For a sub-genre that falls between body horror and pregnancy horror, the one that helms the most success is undoubtedly Rosemary’s Baby. It’s hard to reach such heights, and whilst others like Inside have admirably brought forth their own ingenious tactics into making such an average sub-genre that doesn’t quite spark as much originality as others, it never quite gets there.
Shelley, a Danish horror from director Ali Abbasi, focuses on Elena (Cosmina Stratan), a houseworker whose arrival in a cottage situated in a dense forest in the middle of nowhere sparks a relationship with owners Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and husband Kasper (Peter Christoffersen).
When it comes to light that Louise is unable to fall pregnant, they offer Elena funds for essentially renting out her body. Agreeing to the conditions, the house brims with a new joy. Quickly, however, it isn’t long until strange events and hallucinations lead the household to believe something isn’t quite right, and whatever is growing inside Elena is welcoming in a force like no other.
Splicing Lynch’s general surrealist approach to horror with Ti West’s incredible slow-build, Shelley’s unoriginal premise isn’t enough for director Abbasi. Tilting expectations on its rear, this formidable approach in creating such dread expands the idea of horror much more successfully than just chucking buckets of blood at the screen and wishing for a decent quick jump scare.
Situated in this murky, eerie forest, we feel as isolated as Elena. Incorporating as much weariness as you would in a general fog, expectations are hindered as there’s no guessing where this one’s going to go. Pregnant life doesn’t quite strive to be as glamorous as one might expect, Elena’s grey complexion doesn’t quite scream easy final trimester as an unhinged performance goes to Stratan, forced to carry an unwelcoming though mysterious evil. A lot of the mystery is created through personal interpretation, leaving ideals of devil babies or a 21st century Damian to the back of our minds.
As time elapses, a continuing and growing sense of thick dread shrouds the remote farmhouse. Strange occurrences occur and nightmarish visions beacon a disquieting and unsettling relationship between all members of the household. The film channels the very best of the aforementioned horror that ignited the usually trashy genre, and builds on the likes of The House of the Devil or Don’t Look Now.
This type of horror won’t be for everyone. Like something that introduces itself as original, there’s a specific crowd that gobbles the likes of a slow-building intensity to eat away with such a gradual but increasingly paralysing state. In a world where jump scares are used tactically, there are films like Shelley that prove tactics are often for the boastful. They’re not always needed, and you’ll often forgive the difference with the lasting effect: there’s an absolute certainty the likes of Shelley will stay with you long after the credits roll.
An admirable directorial effort on behalf of Abbasi. His unoriginal plot takes a swift turn into originality, where the likes of usual pregnancy horror tropes are thrown to the wind and other tropes form to bond a tightly-wound mystery that might not scream horror but winding through its veins is absolutely and necessarily terrifying.
Dir: Ali Abbasi
Scr: Ali Abbasi, Marin Louise Kaehne
Cast: Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Cosmina Straten, Bjorn Andresen, Peter Christoffersen
Prd: Jacob Jarek
Music: Martin Dirkov
DOP: Nadim Carlsen, Sturla Brandth, Grovlen
Runtime: 92 minutes
Shelley is available now on DVD and Download