I don’t speak Danish, so part of this is on me, I suppose. I’m guessing that the likelihood of anyone reading this understanding Danish is sufficiently low for me to say that I would have turned the movie off due to lack of comprehension … the trouble with Shelley is that the movie is mostly in English, so I naturally expected that to continue. That turns out not to be the case, so the third act continues in unsubtitled format – at least the copy I was watching. It isn’t a total deal breaker, as the narrative is conveyed well enough by the visuals and direction. Nevertheless, it would have been nice to have understood the spare dialogue that comes in the third act.
Shelley is the second Danish horror movie I’ve seen this year, and while it’s too few examples to get any sense of that country’s horror output, they certainly seem like they prefer understatement. When Animals Dream is that country’s take on the werewolf archetype, and it’s by far the most restrained take I’ve seen. Not a bad movie, but thin on detail and plot – my viewing of it was enhanced by the stark, bleak environment and muted colour palette. I like that look a lot – it hits on the psychological aspects of horror that are essential: dread and isolation, where isolation can be literal (The Blair Witch Project’s lost in the woods storyline) or figurative, which is the case here with the main protagonist in Shelley, Elena, played by Cosmina Stratan.
The poster, as you can see above, is very reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby – something that both attracted and repelled me. Attracted, because the Polanski movie is one of the greatest horror movies of all time, and I was hoping that Shelley might touch upon the same themes – repelled because I feared it could be a simple knock off. The good news is that Shelley has almost nothing in common with Rosemary’s Baby, though it isn’t completely apparent within the first act.
As I said, the plot of Shelley is simple, and it’s mostly front-loaded in the first act. Elena, a young Romanian woman in Denmark, answers an ad for a housekeeper job in a remote lakeside home, owned by a childless couple in their 40s. Elena has been working away from home for two years, hoping to save enough money for a place of her own where she can raise her young son, who has remained in Romania all this time. Louise and Kasper, the couple who own the place – tranquil, but bleak – are a quiet, but friendly pair, and the housekeeping job has come about due to a recent surgical procedure undergone by Louise. When Elena arrives on the property, she is dismayed to learn that Louise and Kasper do not use electricity or running water, preferring to live an austere, natural life. Their only modern conveniences – actually, more necessities, given their location – are a landline, and Kasper’s car, but Elena quickly adapts to the lifestyle. Early in the movie she comes across as a typical modern young woman, but Stratan’s soulful eyes and the quiet direction of the movie imbue Elena with a great sense of depth that works to the movie’s advantage. The plot begins proper when, after bonding with Louise and discovering the older woman’s longing for a child she cannot physically have, Elena agrees to become a surrogate. As well as the money she will be paid for this service, Elena genuinely wants to help, another nice depth of character choice by the writers Ali Abassi (who also directed), and Maren Louise Kaehne.
But of course, this is a horror movie, not a drama. As Elena’s pregnancy develops, it’s clear to us that something is not quite right. She loses her appetite and her quietly pleasant nature slowly drains away throughout the first half of act two. By the midpoint, she is convinced that not only is there something wrong with the baby she’s carrying, but that there’s also something malevolent about it. It isn’t hard to disagree with her, since the physical effects of the pregnancy are clear and unambiguous. Her body becomes covered with what appear to be scratches, her hair starts falling out, etc. Something is going on, and it’s not good.
But it’s here that the movie also runs out of plot. There’s also no ambiguity about the couple’s role; they are both completely innocent of the events happening, so the mystery of the pregnancy continues to run on mostly fumes. As the movie progresses, you recall that the lack of plot seeding in the character-heavy first act leads to a hugely underdeveloped second act, and by the time the baby arrives, the events of act three contain only mystery and no resolution. It’s hugely unfulfilling, and, in a way, renders the movie quite pointless in the end. Events transpire with no reason why, either via plot, or by dialogue. While it might have helped, I didn’t need to know Danish in order to get the gist of what the characters were discussing in the run up to the main climactic scene. The movie just kind of peters out after its one overtly violent act, and then ends on a note that doesn’t really hint at what may happen beyond the end credits.
Like When Animals Dream before it, perhaps the genre of Danish horror is so narrow that there are only a couple of examples to go by, but it’s not enough to knowingly work in the horror genre without understanding – or maybe choosing to ignore – the point of the horror genre. At its worst the movies it embraces are nothing more than plot-driven gorefests, but at its best it’s capable of delivering some great character-driven tragedy within the horror. The utter lack of plot development leaves Shelley hollow and unsatisfying, despite two great performances and nice character detail.