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Non-Review Review: Shelter

Shelteris a horror with an intriguing original premise. However, it’s also packed with tonnes of other premises, some of which are remotely interesting, while others are quite mundane. It’s an uneven film, which actually works best when it paces itself more as a thriller or a mystery than an out-and-out horror, but there are weaker choices out there.

Psyche!

In many ways, Shelter reminds me of The X-Files. In fact, it wouldn’t be too hard to believe that the movie began life as a script for the much-loved paranormal activity show. Even more than that, it wouldn’t be too hard to believe that the movie began life as more than one script for the show. The premises the movie explores, from supernatural multiple personality disorders through to what appears to be a sentient soundwave, feel like they could work as elements of a standard monster-of-the-week episode.

In fact, the lead character of the film seems designed to evoke memories of Gillian Anderson’s iconic redhead skeptic Agent Dana Scully. Red-haired Julianne Moore plays a psychologist who is accused by her father of being too close-minded. “You’ve stopped asking questions,” he flat-out tells her at one point, as he offers her a case to reignite her interest, one that stretches possible rational explanation. Indeed, the character’s central conflict seems to be lifted directly from Scully, as our lead remarks she tried to balance being “a doctor of science, but a woman of god.”

Yes the movie does feature scenes of the leads doing things other than staring at each other intensely...

The movie’s set-up is a little hokey, but it’s incredibly intriguing. A homeless kid shows up exhibiting some strange personality disorders. Specifically, research demonstrates that his alternative personalities died years (if not decades ago). Our psychologist struggles to explain how the subject’s very biology seems to shift based on which personality is in control, or how he can know such intimate details of the victims’ lives. Being entirely honest, these are the most fascinating aspects of the film. It’s sort of a surreal mystery, with the supernatural confronting somebody who clearly doesn’t want to believe.

Unfortunately, it’s also one of the more under-developed elements. Before long, the movie is offering explanations that firmly rebuke the plausible or the rational, and then develops into quite a generic pseudo-monster movie. The second half of the movie, with its strange mysticism and ancient history, seems to belong to another film entirely, a far more conventional one. There’s one particular reveal that really forced me to give up on the film, which actually began with a decent enough idea, but seemed to submit to the urge in cinema these days to keep making it bigger and bolder and louder. Indeed, it seems that we’re treated to a death scene at the half-hour mark to remind us that this is a “horror” rather than a “psychological thriller.”

... like staring at other things intensely...

More than that, though, once the film steps away from the more subdued psychological elements, the effects become increasingly cheesy. Early on, as we’re focusing on the characters, the subjects transformations occur off-screen, to a rather agonising and uncomfortable sound effect. That was actually unpleasant (even if it felt like the pudding might be slightly over-egged). However, when we see what happens to his body when he transforms, it’s just bland effects work. It’s a shame.

And then, of course, there’s the staples of the conventional horror film that creep in slowly on the edge of the film. There’s ritualistic marking on the victims, occult symbolism, mystic folk living in the middle of nowhere, body transformations and all manner of stuff that might feel unsettling if it had been foreshadowed rather than shoehorned in to the backend of a movie like this.

Rhys is in pieces...

Still, it’s not all lost. Julianne Moore is a great lead, and she does a decent job in a poorly-written role. She’s half the reason that the first half of the film works at all. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is the other half of the reason, as the subject. Playing characters suffering from Hollywood’s version of multiple personality disorder is tough for any actor to do, but Meyers pulls it off, at least for the most part. He suffers when asked to play an eighty-odd-year-old man, but how many thirty-something actors could do that without breaking a sweat?

Shelter is a fairly run-of-the-mill low-budget occult horror, just with two very skilled leads and an interesting hook. It’s hard to feel that the hook was developed as well as it really should have been, but there are moments where it seems like something fascinating is about to unfold. If this were a monster-of-the-week X-Files episode, it’d be a perfectly average one. However, as a film, it can’t help but seem disappointing.

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