Shelley is an interesting but somewhat dry pregnancy horror tale that hinges on performance because it doesn’t give us enough of the plot to keep the viewer genuinely invested in the story.
Don’t get me wrong, the film is artfully done. Of the surplus of supernatural pregnancy movies we’ve seen in the last few years, it’s absolutely better than the likes of Devil’s Due. But I think that director Ali Abassi wanted this to be a sort of open-ended experience. It raises a lot of questions. You’re never entirely sure as to what’s actually happening, whether there’s something demonic at work or it’s just playing out in the mind of one of the characters. All of this makes sense for a very limited character drama, which this definitely is. It’s really a small, three character play—four if you count Shelley herself.
But I don’t think it gives us enough in order to really make that work. It’s definitely best to leave things open ended so that the audience can leave with some questions. But almost everything that happens in Shelley is left open to debate, and that’s just not something you can do with every scene.
Shelley gets to the point where the horrific pregnancy comes to a head, the baby is finally coming despite an extreme effort to stop it, and this whole sequence is great. It feels like tensions have built as much as they can, it feels like a major sacrifice has been made and just in general feels like an ending. But the movie keeps going from there.
About a half hour before the ending, Shelley essentially writes out its main character, turning into a tense drama about the actual rearing of this baby that may or may not be evil. All of this is interesting, but hard to get into because it feels like a completely different movie.
This is not to say that the movie is bad. Far from it. It’s gorgeously shot, making the most out of locations that can play as both beautiful and eerie within the span of a single scene. The limited cast lets us focus on great performances and it’s really Cosmina Stratan as Elena that we focus on for the bulk of the picture. She does a terrific job, playing an immediately likable woman who undergoes an extreme transformation. We feel and fear for her all the way through, which is part of the reason why I think it should have ended once she was no longer a part of it.
I did enjoy the way the film weaves in and out of using the English language, I think that’s actually done to great effect. The overall feel is moody and atmospheric which is just what I wanted from this type of horror set in this kind of location. It’s because of these really strong high points that I wish the film didn’t meander so much and felt a little more focused. There’s absolutely some strong talent on display here. For a debut feature film, this is commendable work.
Ultimately, Shelley is an enjoyable film that does what it sets out to do in creating a strong character drama and a sense of unease, but it feels as if it was capable as a whole lot more. With a tighter focus and clearer narrative and theme, it could certainly have been a contender for the year’s best. Even still, the film we’re left with makes me curious to see where Ali Abbasi goes next as a filmmaker.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director: Ali Abbasi
Writers: Ali Abbasi, Maren Louise Käehne
Stars: Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Cosmina Stratan, Björn Andrésen
Studio/Production Co: Profile Pictures
Language: Danish, English, Norwegian, Swedish, Romanian
Length: 92 minutes
Subgenre: Pregnancy Horror