My notes on Danish creepfilm Shelley, screening at Fantasia and later at FrightFest.
This deceptively hushed Danish-Swedish film hovers on the edge between awkward personal drama and well-trodden horror theme – atmosphere and performances are terrific, though the plot is tentative. Iranian-born director Ali Abbasi, who co-wrote with Maren Louise Käehne, is predisposed to hint things rather than say them flat out – the approach works during a long, slow, creepy build-up but makes the busier home stretch frustrating. The poster image obviously evokes Rosemary’s Baby – one of several nearly-fifty-year-old touchstones endlessly done over in contemporary horror – but pregnancy-related terrors here are less cut-and-dried.
Elena (Cosmina Stratan), a young Romanian, takes a gig as home help with Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kasper (Peter Christoffersen), a couple who plainly aren’t short of money but are trying to live literally off the grid in a remote lakeside house with no electricity or modern conveniences. Elena, who wistfully watches her mobile phone power run out before resorting to the ancient landline to call home, is a single mother trying to raise money for an apartment. Louise – who can’t have a child thanks to medical complications during a prior pregnancy – offers to pay a large sum if she’ll carry to term one of her frozen eggs, so she and Kasper can have a baby. Elena goes along with it, and there are inevitable emotional complications. Louise is oddly obsessive about some areas of the surrogate’s life (disapproving of Elena’s crafty cigarettes) but peculiarly unconcerned about other medical and technical issues with the pregancy. In explaining her lifestyle choice, Louise has said something odd about being afraid of electricity – and a pre-natal scan is cut short when the hospital equipment loses power, perhaps under the unborn baby’s influence. In a familiar horror trope, animals (especially chickens) seem to take against Elena as she’s pregnant – and, in her mood swings, she has paranoid thoughts about the baby, which might not entirely be human.
A major shift in direction, with the departure of one of the principle players, in the third act turns the movie into a more conventional, if still enigmatic, genre piece. Some horrific incidents are well-played, a few subtle special effects hint at the nature of the child, and the ending is suitably threatening. However, it’s still not much more than an artfilm gloss on Devil’s Due or Delivery. Stratan and Petersen, alone onscreen for much of the film, are good, bringing Persona vibe to the Ira Levin set-up – and Christoffersen gets a fine freak-out sequence and weird-looking Bjorn Andresen has a couple of intimidating appearances as a sinister new age hypnotherapist. It has dialogue in five languages, with some of the creepiest moments coming from understanding what characters are saying which other onscreen characters aren’t privy to. Shelly, incidentally, is the baby.
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