Shelley. 2016. Directed by Ali Abbasi. Screenplay by Abbasi & Maren Louise Käehne.
Starring Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Cosmina Stratan, Kenneth M. Christensen, & Peter Christoffersen.
Not Rated. 92 minutes.
There’s an especially horrific aspect to horror movies which focus on pregnancy. There have been plenty of those, most recently an awesome little movie called The Ones Below. Certainly the famous Polanski chiller Rosemary’s Baby is one of the films that kick started the genre fascination with such a subject.
Now, there is Shelley.
For a debut feature Ali Abbasi does impressive work. Well, it doesn’t hurt that the two lead actresses Ellen Dorrit Petersen and Cosmina Stratan pull more than their weight to bring the characters alive. Their efforts together with Abbasi’s creeping atmosphere make the slow burn screenplay – co-written by Maren Louise Käehne – so much fun to wait out.
Although not everybody’s a fan of the slow-moving horror, but trust me, if you give the story a chance to play out the reward is much better than you might expect. A great story is one thing. If you’ve got the brooding, eerie atmosphere to go with then it doesn’t matter how gradual a build the terror takes work under your skin; the time you take to get there becomes all the more enjoyable for the payoff.
Within Shelley‘s dream-like atmosphere, the characters are setup well. The initial half hour spends the time wisely doing so. Eventually when the genuine suspense and tension kicks in, along with full-fledged paranoia, there feels to be much more at stake. Because we’ve grown into knowing these people, the horror visited upon them feels scarier and much more genuine than horror where flimsy characters are thrown into terrifying situations without the viewer taking any interest in them or what happens to them.
By the time we figure out what’s actually happening the revelation is near devastation level, setting in with quick fright. On the way there’s lots of eerie ambiguity to haul us into the story. A particularly upsetting instance is when Elena (Stratan) wanders in the woods, feeling strange, only to stumble upon a baby amongst the leaves. Or should I say, a dead baby. At least that’s what it looks like: dead, in the dirt, worms crawling all over its corpse. This is dream, or should I say nightmare, imagery and it takes us deeper into the core themes of the film. Paranoia starts driving the suspense after this point, as we’re walked through a tense, personal drama always with echoes of the supernatural hovering around the characters. The best horror can often keep you questioning reality, right alongside the characters, and Shelley succeeds due to how actively the screenplay keeps the viewer cloaked in literal and psychological darkness, giving us over to images like the baby, which come at the best times to knock the viewer out of their seat.
Obviously the movie channels Polanski and Rosemary’s Baby, although its setting and use of character skews in a different direction, which does well for its refreshing feel. Any pregnancy-related horror always gets the Polanski comparison. Shelley does purposefully homage, but never strikes as trying to copy any of Polanski’s work. It is far more ambiguous in nature. Not in any bad sense. For all its vagaries the film is well-directed to give off an atmosphere full of dread, and rather than give us all the answers Abbasi chooses to root us in emotional depth rather than a bunch of twisting, turning exposition. Most of all we dive deep through themes of loss and how we each individually deal with loss. Plus, the entire film works as an allegory about the wrong that can be done to oneself, one’s partner, and those around you trying to replace a dead child. The danger, especially here, can get very real.
The standout performance from Stratan will take you above and beyond. If you’ve got problems with the slow burning plot, Stratan can usher you through to the meaty goodness of the story. There’s a bunch of great stuff, but two scenes stick out in my mind particularly. One is when she sits at the table with her hosts and their friends, she stares at a little boy, and then the child suddenly runs to her, punching her in the pregnant stomach. It’s a bone rattling, resonant moment of innocence attacking innocence, unforgettable. Stratan’s reactions are what sell the moment and its terror. Secondly, there’s another belly-striking scene, but this time it’s Elena alone with the woman whose baby she’s carrying, Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen). Out of nowhere, Elena loses her mind, punching and smacking her belly, thrashing about. Just a frenzied moment that will leave your jaw agape. The look in the eyes of Elena after Louise calms her to the bathroom floor is stunning. An all-around terrific performance, and a solid role in general.
Such a quality screenplay, which also helps Stratan in her role, as we’re never totally sure – until late in the film – if Elena has gone completely mad from pregnancy and hormones, or if some evil thing truly grows in her belly. It’s the not knowing that terrifies. Along the way every aspect of the production helps ingratiate you into the plot’s darkness. An element I dig, so much, is the sound design: often we get a low, crackling hum that adds to the paranoid moments the audience spends feeling trapped in Elena’s mind and body, and this also extends to the other characters later; you just need to see how that plays out to understand why it’s so wonderful. On top of that is an atmospheric, ambient score that bleeds into the sound design to create such a developed, creepy mood throughout.
Shelly is a slow burn, though a tour-de-force. From the opening shot – a crooked, dead tree grows up in the middle of a healthy green forest, the screen turns bloody red – there’s a sense of constant fear, a choked feeling that grips hold. Considering all the Polanski comparisons, this film goes where his didn’t, allowing the last 20 minutes as an epilogue to show exactly whether Elena went insane, or if she knew some horrible evil had been growing, stronger all the time, inside her.
I can’t recommend this enough. Going in I hadn’t expected such brilliance. And again, if you’re not into the slow plot you may find yourself unimpressed. But please, wait for the reveal in the end. There’s much worth in it. You spend most of your energy trying to determine who or what is influencing all the problems Elena experiences from one scene to the next, that once you’ve discovered the truth it’s a spooky shock. One of my favourite films of 2016, a pleasantly spine-chilling surprise.