The unsettling psychological disturbances a woman’s mind occupies, while she is biologically occupied to bear a child is one dread-filled theme used often in movies. From Polanski’s “Rosemary Baby”, a bunch of films under the body-horror sub-genre have dramatized the nightmarish effects of having children. Known as ‘baby-horror’ or ‘natal horror’, these kind of slow-burning Gothic horror relies more on a perfect mood and atmosphere. Iranian-Danish film-maker Ali Abbasi’s debut feature “Shelley” (2016) has got both those things right. The film is set on a dense forest, far removed from the modern comforts. The couples occupying such a countryside house are Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kasper (Peter Christoffersen). They are leading a self-sufficient life by growing their own food, and getting by without electricity or running water. Louise spends her time alone as Kasper is often occupied with whatever work he does in the city. The absence of electricity necessitates the use of candle lights, which makes the modern cottage looks like a Gothic building. So, the atmosphere is more than perfect (cinematographers Nadim Carlson and Sturla Brandth Grovlen previously worked on the marvelous one-shot movie “Victoria”).
The dreadful mood is also set off well by two of the most talented actresses – Cosmina Stratan (the unforgettable performer in “Beyond the Hills”) and Petersen (played the touching role of visually challenged woman in “Blind”). The impeccably diffused sound design and a terrifying, ambient music score adds a lot to the mood. The combination of these elements made me think that “Shelley” must be one of the best horrors of 2016. Alas, Mr. Ali Abbasi fumbles with pacing issues and makes a big switch with character dynamics, leaving us out in the cold, and killing our emotional investment. The problem with the film is not that there is no grand narrative development, but only that the horror elements in the later stages are explained in the vaguest sense, which totally doesn’t convey the fear we felt in the earlier stages. Still, the film’s distinct imagery and palpable tension makes it worthy enough to give it a watch.
The film opens with Cosmina Stratan’s Elena arriving at Louise and Kaspar’s cottage as the live-in help. She is an economic migrant from Bucharest (Romania), where she has left her little son. Elena is initially disconcerted by the couple’s strict ecological lifestyle, but showcasing a note of aloofness, she gets settled soon. Elena naturally dispels a little bit of gloom when she learns about the landline to call her son, back home. The live-in help is mainly hired since Louise is recovering from painful miscarriage and after the last operation, it seems Louise can’t have any children. Although the two women simple yearning to be a mother is barricaded by different situations, they doesn’t keep things to themselves or play the role of servant and master. A genuine friendship forms between them by each sharing their agonies and future dreams. Elena says she has to work for three years in order to save and buy a house back home to eventually live there. Soon, Louise makes an offer Elena couldn’t resist: to be a surrogate mother for a generous financial offering. Apart from the huge sum of money, Elena agrees to the offer due to her inherent kind-hearted nature. And, after insemination their relationship gets friendlier, although we pick up few ‘horrific’ signs that usually happen in movies with supernatural pregnancy. Elena’s earlier joy disintegrates by series of weird events, including recurrent nightmares. Louise finds bruises and scratches on Elena’s body (possibly self-inflicted) and tries her best to bring down the pregnant women’s torments. The increasing misery makes Elena believe that what’s growing inside her isn’t what it seems.
Writer/director Ali Abbasi brilliantly makes use of the claustrophobia, eeriness attached with such an oppressive atmosphere and embeds it alongside the heightened anxieties related to pregnancy. The way he characterizes both the women with poignancy and the subtle design of mood makes the large section of film so chilling. The menace created is mostly implicit and Abbasi creates this menace through natural conversations and by a silent gaze at the dense forest. Except for those frustrating final scenes, the director doesn’t break away from that astounding subtlety (where the threatening force is explicitly stated). The narrative’s steady advancement to something really scary is halted by the abstract themes of horror, which doesn’t possess the earlier unsettling effect. The film could be perceived as a dissection of modern class differences. Abbasi doesn’t paint the affluent couple as the antagonists nor does he use ‘fish-eye’ lenses to indicate their deranged state. He calmly blurs the profound class differences between the couple and Elena, only to evoke strongly at a later point. Abbasi uses the inbred egotism and unavoidable self-centered behavior of Louise and Kasper as the antagonists rather than simply portraying them as ‘bad seed’. The narrative could be seen as a dark fable for how the unprivileged are pulled in to do something humane, in exchange of little sum of money, only to be exploited in the worst possible way. Of course, an allegorical statement, if there was one, was never clearly stated. Despite the obvious, third-act disappointments, one of the other redeeming element of “Shelley” is the magnificent chemistry between Cosmina Stratan and Ellen Doritt Petersen. Their conversations and the showcase of genuine concern in their eyes make us desire for a non-horror narrative (may be a simple tale of women bonding).
Despite the uninteresting third-act in “Shelley” (92 minutes), the nuanced layer of social critique and impressively crafted tension makes it as one watchable, vicious, little horror movie. Its malevolent qualities are much stronger, compared to other, recent trashy pregnancy horror films.