ShelleyThere is a theory that horror films reflect social anxities and that the type of monster in the movie corresponds to a specific and prevalent fear of the moment. Under this theory, zombies are a fantastical manifestation of angst over invaders, foreigners, immigration or globalization. Vampires reflect the potentially dangerous results of sexual encounters – venereal disease, herpes, HIV/AIDS. Werewolves or a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde changeling reflect the duality of man and the beast within that can result in an individual falling prey to an uncontrollable rage.

And then there is Frankenstein, which since the Mary Shelley novel first appeared in 1818 under the title Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, has served as a metaphor for a society’s unease with scientific advances encroaching on what had previously been associated with religion. 

And so it continues, with Shelley, a distinct and stylistic tale of horror, whose title is a tribute to the novelist and whose thematic treatment contains echoes of the original. Again, we are confronted with scientists taking from God the capacity to bestow life. Unlike the original which imagined a procedure that could reanimate dead tissue, the new film from Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi utilizes a tried and true medical procedures to create a monster: gestational surrogacy (in which a fertilized egg is implanted in a woman agreeing to host the pregnancy while having no genetic role in the fetus).

The miracle of life as it develops unseen with a woman’s body over a period of months is generally regarded as beautiful, but, let’s face it, it can also be scary as hell – for both genders. Rosemary’s Baby is the pinnacle of pregnancy horror, but even chop shop exploitation like the It’s Alive flicks can give expectant mothers and fathers pause.

Shelley, which had its world premiere in the outstanding Panorama section of Berlinale Film Festival in February, is decidedly more on the Rosemary’s Baby end of the spectrum. (And a serious “Huzzah!” to the Panorama programmers for including a horror film in this year’s line up.) A childless Danish couple hires a Romanian housekeeper to help around their off-the-grid house: no electricity, internet, or flush toilets. The setting is perfectly suited for a scary movie – without electric lights, it’s all shadows and darkness.

The young Romanian woman, Elena (Cosmina Stratan) has accepted the position, in spite of the hardships, because she wants to provide for the young child she has left behind in Bucharest. Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) with whom she bonds after an initial awkwardness sees the possibility of a win-win situation. If Elena caries their child to term, Louise and husband Kasper (Peter Christoffersen) will give her enough money to buy a flat back in Romania and return home to her child.

What could go wrong? Well, obviously everything, or it wouldn’t be too horrible of a horror movie, would it?

The strength is this film is the cast. Petersen, who was incredible in Blind, is terrific here as well. Stratan is her contrast in size, complexion, and disposition, but her equal as an actress. The two make the story work for most of the film. In addition, there’s a local shaman, Leo (Björn Andrésen) who has the absolute perfect look for the role. The problems with Shelley come in the third act and raise questions about director/screenwriter Abbasi’s commitment to horror. The endgame of the film does not seem to come from someone familiar with and committed to horror filmmaking. Genre dilettantes often have trouble sealing the deal.

Technically, there’s also a letdown near the end when a crucial scene in a car is lit, shot and edited poorly, leaving the viewer to wonder what exactly is happening and to whom. The script also relies to much on the horror dream sequence trope to elicit scares. At the same time, there are some genuinely unnerving and original moments in Shelley, which taken along with the superb performances, make it worth a watch for art house horror fans.

  1. I had no idea this film had been made and I will now have to watch it. Thank you!! Great write up!

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