As evidenced by its poster, Danish horror Shelley owes a debt to Rosemary’s Baby, but there’s much more going on here than a simple homage to Polanski’s devil baby classic. This feature debut from Ali Abbasi, which hit Fantasia Film Festival on Friday, is a chilling slow-burner that starts as a slightly awkward culture-clash drama before taking the audience into a mother’s nightmare.
Elena (Cosmina Stratan) is a young Romanian single mother who takes a job as a housekeeper to wealthy Danish couple Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kaspar (Peter Christoffersen), working and living at their cottage in the woods. Louise and Kaspar have shunned modern conveniences like electricity and receive visits from a kind of faith healer, but despite her misgivings, Elena starts to bond with her employers. At which point, Louise asks something huge of her. She is barren, and wants Elena to carry her child. In return, they will pay for an apartment where Elena will be able to live with her son.
Elena accepts, partly for the money and partly out of sympathy, but the pregnancy will not be an easy one…
Abbasi has fun playing with audience expectations early on, allowing us to share Elena’s misgivings about the remote, isolated location and the horror movie warning signs (reliance on landline phone, creepy old shaman, a particularly aggressive chicken).
However, the first half keeps things grounded and familiar, offering an examination of class privilege that is sharp but sensitive to the feelings of both Elena and Louise. It’s important to note that Stratan (the star of Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills) and Petersen (Blind, King Of Devil’s Island) are superb in the two leads. They anchor the story in this awkward but increasingly warm relationship, and then they’re both absolutely compelling as the horror begins.
The director and his co-writer Maren Louise Käehne mine great unease, not just from the way Elena’s body is reacting to the pregnancy, but from the question of how Louise sees and treats Elena, and the complicated, but ocassionally ruthlessly simple, nature of their relationship gives the film a sly spikiness to go with the mounting dread.
Abbasi expertly tightens the screws, punctuating the warm atmosphere with sharp kicks, and making the viewer question which of the characters’ fears are real and reasonable. He’s not particularly interested in easy answers. The final act may divide audiences, and we won’t go into it for fear of spoilers, but it packs a punch.
Part Gothic horror, part body horror and part social commentary, Shelley is an atmospheric and thoughtful chiller with real power.