Film Review: ‘Shelley’

'Shelley' Review: An Underdeveloped Horror Exercise

An underdeveloped psychological horror exercise from debuting Danish helmer Ali Abbasi.

A young Romanian housekeeper agrees to be a surrogate mother for her employers, a wealthy Danish couple living off the grid, only to get more than she bargains for in “Shelley,” an underdeveloped psychological horror exercise in which nothing adds up. A sinisterly picturesque location at the edge of a lake in an isolated forest supplies atmosphere aplenty, but that seems to be the only string on the bow of Danish helmer Ali Abbasi’s debut, and he plucks it repeatedly to diminishing returns. Home formats are where most viewers will likely encounter this unsatisfying item.

Practical-minded economic migrant Elena (Cosmina Stratan, who nabbed a Cannes best actress kudo for Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills”) is working outside her homeland in order to more quickly accumulate the money she needs to buy an apartment back home. Meanwhile, her much-missed young son remains with her parents in Bucharest.

For reasons never specified, Elena’s employers, fragile Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen, “Blind,” here made up to look practically albino) and usually absent Kasper (Peter Christoffersen), choose to live away from modern technology, even electricity, although for purposes of the narrative, they maintain an old-fashioned landline telephone and a fancy car for trips to the city. Louise, who is unable to bear a child of her own, suffers from a mysterious malady that requires the attention of a feral-looking local healer, Leo (Bjorn Andresen), whose ministrations release bad energy.

After Elena conceives, Louise becomes stronger and more vibrant while the poor Romanian grows weaker and paler. Elena also becomes prone to strange visions, but it remains unclear as to whether they are the result of her pregnancy or due to some malignant force that apparently lingers around the property, especially in the chicken coop. Still, her cravings are not of the usual sort displayed by a healthy pregnant woman, signaling the presence of a demon in utero. Meanwhile, Abbasi remains  content to make the audience uneasy through visual and aural cues, rather than connecting the dots with powerful backstory.

As the never-less-than-good-looking pic lurches from one ludicrous set piece to another, even the most forgiving genre fan will stop suspending disbelief. Per press materials, Abbasi has only ever seen four or five horror films and he thinks of genre as a marketing device rather than as a category of expression with conventions that must be respected even as they are manipulated. What on paper had the potential to be a latter-day “Rosemary’s Baby” is, in practice, merely moody window dressing that privileges style over content. Both the fine Stratan and Dorrit Petersen gamely put up with some unpleasant body horror and manage to make their characters as compelling as possible, despite being ill served by the script, penned by Maren Louise Kaehne and Abbasi, based on his original story.

The glowing, low-light lensing leads the expert technical package, but the use of two cinematographers and screen formats (Sturla Brandth Grovlen for the early 16:9 scenes and Nadim Carlsen for the later widescreen), with the switch made to mark Elena’s pregnancy, registers as just a showy device rather than adding any deeper meaning. Martin Dirkov’s unsettling electronica score and Rune Bjerre Sand’s eerie sound design support the atmosphere; sadly, the screenplay does not.

The Iran-born, Denmark-based Abbasi is already at work on “The Holy Spider,” a feature about one of Iran’s most infamous serial killers.

Film Review: 'Shelley'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 16, 2016. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production

A Profile Pictures production in co-production with Solid Entertainment, with support from New Danish Screen, Film i Skane in association with B Media Global, Backup Media. (International sales: Indie Sales, Paris.) Produced by Jacob Jarek. Executive producers, David Atlan-Jackson, Ditte Milsted, Thor Sigurjonsson. Co-producers, Magnus Paulsson, Anders Banke.

Crew

Directed by Ali Abbasi. Screenplay, Maren Louise Kaehne, Abbasi, based on an original story by Abbasi. Camera (Color, HD, 16:9/widescreen), Sturla Brandth Grovlen, Nadim Carlsen; editor, Olivia Neergaard-Holm; music, Martin Dirkov; production designers, Sabine Hviid, Kristine Koster; costume designer, Camilla Nordbjerg Olsen; visual effects supervisor, Peter Hjorth; special effects makeup, Morten Jacobsen, Thomas Foldberg; sound (5.1), Rune Bjerre Sand.

With

Cosmina Stratan, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Peter Christoffersen, Kenneth M. Christensen, Patricia Schumann, Bjorn Andresen, Marianne Mortensen, Marlon Kindberg Bach. (Danish, English, Romanian dialogue)

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  1. Dan Williams says:

    *Spoiler alert*

    I never fail to be amazed at how inept most professional film critics are at analyzing a plot.

    Newsflash: Emma kills Shelley. Whether or not she kills herself in the process is the only real mystery here. It could very well be she simply died during a botched caesarian (performed with kitchen utensils, no doubt). There isn’t a single aspect of the supernatural here — just some good old-fashioned mental illness, and plenty to go around. The hospital scene is a delusion, the first of many shared between the happy new parents. Leo sees the truth, and we’re supposed to as well.

    Unfortunately, this critic (and all the rest) like to look past real storytelling evidence. I only watched it once. Granted, my crtical thinking skills have been far above par for decades when it comes to film and literature. Just the same, I’ honestly be embarrassed to call myself a professional film crtic if I couldn’t even sniff this one out.

    Incidentally, good film, worth watching.

    • Jenna says:

      Dan, you are one of those people who touts yourself as an intellectual believing that your interpretions are correct and everyone else is wrong, putting others down in the process. Seems like you are the one who is delusional. Emma didn’t kill Shelley and there is absolutely nothing in the film that depicts this, only you wanting to bend the reality of what is shown on screen. It was a botched abortion with a sewing needle, Emma was already dead at that point. So you are trying to say that her in the hospital receiving CPR, the cesarean, the doctors talking to her and her husband, and them driving the baby home was all in her mind? And the husband went along with having a dead baby in the house, why, cause he was crazy too? Um, give me a break! The husband was experiencing the same break down that Elena experienced while pregnant– the noises causing headaches, the indifference towards the baby, the nightmares. Leo was not traumatized cause the baby was dead but rather that he could see the evil, as could the chickens when they flew up higher in the coop to get away from Shelley when Emma brought her in the see them. The chickens sensed it, why would they be scared of a dead baby? Then at the end, Elena looms in the background and the baby smiles as it’s pupils change from pin point to completely dilated. Why would they focus so much on the babies eyes, the noises, and the baby smiling if it were dead? You sir, make no sense!

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