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Belittling Horror Excessively: Under The Shadow05:44 PM -- Mon October 23, 2017

WARNING! This post contains extensive spoilers for this movie. Watch the movie before reading! Or don't. You have been warned.

Under The Shadow (2016)
Rated PG-13
IMDB Says:
“As a mother and daughter struggle to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war-torn Tehran of the 1980s, a mysterious evil begins to haunt their home.”
IMDB Rating: 7.0/10
Metacritic Rating: 84/100
Rotten Tomatoes: 99% critics, 74% audience
Solee: 5/5
Mikey: 5/5
We watched this on Netflix.

Mikey: So once again you have thrown us pell-mell into a movie with a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Do you even horror, bro? We’re supposed to be watching schlocky trash!

Solee: I guess I’m just too classy for that kind of nonsense! Actually, I have truly tried to pick terrible movies a couple of times, only to have them turn out to be good and/or entertaining in unexpected ways. This isn’t one of those movies, though. I picked this one because, as I said with Haunted Mansion, I really enjoy watching foreign horror films for the insight it gives me into other cultures. People always talk about how you know you understand a language when you can understand humor in that language. I think the same can be said regarding cultures and what they consider “horror”.

Mikey: This movie is Iranian, by the way. That brings me to a tricky problem I have - I worry I am too lenient when it comes to foreign horror, because there’s so much you can excuse because you aren’t familiar with the culture. What might actually be terrible, you’re just like “well, that’s apparently how they do things!” In Iran, they always include the boom mic in shots! (Not a real example, didn’t see one) So I always wonder if it’s really as good as I think, or if I’m just uncultured. But it definitely helps give you a window into another culture. Especially this movie moreso than some. For us in the West, finding out what an ordinary home in Iran was like in the 80’s is completely news (then again, as I mentioned, how do I know this is ordinary?).

Solee: That was one of my first notes on this movie, actually. During the establishing scenes in the beginning, we saw the director of the college drinking tea (he put a sugar cube in his mouth and drank his tea around it), we saw the interior of an apartment building complete with a doorbell set-up that was quite different than we see here, and we saw the interior decorations of what appeared to be a normal house. Granted I don’t know how “normal” any of these things were, but it was definitely a far cry from the images we see on the news when Iran comes up. In America, we get so caught up in celebrating tradition and historical significance that I think we often forget that other cultures are progressing through time the same way we are. A big part of our inability to connect or relate to people from other cultures is that we insist on picturing them as their ancestors lived. It’s like if people assumed Minnesotans all still lived in tiny log cabins and sod houses, getting around by horse and buggy. Anyway. To circle back to my original point, I agree that it’s difficult to know what’s normal or skilled storytelling, but I still enjoy seeing something more than AP photos of war-torn streets.

Mikey: One thing it made me think, to get overtly political, is how we have been talking about the red/blue divide in America of late, and how each side sees the other as demonic monsters that can’t be reasoned with. But here we see the Real Monsters - Iran, the Great Satan (oh wait, that’s what they supposedly call US). And they aren’t just regular people, they’re totally cool (if extremely stressed at the moment). Like I would rather hang out with that family than many Americans. Sorta like genetics - the difference between them and us is smaller than the difference between us and other members of our own group (that might be a weird analogy, but it’s too big to explain).

Solee: I think I understand what you’re saying. I was interested in how it portrayed the political divide in Iran at that time. Essentially it was the same as the divide here. There are people who want things to be more liberal and people who want things to be more conservative. Those sides clashed and Shideh’s career as a doctor was compromised because she took a political stand and ended up on the losing side. There was a lot that made me think of The Handmaid’s Tale (the series). There are turning points in history that are only recognized as important after the fact. To be honest, that was the scariest part of this movie to me. That we might be on one of those slippery turning points and I don’t trust that things will turn out the way we want.

Mikey: I definitely saw the Handmaid parts here. In fact, there’s a big feminist element to this movie. Maybe it’s too obvious to say, but when the big finale involved the mother and daughter being trapped underneath a giant cloth, I think we can see what the shadow they are under is. Going into it, I had only heard about the war lurking over them, but I think there was a lot more about oppressed women than anything else in the movie.

Solee: I find it fascinating that you brought that up first because I thought I was going to be getting way out there and reading too much into the ending when I said exactly that. We’ve been talking a lot about gender norms and expectations lately, especially in the context of harassment, abuse and how women are basically treated as less-than in so many cases. I, too, thought the big bad being made of cloth and shown as a hijab several times was telling. Taking it directly, Shideh was afraid of losing Dorsa to a culture that expected her to be subservient. Also, the hijab melted into a goo on the floor, which Shideh was sinking into. That seemed to represent how she felt she was being sucked into this new normal that she had fought against. She was stuck in this new set of expectations that demanded she place the arbitrary rules of men ahead of the safety of herself or her daughter.

