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.