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'Under the Shadow,' a genuinely terrifying ghost story from Iran

'Under the Shadow,' a genuinely terrifying ghost story from Iran
Avin Manshadi in the movie "Under the Shadow." (Vertical Entertainment)

The best horror films work just as well as drama, minus the monsters. The latest case in point: the Iranian ghost story "Under the Shadow," which is as much a study of a changing society as it is a story of evil spirits. The movie is first fascinating, then terrifying.

Narges Rashidi stars as Shideh, a doctor's wife raising their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) in bomb-rocked mid-'80s Tehran. When her husband leaves to aid in the war against Iraq, Shideh stays home with the increasingly irritable Dorsa, who claims their apartment is haunted by a mythic jinn.

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Aside from the occasional jump-scare in the first hour, writer-director Babak Anvari favors a slow build, watching as bad dreams and mysterious occurrences rattle Shideh, all while the other tenants in her building flee one by one. Eventually, mother and daughter are alone, weathering a supernatural assault that makes for a nail-biting final 20 minutes.

But even before "Under the Shadow" intensifies, it's pretty gripping. Anvari extends his heroine's anxieties beyond the paranormal, emphasizing her distrustful conservative neighbors, the explosions just outside their windows and how Shideh has to hide her Jane Fonda workout tapes from anyone who knocks on the door.

The result is a brilliantly conceived thriller, about a woman plagued by dark forces both inside and outside her home. It's the rare scary movie where the location is part of the premise, if only because the heroine can't even run for her life without making sure her head is properly covered.

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'Under the Shadow'

In Persian with English subtitles

MPAA rating: PG-13, for terror, scary images and brief language

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood

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