Mikey: Too deep! And I’d like to point out that her Jane Fonda tape got mysteriously trashed. That fits right in there (it’s what the authorities would’ve done if they had the chance). So I guess this is all a big mass of metaphors. To jump back out into the “just a movie” arena, what is up with dreams in horror movies? I bet it’s the majority of horror movies that include nightmare sequences, and this one had plenty. And of course, they’re always the kind of dreams where the dreamer doesn’t realize they are dreaming.

Solee: That was another area where I’m pretty sure I missed some of the cultural clues. I bet if we watched a bunch of Iranian horror films (are there a bunch?) we’d see that things like the funny camera angles and the movements that didn’t quite fit with each other (she held her arms out too long after her daughter went in to hug her) are signals that indicate dream sequence. Anyway, yes, dreams are a big deal in horror films. Which always makes sense to me because 1) nightmares are a thing everyone can relate to and 2) the first reaction to seeing something unbelieveable is often to assume “I must be dreaming”.

Mikey: Right, we have all had nightmares. Seems like a cop-out in a movie though. To address your question, I stumbled across something interesting (Let's Talk About Iranian Horror Films) - There aren’t a lot I guess, but wow, each one of these sounds super interesting. Fish & Cat is all shot in one take???

Solee: I feel like we should be watching a lot more foreign films. Like for real.

Mikey: Most likely true. But then you can’t play iPhone games while you watch!

Solee: Not a bad thing. So, the horror of this horror film is the djinn, which is not an unusual horror monster (by that, I mean I’ve heard of them before), but also not one I’m super familiar with. The way it wasn’t overly explained makes me think it’s a fairly common evil character in Iran. Like vampires or ghosts here. We don’t tend to overly explain things like garlic and whatnot, because it’s assumed everyone knows the basics. What do you know about the djinn?

Mikey: Well, [The word djinn comes from the Arabic jinn, a plural noun that means both "demons or spirits" and also, literally, "hidden from sight."] I think had they said dybbuk or some other culturally specific variation it would’ve worked the same - it’s an unknown, presumed to be mythical, threat that can do anything because we don’t know what it can actually do. Although they did throw in a couple specifics - it traveled on the wind, and if it took your favorite possession, it could follow you anywhere. Which ended up a key point. I think we got all the info we needed, I felt quite comfortable with it. That’s how I like my monsters, governed by rules, but a little vague and mysterious.

Solee: If the rules are too spelled out and complex, it’s too hard to make the story work around them, I think. You end up with funny plot issues like “why didn’t they just ___”. Did you find the djinn in this movie scary?

Mikey: Yeah, it wasn’t super creepy, but they really did a lot better than probably most of the movies we’ve watched. When her ‘husband’ was in the bed, but she couldn’t see his face, and there was just… something wrong - that was disturbing. And the sudden appearance of the sheet-monster who then dashed into the apartment, that was a good one. And when the man-of-some-sort ran up into the ceiling hole. Lots of good stuff. My big question, which I think is cultural and beyond either of us, is why the sheet monster had that black and white pattern on it. I would’ve expected either all black or all white. I wonder why that was the case.

Solee: I don’t know. Could have cultural significance. Could just be that’s what they had available? I found the whole movie unsettling, but I wasn’t super bothered by the djinn. No more than by the super creepy family that owned/ran the apartment building. I did have one big jump scare, though, when the hand came through the window in her dream. I jumped right out of my skin.

Mikey: I saw that! That’s why they stick in nightmares everywhere, so they can shock you. Well, other than mentioning the ball of magical cat fur, is there anything else we need to cover before we rate this film?

Solee: Um … there’s a lot to this film that we haven’t mentioned. The mute neighbor boy. The fight the mother and daughter had. The way the doll was returned all cut to bits. But I don’t think I have anything else major to say. I’m ready to rate.

Mikey: There were a lot of elements. In fact, we had a hearty dose of family drama going before any bombs or djinns hit. This was definitely one of those moody, slow, movies that really builds up its tone. So, how do you rate that tone?

Solee: I liked the layers of stress and tension all piling on top of one another to make this unbearable situation. It may be that I’m giving it all kinds of leeway because it’s foreign, but I’m going to give it a 5. I liked this movie and I would recommend it. It’s not terrifying on the supernatural level, but it’s scary on a much more realistic level. I thought the acting was very good, by the way. The family dynamics seemed very authentic. What did you think?

Mikey: I forgot to mention that. Besides getting a glimpse into life in Iran, this also really felt like a look at what it’s like to live in a place that’s under attack. Very overwhelming. And like you, I don’t know if I am fooled by those crazy foreigners or not, but I’m giving it a 5 too! I really can’t think of anything to complain about with this movie at all. It’s just dandy. And not a boom mic in sight.

Solee: I’m honestly a little overwhelmed by all the 5s we’re handing out this month. I’m trying to be critical, but we’re just picking too many awesome movies!

Mikey: I’m sorry. I was going to perpetuate the problem by picking another one from the list I found of the Best Horror on Netflix, but let’s take it easy and watch some garbage. How about The Butcher Possessions (also known as Beckoning The Butcher)?

Solee: I’ll have my iPhone games at the ready.
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