Monday, July 10, 2017

What To Expect When You're Expecting (an evil baby)

If you'll forgive the pun, I think we can all agree that pregnancy is fertile ground for a good horror film. With a poster that directly references Rosemary's Baby, the Danish film Shelley seemed like the perfect creepy Netflix stream. 

Quick Plot: Elena accepts a housekeeping job in Denmark for a mysterious childless couple named Louise and Kasper. The household is vegetarian and anti-electricity, growing most of their own food and living a quiet throwback lifestyle. While it's not her idea of paradise, Elena gives it her all in order to raise enough money to buy an apartment for her young son back in Romania.

After a little bonding, Louise reveals the reason she's been so distant and sad: after a miscarriage, she had a hysterectomy and is now unable to carry a child to term. Elena agrees to be a surrogate and will be paid with the home of her dreams. It's only 9 months. What can possibly go wrong?

A few months into the pregnancy, Elena starts to show your typical cinematic signs of A Very Bad Fetus. She craves meat, scratches at her shrinking body, and wants nothing more than to go home and get whatever is growing inside of her far away. 

Terrified that Elena leaving would mean losing their last chance at parenthood, Louise and Kaspar decide to keep her close, even though it's clear the young woman is only getting worse. I'll now step into some spoiler territory, as the 50ish minute mark throws a bit of a surprise at us.

You've been warned.
Elena attempts to give herself an abortion via Louise's spare knitting needle. Doctors are able to save the baby but not Elena, whose body can't handle the internal bleeding (and possible demon spawn that came out of her womb). Little Shelley seems perfectly healthy and least to her mother.

Louise takes to parenthood like nachos to cheese, but Kasper can't seem to connect with his new daughter. Even Louise's own spiritual doctor senses some kind of evil from the baby, fleeing the house rather quickly upon meeting the infant. Something is wrong with Shelley.
And then the movie ends.
I'm incredibly torn about how I feel about  Ali Abbasi's film. It's beautifully acted and nicely shot, with a subject matter that's incredibly compelling right from the get-go. We like Elena and respect her motivations to build a better life for her child, just as we feel incredibly sympathy for Louise's infertility. Even Kasper's hesitance at fatherhood is understandable. 

Abbasi builds a strong and effective atmosphere, but I'm just not sure how much I'm willing to forgive the fact that the film ends at just the moment when something actually happens. There's some good tension as Elena's pregnancy develops and even more as the adorable baby coos (and maybe clicks) away. The "sorta" reveal that Shelley has more sinister origins than a mere egg transplant opens up plenty of questions, but the nerve of the film to not even chance an answer is pretty frustrating.

High Points
The performances are good all around, but a lot of credit has to go to Ellen Dorrit Peterson as Louise. On paper, it's a frustratingly thin character (especially considering how many questions go unanswered by the time the film has ended) but Peterson uses her ghostly paleness to fantastic effect, always making us wonder if she's haunted by grief or something far more sinister. 

Low Points
Aside from the aforementioned ENDING RIGHT WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS, there's also the issue that the only real scene of action is shot and lit in such darkness that I had to check Wikipedia to make sure I understood the plot point correctly

Mixed Points
Initially, I was incredibly bothered by the idea of yet another film taking surrogacy as an easy plot device to start a horror film. There's something incredibly offensive about using something scientifically complex but completely understandable as a jumping point for insanity (much in the way it's 2017 and television and film continues to treat online dating as if everyone that uses it is a serial killer). Thankfully, Shelley sidesteps this. Yes, there's a moment or two where Elena seems to be taking more ownership of the fetus than Louise would like, but that's never the real issue. The fact that Louise couldn't carry her own baby makes perfect sense once we learn the truth about Shelley and Elena's fate. 

Lessons Learned
Boys want to have boys, and girls want to have girls

Pregnancy makes your skin really, realllllllllly dry

Knitting needles should probably not be left in easy reach of the suicidal

As goes with many a slow-burn thriller, the question to ask is always "does the end result justify the time spent teasing it?" In the case of Shelley, there IS no result, so, you know, no. That being said, there is something very haunting about the film, and it's well-made enough that it still manages to be engaging, even if it ultimately leaves you with very little to show for it. If you go in knowing that it sort of stops before it starts, you may manage to appreciate some of the skill and take in the themes that are suggested without being fully explored. 


  1. Yeah, this one was a bit of a puzzle. Very nicely made though... and I'm curious how some things were done, like the shots of nude pregnant Elena and the scene of baby Shelly lying very still and not reacting at all to daddy's attempts to get a reaction. CGI? If so it was very convincing.
    My only real burning question now is did Louise know what was up... because then its about her. If not... hmmm
    I really wish IMDB still had a comments area so I could trawl through all the theories this would generate.

    1. Agreed on all accounts. I'd forgotten how good the makeup(?) was on Elena's body.

      I have no idea whether Louise knew. There's that ONE shot of a dark figure passing her towards the end, which maybe suggests that she had made some kind of deal with the devil. But had she known, I think she would have been even more cautious with Elena. It's been a few weeks since I've watched it now, so I can't fully remember what I thought about her motivations. I'm with you on missing those message boards!