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Under The Shadow | © Vertigo Films

How The Iranian Horror Film ‘Under The Shadow’ Scared A Bunch of Critics

Picture of Cassam Looch
Cassam Looch
Film Editor
Updated: 29 September 2016
It’s a rare thing to hear a room full of hardened film critics react to anything they see on screen. However, a pre-release showing of the terrifying new horror movie Under The Shadow, set in war-torn Iran in the 1980s, elicited shrieks from the normally passive attendees.

Directed by Babak Anvari, the film focuses on a mother, played by Narges Rashidi, and her daughter (newcomer Avin Manshadi) who are left to fend for themselves when the Iran-Iraq war reaches their doorstep. As rumours and superstitions take hold of the frightened inhabitants of their neighbourhood in Tehran, the two have to confront an even more malevolent force. Anvari and Rashidi told The Culture Trip about their venture into horror.

Under The Shadow | © Studiocanal

Under The Shadow | © Vertigo Films

Are you particularly attached to the horror genre?

Babak Anvari: I love horror films, but the ones I am drawn to have great characters and complexity. I’m into things like Rosemary’s Baby and The Innocents. I don’t consider myself a fanatic, so I don’t watch every grindhouse or B-Movie. I enjoy the genre a lot, though. You can’t be too snooty about it. You just have to enjoy it.

Narges Rashidi: I’m not a big horror fan. For me it’s never about the genre but more about the story and how it is told. I’m a movie fan. If it’s a good horror, I’ll love it and if it’s a bad one I’ll hate it. Same thing with drama, comedy, sci-fi. Alfred Hitchcock’s films – which are more thrillers, I guess – work for me. The Sixth Sense is my kind of horror movie.

This is your first feature film, so why pick horror? 

BA: It made sense to me because Iran in the 1980s was such a dark and tense time, and that’s when we both grew up. The first five years of my life were during that war, so I could attach it to that time and place. There was the war with Iraq going on and then we had the aftermath of the revolution, too. The stresses and anxieties of that period  created a starting point.Horror worked for me in that environment.

The film isn’t autobiographical at all, but so many things are lifted from my own experiences. All the elements come from my own life or stories I heard from relatives and family friends. Any Iranian from that time will have those kinds of stories and experiences.

How hard was it to find a lead for this project? 

AB: The main thing was to find someone who could speak Farsi without an accent. We looked around and then I spoke to Navid Negahban [Abu Nazir on TV’s Homeland] who recommended Narges. We spoke on Skype and realised that it was a great fit. It all happened quite quickly and naturally after that.

Narges Rashid in Under The Shadow | © Studiocanal

Narges Rashid in Under The Shadow | © Vertigo Films

Was it a challenge to work with a young actor for a film like this? 

NR: I’ve worked with children before, so I had a few little tricks of my own. It was amazing, and she was so willing to get involved. When we arrived in Jordan, a week before shooting, we had dinners together and became friends. I think all of that helped, but she was so happy with the film being so intense, though that was a challenge. It was her first time acting, and it was a bit overwhelming for her.

AB: There are so many people running around a film set and it was all new to her. After a few days she was already a pro and looking for her mark! [The tape on the floor indicating where an actor stands in front of the camera].

She really wanted to please and impress Narges, and that helped. I ended up using that and told her little things to do to not “upset” Narges. It was good teamwork.

NR: I loved every minute of shooting. I wanted to keep going even longer every day and Babek had to say we couldn’t!

The young star of Under The Shadow | © Studiocanal

The young star of Under The Shadow | © Vertigo Films

It must have felt weird walking around those sets and locations, Narges?

NR: When we arrived in Jordan [where the film was shot], I asked if I could sleep at my house. I wanted to get everything feeling more natural but soon afterwards I knew how realistic it was.

The strength of the character I was playing really appealed to me, too. She is a feminist and not fragile. She is political and also a mother. She’s loving but has a complex relationship with her child. There are so many layers and facets to her.

The family dynamic in the movie is fascinating one in the movie. The patriarch of the household in there at the start, but he soon leaves.

BA: He leaves for good and that was always the plan. The father is gone, and so what happens next? I had fantastic actors to work with. I had Narges, Bobby Naderi [who plays the husband and father], and young Avin [Manshadi] all in a room and acting like a family. That was the chemistry and dynamic I wanted.

Beyond that, I wanted to do as many practical effects as we could. What we couldn’t do in camera, we did at our VFX house in Bournemouth – I would say it was fifty-fifty. The VFX house enhanced what we rehearses and filmed. Narges is such a technical actress that it didn’t phase her at all.

NR: We didn’t rehearse any scenes, but we did work on the backstory together. How we met. How we fought in the past. It was a lot of conversations like that before filming.

Seeing Emily, one of our producers, in a green suit playing the spirit in the movie was more of a challenge! That was funny, other than that we had almost no time, so we just had to jump in and do it.

It’s surprising to learn that there is any British link to the film given how authentically we see Iran portrayed and the fact that it is in Farsi. How were British producers towards the idea of an Iran-set horror film set in the 1980’s?

AB: It was a challenge at first. I wrote it and sent it to my agent, and the first thing they said was that it seemed like a tough project for a first film. I knew that this was the one, though. When I met the producers, they found the idea interesting but thought the language would be a problem. Wigwam Films, my current producers, didn’t flinch. They wanted to option it and it went ahead. They took the risk.

The reviews and reactions so far have been fantastic. Was there any way you anticipated that?

AB: I, naively perhaps, thought yes. It was something that international audiences would be open to because at the core it is a classic Gothic horror story with a mother and daughter. People want to know about the Middle East. Not that many people knew about the Iran-Iraq war, which is one of the longest most bitter battles of all-time. That naivety on my part turned into tenacity, and I hope to never lose that. You have to keep pushing and never give up.

It is such a great honour that the film has been put forward as the UK entry for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars. We are all ecstatic.

Under The Shadow | © Studiocanal

Under The Shadow | © Vertigo Films

How do you think the film will play in Iran?

AB: Iranians are cinema lovers. They always find a way to watch films. They can get their hands on anything that comes out around the world. I don’t know if we’ll get a proper release, though, because the authorities there have a thing about films being made about Iran from outside of the country. Not that there’s anything offensive inn it. People who want to see it will find a way.

There are a number of political references in the film. Is that unavoidable when you make a film set in Iran?

AB: Being born there, you can’t ever escape the scrutiny. You are always politicised. I wanted to tell an honest story about a mother in 1980s Tehran. Part of that, the themes, can be viewed in such a way, but it was never a burden. It’s a film about that period and you always have that follow you. People look at it through the spectacles of politics. In some ways it is unfortunate, but it depends on how you look at it.

The story of Under The Shadow ends with this film. i’m developing my second feature with Film4 and it will be set in the UK, in English, with more of a Hitchcock film noir feel to it.

Under The Shadow is released on 30 September