Fantasia Film Festival Movie Review: SHELLEY (2016)

Welcome witches and warlocks,

Today I will be reviewing the body horror movie SHELLEY by Ali Abbasi.  I have had to cobble together an accurate synopsis from a few different sources so here is the general plot description:

A childless couple make a bargain with their Romanian maid to serve as a surrogate.  As her body begins to change and vivid nightmares start to take over, she begins to believe that not all is as it seems with the offspring she is carrying. 

We open on lush pastorals and forests which radiate a calming tranquility.  The score is strained and tense as we gaze upon a pristine lake.  As we flash around the various nature-scapes the foreboding score keeps undermining what would otherwise be a beautifully scenic area.  Then we see a barren, withered tree that sticks out like a sore thumb among the foliage laden forest.  One final scream of the score and the image becomes hued in a menacing red.

In many ways this is a symbolic way of portraying the idea behind this movie; what appears perfect has something dark growing within.  Our heroine, Elena, starts what seems like the perfect job for what appears to be a normal couple.  Oh, sure, the couple has their quirks (not having any electricity in their isolated country house), but overall they genuinely seem to care for her well-being.  When Elena agrees to help them have a child, in exchange for some financial help, she never imagines that something very dark might come out of the deal.

When things start to go south, Elena starts having some very visually stunning nightmares.  These scenes are few and far between, but remain a wonder to behold when they crop up as they are beautifully composed of gorgeous color schemes and spectacular cinematography.  In fact, they prove to be so pretty that they verge on transcending their horrid visuals to something more akin to high art.

The wonderful visuals help to punctuate a familiar, yet captivating story.  The sense of isolation Elena feels being in a foreign place makes her a relatable character.  As she slowly begins to believe mistrust the couple she is playing surrogate for, we watch her go from being a docile spectator to a paranoid player; as her body transforms, so too does her mind.  This unraveling is both fascinating and horrific to watch because we want so badly to see Elena come out on top, yet she seems to be losing hope every step of the way.

This idea of losing oneself to another is so well portrayed here that it is actually rather unnerving.  I will grant, that some of the uneasiness this topic causes is due to the specific nature and imagery associated with pregnancy, but the notion is still disturbing.  This film does a wonderful job of subverting the “beauty” of pregnancy by lacing in the idea that Elena is a passenger in her own body.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not at least reference the famous paranoid pregnancy movie ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968).  While both movies share a lot in the way of plot and thematic elements, I found SHELLEY to have a stronger, more satisfying third act to payoff all of what came before.  While the body horror aspect certainly set it apart, it is really the ending that put it over the top for me.  The finale pulled some neat tricks that changed much of the meaning of the film simply by not going down a more traditional road.

All in all, the sense of paranoia created is strong enough to warrant a view.  The fact that we have some amazing visuals and solid performances only further enhances this already great feature.  Those who want a darker take on the “miracle” of pregnancy or who are fans of paranoid, body horror movies of David Cronenberg should enjoy this feature.

SHELLEY will have it’s North American Premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival on July 22 at 3pm at the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Hall Theatre)

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