'Shelley': Berlin Review

Shelley Still 2 - Cosmina Stratan - H 2016
Courtesy of Nadim Carlsen
Not suitable for expectant mothers.

Off the grid and out of the womb, evil is hatched in Ali Abbasi's chiller, set amid malevolent nature at an isolated Danish woodland retreat.

How to describe Shelley? It's not a full-fledged demon progeny movie, though there's definitely some Rosemary's Baby in its DNA, albeit airlifted out of the city and into the wilderness to infest the lakeside tranquility of Denmark. This nasty little first feature from Ali Abbasi, a transplanted Iranian based in Scandinavia, is a thick soup of Lynchian malignancy and Gothic dread. While it's perhaps too intent on withholding narrative keys in favor of unsettling atmospherics, on the latter front it doesn't disappoint, with a compelling cast that keeps the fear factor high even if we're never really let in on where its roots lie.

Co-written by Abbasi with Maren Louise Kaehne, the script dabbles in a lot of familiar horror tropes — the stranger in a strange environment, the isolated house in perpetual semi-darkness, the insidiousness of nature, the alien corporeal occupancy of pregnancy, the unhinged biological need of the childless mother, the creepiness of chickens. OK, that last one is maybe not so familiar, but it adds to the brew here, along with the power dynamics of surrogacy as both a gift and an invasion, an act of human sacrifice and a high-risk means of financial gain.

Despite that abundance of intriguing elements, the film's refusal to explain too much makes it seem a touch under-plotted — more a promise of good things to come from an interesting new director than a fully satisfying tale in its own right. But it should nonetheless be of interest to anyone drawn to the artier end of the horror spectrum. It's also the second horror movie by an Iranian ex-pat this year, following Sundance discovery Under the Shadow.

Romanian single mother Elena (Cosmina Stratan, a Cannes best actress winner in 2012 for Christian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills) has left her five-year-old son in Bucharest with her parents while she works abroad for two or three years to save enough money to buy her own apartment back home. She takes a job as housekeeper at a remote two-story deep in the forest, owned by Kasper (Peter Christoffersen) and his wife Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), who is recovering from illness. Only when she arrives does Elena learn that her Danish employers are well-heeled hippies, living an ascetic existence without power or running water and growing most of their own food.

While she's disconcerted by their oddness and skeptical of Louise's earnest blather about positive and negative energy, Elena settles in, doing housework and gardening, tending the chickens and caring for Louise. Communicating in English, the two women become closer, like wary sisters, and Louise quickly grows stronger.

Revealing that she is unable to have children after a series of miscarriages, and that she had her eggs frozen before her hysterectomy, Louise asks Elena to consider serving as a surrogate mother for the couple. She offers generous financial compensation that would get Elena home to her son in a third of the time. Elena accepts. As a commentary on the exploitation of migrants in wealthy European countries, this has potential, though that aspect is stronger on set-up than follow-through.

Abbasi plants the idea from the outset that this lonely, beautiful place harbors some dark force, emphatically suggested in murky views of the brooding forest and the misty lake, accompanied by a dense soundscape that mixes music with the rattle and hum of ambient noise to ominous effect. Those elements get cranked up several notches once Elena is pregnant. Continuing the modish trend of playing with aspect ratios, the screen also expands from standard to 'scope.

The glow of pregnancy is short-lived for Elena, whose fatigue, queasiness and disturbing hallucinations cause her to withdraw from Kasper and Louise as she becomes convinced the child in her womb is killing her. Louise is torn between concern for Elena and protectiveness toward the baby she so desperately wants, though she's careless enough to leave her knitting needles lying around.

The less you know about developments in the latter half of the movie the better, but the script might have benefited from some additional conflict in the form of outsiders coming to snoop as the action evolves. We hear Elena's side of phone conversations to Romania, but the only significant expansion beyond the core character formation is Leo (Bjorn Andresen), a Reiki healer with a silver Gandalf mane who declines to stick around and coo over baby Shelley. (The name would appear to be a nod to Frankenstein author Mary Shelley.)

While children have frequently been effective vessels of evil in horror movies, preverbal infants are less common. Abbasi toys knowingly with audience uncertainty as to whether the tot is a sinister force or whether it's all in the minds of the adults freaked out by her. But the suggestion of something unnatural is clear in the baby's unusual stillness, her seeming lack of need for sleep and her screaming reaction to water — only at bath time does she wail.

A house without electricity is a great excuse for lots of baneful darkness and ghostly candlelight, and Abassi takes maximum advantage, particularly late in the action as figures start materializing out of the shadows. The same goes for the haunted woodland that envelops the house and seems to be always watching, even if we see eyes only once. (The film was actually shot on locations in southern Sweden.) The violence is mostly blurred or cloaked in dim lighting, but nonetheless has a visceral feel.

For a relatively short movie, the pacing is slow, and Abbasi could use further refinement of his story skills. But he definitely knows how to conjure a malevolent mood. He's also good with the actors, getting strong work from Stratan, whose character starts out easygoing and adaptable, then becomes progressively more alarmed, lurching between catatonic trances and desperate spasms. Christoffersen also navigates a convincing descent from naive privilege to cold awakening, while Petersen (a kind of Nordic Jessica Lange) conveys a terrific warm-cold intensity that keeps us guessing about her sanity.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Production companies: Profile Pictures, in association with Solid Entertainment, Film I Skane
Cast: Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Cosmina Stratan, Peter Christoffersen, Bjorn Andresen, Kenneth M. Christensen, Patricia Schumann, Marianne Mortensen
Director: Ali Abbasi
Screenwriters: Maren Louise Kaehne, Ali Abbasi, based on a story by Abbasi
Producer: Jacob Jarek
Executive producers: David Atlan-Jackson, Ditte Milsted, Thor Sigurjonsson
Directors of photography: Sturla Brandth Grovlen, Nadim Carlsen
Production designers: Sabine Hviid, Kristine Koster
Costume designer: Camilla Nordbjerg
Music: Martin Dirkov
Editor: Olivia Neergaard-Holm
Visual effects supervisor: Peter Hjorth
Casting: Gro Therp
Sales: Indie Sales Company

Not rated, 92 minutes.