“You can’t beat genre.” Filmmaker James Schamus said that recently on an episode of The Cinephiliacs, Peter Labuza’s podcast of long conversations about why his guests love movies as much as they do. Schamus is known for his work with Ang Lee, and he was talking about his realization that Hulk was going to be received poorly following Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, a movie Schamus thought created a new genre, a genre Hulk did not fit into. You can’t beat genre. You have to obey a genre’s rules. You can’t fight against audience expectations when you make a genre film.
Under the Shadow, a UK produced, Farsi-language horror film from first-time feature director Babak Anvari knows its genre and abides by its genre’s rules. The set-up is simple – a mother and daughter are trapped in their apartment, and a supernatural force—in this case, a Djinn—terrorizes them. It’s a BOO! horror film, and it’s effective in its use of genre tropes – missing dolls; superstitious neighbors; sleepwalking; marital strife; dark hallways; distorted reflections in turned-off television sets; an eerie, ambient score composed of wind sounds and staccato string accents; a mother on the brink of madness; an enfant terrible; traditional religious beliefs at odds with modern, scientific realism (though in this case the religion is Islam instead of Christianity or folklore).
Under the Shadow diverges from typical horror films in its setting. The story takes place in post-revolution Tehran during the Iraq/Iran War that consumed most of the 1980s. So the ever-present threat of bombs dropping on the apartment complex where the mother and daughter live is as imminent as the immanent presence that has invaded their home, and the mother is struggling as much against the djinn as she is against societal norms that would have her veiled and home-bound rather than pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor. Here is where the Farsi language comes into play as well – hearing the language better immerses the audience in this particular world, heightening the terror, similar to the way The Witch’s use of Puritan language and speaking patterns is essential to that film’s atmosphere.
As you might imagine, Under the Shadow is pregnant with thematic material. It touches on women’s struggles to form identities in Iran, the special horror of a never-ending war, the place of traditions in contemporary society, and what obligations, if any, neighbors have to one another. But the film is only pregnant with these themes. It never births them fully. And I’m not just talking about the ending of the film here, which I greatly admire for its insistence that these horrors are ongoing.
I’m referring to what I hear as a discordant note that strikes between the aims of the film and its genre. The horror genre excels at reinforcing traditional values. The basic horror plot is as follows:
1) A young woman rebels against her community.
2) Supernatural forces arise and threaten her and her community.
3) The young woman at first tries to run from the threat,
4) but she then relents and returns to defend her community.
5) The community is saved by the young woman’s actions, and she finds a place within it.
So a horror film like Under the Shadow, that has its audience rooting for the protagonist to escape the traditional roles assigned to her by her community, pits the audience’s desires against the mechanics of the genre. A filmmaker who wants to make a progressive point has to either 1) frustrate the generic conventions, thereby frustrating the audience or 2) do what Under the Shadow’s writer/director does, and leave all the narrative and thematic threads open-ended, which is irksome in its own way. So, though Under the Shadow is an effective horror film, you will probably leave it feeling unfulfilled. Then again, in a world where “a [Muslim] woman should be more afraid of being exposed in public than she is of anything else,” as one authority figure puts it to Under the Shadow’s heroine at one point in the film, I suppose that feeling of irresolution is appropriate.