Next up in my Fantasia (International Film Fest) 2016 review spree – Shelley from director, Ali Abbasi. (i don’t know why i’m compelled to put the rest of the official Fantasia 2016 title in parentheses. i guess i imagine that i have readers that aren’t familiar w/ it and they would be like, ‘they remade Disney’s Fantasia!?’, if i didn’t write the whole thing) Let’s get into it, shall we?
Louise and Kaspar live a very simple life in a remote cabin on a lake in Denmark (maybe Sweden). They have no electricity, no TV, no plumbing, and only a landline phone. So, of course they need a domestic servant! Elena is a young woman who agrees to work for the couple. She’s hoping to save enough money to get back home to her family and son. (home = Romania? i’m only guessing that b/c IMDB says there’s some Romanian spoken in the film) Things go very well as Elena gets to know and like the couple and settles into her role. She hits it off so well with the couple (especially with Louise), that they offer to pay her handsomely to act as a surrogate for them, as Louise cannot have children herself. Elena agrees after some deliberation and some homesickness. The procedure is a success and the baby begins developing healthily (apparently that’s a word). Soon, though, Elena starts to feel ill. As the pregnancy progresses, Elena’s mental and physical health get worse and worse and she regrets her decision more and more. Is the baby to blame? Is it something other than human? Will it push Elena over the edge?
Shelley is a master class in tension and atmosphere. Abbasi’s lens crowds close to the characters and dips in and out of focus, creating a nightmarish vision that haunts the viewer throughout the film. This is true even during mundane domestic scenes of housekeeping or chatting. When Elena’s troubles really begin, that low-level nightmare anxiety is ratcheted up to nearly overwhelming levels. Body horror (which only partly describes Shelley) is very effective when presented this way. Light shines brightly on a detail or a small section of a face or it is absent when it should illuminate. Just as it does in our dreams. Often, the film’s palette is greyscale, forcing the viewer to concentrate on movement or shape while scrambling to look for danger that may be lurking in the gloom. Also, just like our worst dreams. Some have compared this film to Rosemary’s Baby. I certainly felt the influence of Polanski and I see the obvious pregnancy horror connection, but I saw a lot of Repulsion in Shelley as well. Not that the film is derivative or unoriginal. On the contrary, it is as imaginative as it is terrifying. Much of the terror it elicits is due to the stunning sound design. Sounds stretch, break apart, sound unnaturally loud, or pop with startling effect, adding to the dreamlike (and sometimes, they’re literally dreamed) quality of the film and to the madness of the characters, whose isolation, fears, and desperations collide in the most harrowing ways.
The Final Cut: Shelley is a terrifying nightmare of body horror and madness. Ali Abbasi has managed to tap into some very dark and primal fears and he expertly uncovers them through light and sound.