Shelley gets a pass for its obvious Rosemary’s Baby poster homage, because Ali Abbasi’s parental nightmare is truly Polanski by way of Danish seclusion. Not to say the first-time filmmaker challenges a genre classic (he doesn’t), but there’s still an approvable amount of raw tension in this demonic tale of baby-mama-drama. Characters are sparse and plotting is sparser, because pregnancy can be scary enough without any genre additives. Health issues, paranoia, constant questioning – women will forever be stronger then men simply because of the motherly task they’re asked embrace. Carrying a baby is one thing, but what if that baby turned against you…in the womb?
Cosmina Stratan stars as Elena, a house maid who one day hopes of returning home to Romania and providing for her son. Her latest employers live in the Danish countryside, where they don’t use electricity, eat meat or conform to society’s technological poison. Life is simple, except for the fact that wife Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) cannot bear a child. Elena is a young, fertile woman, and she’s in need of money – money that Louise is willing to pay if Elena will be her surrogate. To the delight of Louise and her husband Kasper (Peter Christoffersen), Elena agrees. It’s one of those “What can go wrong?” scenarios fueled by monetary gain, but unfortunately for Elena, the pregnancy has some nasty side effects that threaten her life, along with Louise’s unborn child.
Effectively, Shelley slowly simmers a heated concoction of paranoia, pain and fear until Elena’s body reaches its tipping point. There’s no real monster here, just a few blood-soaked dreams and thoughts that Elena’s fetal sack is housing the spawn of Satan. Of course, you can’t prove an unborn child is evil (no matter how many ultrasound machines it shorts out), but that doesn’t mean Elena isn’t suffering.
Abbasi hits a smooth balance between Elena’s painful pregnancy and tantalizing suggestions that something sinister is growing inside her belly, all while keeping conspired suspense looming over every character. Could Louise know she provided tainted insemination material? Is there a demonic baby inside Elena’s stomach? Does Kasper know something he isn’t letting on? That’s for Abbasi to know, and us to intently ponder.
With respect to all talents, Abbasi is only able to wrangle such tension because of the shifting chemistry between Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Cosmina Stratan and Peter Christoffersen. In particular, Peterson and Stratan must transform a mutual friendship into mistrust and disgust once their characters begin to fight over Elena’s baby (or, more appropriately, Louise’s baby?). Christoffersen is more a voice of reason, as Petersen’s perception is warped by her blinding desire to have a child of her own. At a certain point, she doesn’t care about Stratan’s Elena anymore – just the baby. This is where Stratan shines brightest, when her psychosis leads to self-inflicted pain like a bathroom breakdown where she beats her stomach like a drum. Body horrors don’t quite go Cronenbergian, but there’s still enough squeamishness to play against Petersen’s obsessive, cold glare in a bit of performance accentuation.
Granted, if this were an American horror movie, it’d be about a young woman going completely insane thanks to a zero-technology policy – but since we’re overseas, an appreciation of life’s secluded beauty becomes Elena’s biggest foe. Abbasi never strives for any deliberate scares, yet by the film’s conclusion, a few haunting moments of guilty remembrance stick like a searing nightmare. It’s nothing complicated, but harrowing in nature. A fear of what we know, and how that manifests into something must darker, and powerful. Again, is the baby evil? In my mind, no – people are the real evil beings, driven insane by their own wills. But who says I’m right?
Shelley is good, broody horror with an emotional backbone. We can feel each character slowly descending into their own personal Hell, and even though some of the beats are expected (and it’s a bit too streamlined at times), there’s still a chilling narrative that sprouts from Ali Abbasi’s direction. Expecting mothers might want to stay away from this one, but to the rest of you, enjoy this twisted familial tale for the unnerving bit of brutality it is – an easy fable that grows nastier with each well-executed passing second.
The difference between Shelley's first and second halves is stark in comparison, but thankfully it only gets better as the seconds pass.