (1963)
Another film about repression is The Haunting, the original one, which is based on a novel by Shirley Jackson. I’m a big fan of Shirley Jackson as a writer because she’s always about repressed women and their environment.
What draws you to these narratives of female anxiety and repression?
It was the story I wanted to tell. The idea came to me after conversations with my mum. I was born in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and I was asking her: Did this really happen? Did that really happen? She was refreshing my memory of those times. I knew then that my main character was going to be a mother who has to try and protect her child.
When did you leave Iran?
In 2002, when I’d just turned 19. So I spent my childhood and my teenage years in Iran, but I’ve spent my adult life in London.
So you would have been about the same age as Dorsa in the film during the 1980s. How much of the story and atmosphere come from your own experience?
A lot of it. There’s only so much you can remember of your five- or six-year-old self when you look back, so I had to ask my parents to refresh my memory on a lot of things. My brother and I always say this: you grow up being scared of anything and everything, and having loads of nightmares and night terrors. Up to this day, we still do. I asked my mum why she thought she brought up such wimpy children! She blamed herself. My father is a doctor and during the 80s he had to go and serve every year for a month, like the father in the film. My mum said that, during those months while my father was away, “I was trying to be a protective mother but I was also really scared and very anxious so maybe subconsciously I passed along those fears to you guys as my children.”
That was the spark. I thought that was a very interesting idea for a horror or psychological thriller set in 80s Tehran. Then I started to remember a lot, like sirens going off and running down to the basement. A huge part of it was also the stories I heard from friends and family. If you talk to any Iranians who lived through that time, they all have stories.
How did the mythology of jinn play into this story?
Jinn is a very popular myth across the Middle East. It’s a very ancient myth; it predates Islam. After Islam, it found its way into the religion. You can compare jinn to Christian demons. Every Middle Eastern country has their own take on them. Growing up, it was the story you tell your friends: jinn is the boogeyman. As a child, I was genuinely freaked out by the idea of jinn and the urban legends I used to hear.
A Separation (2011) / About Elly (2009) / The Report (1977)
I really wanted my film to have an Iranian signature on it, so that it feels like an Iranian social-realist film. Asghar Farhadi was a major inspiration, especially for A Separation but also About Elly. Again, those are both set in one house.
But there’s also an Abbas Kiarostami film, which is more obscure. He made it in the 1970s and it’s called The Report. Some people say that Farhadi got inspiration from it for A Separation because it’s also about a couple having issues and it’s all mainly set in one apartment. The Report was an influence not just because it’s about an Iranian couple but because it’s set at the end of the 70s, right around the time that the revolution was bubbling up. The feel of that film was very interesting to me.
Let the Right One In (2008)
These are all films that I watch and love, that became part of my thought process, even if you can’t see them exactly in Under the Shadow. But Let the Right One In was one of the major ones. It’s a film about vampires but it’s a very emotional story, and it’s also set in the 80s. I told my DP about how 80s that film looks and said we need to do that, but in 80s Iran.
Another big influence was J-horror. Things like Ring (1998), Dark Water (2002) and The Grudge (2004). Especially Ring and The Grudge – they’re so eerie. I remember the first time I watched Ring, I felt like I’d never seen a horror movie like that before. It crawls under your skin. It’s like watching a nightmare.
Do you feel an afinity with other recent buzz horror titles? I’m thinking of films such as The Witch, It Follows and The Babadook?
I love small, character-driven horror films. Ultimately it’s about storytelling. I love all of those films. I love The Witch. I love It Follows – I was obsessed with it. Our film keeps getting mentioned in connection with The Babadook, but I was literally about to fly to Jordan to begin shooting when The Babadook came out. When I watched it, I felt like our film was its Iranian cousin!
Are you going to keep working within the horror genre?
I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a horror director. The next project I’m doing, with the same producer, is more like a Hitchcockian neo-noir thriller. But I do love horror and what you can do in the genre.
Was there a film that made you decide to become a filmmaker?
I can tell you filmmakers: it was Spielberg films and Tim Burton films. Especially Close Encounters (1977) and Jaws (1975). And Edward Scissorhands (1990), Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). Spielberg and Burton were the number one influences that made me decide I wanted to do this. Then when I got older, I started to have other idols, from Kubrick to Haneke to Chris Nolan to Fincher to Lynch. I’ll watch everything, from blockbusters to more arthouse films.
Watch a Q&A with Babak Anvari and Narges Rashidi