Ali Abbasi’s striking debut Shelley is a Gothic horror that uses degeneration of the body to explore the exploitation of migrant workers and the individualist ideology that accompanies society’s growing obsession with ‘organic’ living. A young Romanian woman, Elena (Cosmina Stratan), arrives in the Danish countryside to work as a housekeeper for Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kasper (Peter Christoffersen). She used to be an accountant in Bucharest but has moved to Denmark to save enough money to buy a house for her and her son. Her hosts live deep inside a dense forest, far removed from the amenities of modern life, living a self-sufficient life without electricity or running water.
So much of Shelley’s mood and atmosphere relies on its isolated location, removing the issues surrounding the perpetual accessibility of society that burdens many contemporary horrors, whilst also magnifying the privileged lifestyle of Elena’s hosts. It also necessitates the use of candlelight and oil lamps; a shrewd touch that only adds to the film’s Gothic charms. Elena adjusts quickly to her new routine of chores; cooking, tidying and tending to the livestock, and she even begins to grow closer with Louise, despite initially finding her new-age spiritualism a little hard to digest. Elena, who hired to help Louise recover after an operation that left her unable to have children, but as their bond grows stronger she agrees to a generous financial deal to be the couple’s surrogate mother. However the joy of her subsequent pregnancy soon dissipates as a series of bizarre events, and a string of lucid fever dreams lead Elena to believe that the life growing inside of her isn’t quite what it seems.
As Elena breaks away from the holistic lifestyle rules of the house, the child she’s carrying begins to take more and more from her, leaving her scared, exhausted and on the verge of hysteria. Playing upon the anxieties and claustrophobia embedded within pregnancy and universal fears of our body’s slow disintegration, Abbasi finds pathos in the grotesque, yet it’s his subtle construction of mood that makes the film so chilling. Choosing to switch both screen ratios and cinematographers (Sturla Brandth Grøvlen shot the first section and Nadim Carlsen filmed the rest) at the point when Elena becomes pregnant, Abbasi blurs the invisible class boundaries of his characters and provides a formally violent expression of how Elena’s body has become imprisoned by the world her hosts have enforced on her.
With Shelley, Abbasi has crafted a unique horror that combines longstanding ideas (the film shares numerous themes with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) with a pertinent dissection of modern society. Louise and Kasper are never painted as your typical antagonists, with their naivety, yet inescapable egotism alluding to a far larger force at work. Abbasi instead uses the savage sounds and sense of isolation afforded by his rural setting to articulate these external influences, with his chilling horror veiling an intelligent opprobrium of people like Louise and Kasper who, whilst believing they’re building a better world, are all too ignorant of how their privilege is like a stranglehold on society’s weakest.
FrightFest 2016 runs from 25-29 August at Vue Shepherd’s Bush. For info and tickets: frightfest.co.uk
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble