Pregnancy can be a scary time for the mother-to-be. Her body goes through an extreme physical transformation, and hormonal fluctuations can bring about emotional and psychological changes as well. This is probably why Pregnancy Horror is such a well-mined subgenre. Shelley, currently showing as part of the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Canada, is the latest entry in this field. In director Ali Abbasi’s feature debut, a young Romanian woman agrees to be a surrogate mother for a childless Danish couple. As her pregnancy progresses, her physical and mental health deteriorate. Could the unborn child be the cause of her problems? The two lead actresses give strong performances, and their relationship feels genuine. Unfortunately, the film is hampered by its leadened pace and attempts at implied horror and atmosphere do not really add up.
Elena (Cosmina Stratan) is a young Romanian woman who has taken a job as a maid for Danish couple Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kasper (Peter Christoffersen). Elana has left her five year old son back in Romania with her parents, and she hopes to raise enough money so she can return to be with him. The couple’s ways are a little odd; they live far from town in a house with no electricity. Cell phone reception is nonexistent, so their only communication with the outside is via a landline telephone. They are quite earthy, raising their food in their garden and dealing with most medical issues by consulting local shaman/faith healer Leo (BjÃ¶rn AndrÃ©sen). At first, Elena is put off by the couples eccentricities, openly scoffing at their beliefs. As time goes on, Elena’s skepticism softens and the two women grow closer, to the point where Louise feels she can confide in Elena. Louise is unable to carry a child to term and her last attempt resulted in a hysterectomy. She asks Elena if she would be willing to be a surrogate mother for them, using one of Louise’s eggs that had been frozen. Elena agrees, partially out of her friendship with Louise, but also because the money they would pay her would allow her to be reunited with her son within ten months instead of two to three years. As the pregnancy progresses, Elena is troubled by bad dreams, extreme eczema, and hallucinations. Is Elena sick, is the baby itself the source of the troubles, or is she losing her mind?
The film is centered on the relationship between Elena and Louise. While money does factor in strongly to Elena’s decision to act a surrogate, it is her strong connection to Louise that makes the proposal possible in the first place. Cosmina Stratan (Elena) and Ellen Dorrit Petersen (Louise) do excellent work here. The two of them have a definite chemistry, and viewers can really feel their friendship grow and change over the course of the film. This is all the more notable for the actresses are required to perform most of their lines in English, which is a second language for both of them. English is the common language of their two characters, so they only speak their native languages when they are apart. There is a strong bond between the two women, and it feels very natural for Louise to ask Elena to carry her child. Initially, Elena is the grounded one and Louise is sickly and nervous. As the story progresses, though, the two characters switch places emotionally and psychologically. The transition is smooth and handled well by both Stratan and Petersen. Their performances, strong as they are, are ill-served by the rest of the film.
Initially, Shelley is deliberately paced. It feels like it is taking its time setting up the situation and letting the audience get to know and sympathize with the characters. The slow-burn helps to slowly build a sense of dread. The problem is, the dread builds too slowly. Not much seems to happen and the audience gets tired of waiting. Slow-burning films require some sort of crescendo, even if it is a longs, slow one. Regrettably, Shelley never really gets beyond a smolder. Events do not ramp up. Eventually there are some more interesting developments, but they come late in the proceedings. By that point, the audience has lost interest. Instead of feeling like a deliberately paced, atmospheric horror picture, the film feels more like a slow and ponderous drama.
Since not much happens for much of the film, it loses what atmosphere and “creep factor” that it attempts to develop early on. Not much that is scary happens; much is hinted at, but there is rarely any sort of payoff. For a while, when Elena starts showing the physical strain of her pregnancy, there are hints that the film may vere into body horror. There are enough physical changes in a real pregnancy that Pregnancy/Body Horror can be very effective; the problem is that it never quite gets there. The worst Elena experiences physically is anemia, hair loss, and rather extreme eczema. Also, Elena is already a mother, so she should be familiar with the body horrors real pregnancy brings, but she never even mentions her previous pregnancy once the film gets to this point. A line as simple as “this never happened to me with my first child” would have dealt with that issue and given more urgency to her condition. There are hints that the film may have conspiracy undertones with the possibility that Louise and Kaspar may have something to hide. Again, this is dropped and its potential for fostering paranoia is not really exploited. There are even indications that possession themes may become central to the story. As with the other themes, this is not really explored to the extent that it should.
Quiet, deliberately paced, atmospheric horror can be very effective when handled properly. Similarly, horrors that are hinted at are often scarier than those that are explicitly stated. Unfortunately, while Shelley tries to take both these tacks, it does not do so all that successfully. By failing to have any sort of crescendo of threat or action and failing to follow through on most of its themes, it loses what atmosphere it has and ends up feeling slow. Strong performances by Cosmina Stratan and Ellen Dorrit Petersen buoy the film somewhat, but they are still unable to liven the film up enough to save it. Director Abbasi shows promise, and fans of quiet, slow-burn horror may find some more to like here, but the overall effect of the film is a bit underwhelming.
Shelley (2 / 5)