As a caveat to all that follows, it should be noted by readers who have never heard of Shelter that it’s written by Michael Cooney, who brought us Jack Frost (the one that’s not the Michael Keaton family flick) and Jack Frost 2: Revenge Of The Mutant Killer Snowman. More recently, though, he’s done a line in pot-boilers centred around multiple personality disorder, like Identity and The I Inside, which Shelter continues in a bull-headed manner.
The radiant Julianne Moore plays Cara Jessop, a widowed psychologist whose years of experience with patients have left her cynical and close-minded. As the film starts, we see her declare that a serial killer on death row was of sound mind when he committed his crimes, because multiple personality disorder does not actually exist. The said killer is summarily executed.
Her excitable father, also a psychologist, refers her to a number of patients who may disprove her rigidly held views on the disorder, the latest of whom is Adam. When Cara encounters him, he violently and physically oscillates between two personas, himself, and a wheelchair-bound Catholic called David. But as his life becomes more and more intertwined with Cara’s, a number of other personalities come to the fore.
Cara is confounded by Adam, to the extent that she begins to consider the impossible, the involvement of “Satan-worshipping mountain witches”. Yes, that’s actually in the dialogue, more on which later. The point being that Adam’s condition is more febrile than psychological, and no one around him is safe.
There’s a workable horror film struggling to get out of Shelter. Oddly, I find myself saying this with the greatest of goodwill towards the film because I have to admit that I never found it predictable and it generally held my attention for what should be a very unwieldy 112 minute running time.
Many will point out upon reading this review that I’m essentially giving a reasonably positive review to the closest real life equivalent to a Donald Kaufman film. Well, yes. Yes, I probably am. It’s inconsistent and occasionally preposterous, but for me at least, it fits comfortably into guilty pleasure territory.
It is horror by numbers, but it’s at least sparing with whatever felt tip pen denotes ‘jump scares’, which is something I always like to see. Instead, it builds up a palpable current of psychological horror that is more spooky than scary. Nevertheless, beyond a few appreciable flaws, it’s a decent bit of nonsense.
This may not seem like a minor flaw, but one of the biggest problems is the script. Cooney doesn’t have much flair for dialogue, and brazenly evokes “ill-conceived Hollywood movies” as a reason for Cara’s skepticism. Funny then, how the script also wears Night Of The Living Dead on its sleeve as an influence. Not that there’s anything close to Romero outside of the explicit references to that film in the dialogue and mis-en- scène, but once the film’s high concept really kicks in, there’s a tangible debt to zombie flicks in the physical symptoms displayed by people who’ve been exposed to Adam.
Moreover, occasional lapses into melodrama really break the atmosphere. Cara interrupts her father during a game of basketball to quietly ask for a word and he obliges, only for them to have a slanging match on the court, not six feet from the bewildered players. Instead of, I don’t know, going out into the corridor and having a quiet word? The film’s at its weakest when this kind of impatience crops up, and Cooney trots out a number of clichés as he rushes through scenes.
On the plus side, the whole thing is probably bolstered immensely by Moore, who I think is brilliant as a rule. OK, so this isn’t the most nuanced role or performance she will ever give, but it’s at least a cut above her recent contributions to rubbish like Next or The Forgotten. She’s a classier leading lady than is traditional in horror too, and I really can’t fault her for acting most of the cast off-screen here.
Similarly, I really liked Law & Order alumnus Jeffrey DeMunn’s turn as Cara’s father, giving his role a wide-eyed enthusiasm that at least makes the mad scientist characterisation feel better adjusted to a relatively normal psychologist character. Cooney’s to blame for that, not the cast. Watch out also for a rare appearance by John Peakes, he of Evil Dead II, as a genial friend of Cara’s who takes only a little longer to cop it than Professor Knowby did. Again, at the behest of supernatural forces. Go figure.
Faring less well is a hammy Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who’s risible (but not terrible) as Adam. Ultimately, I feel he was miscast, as though he was shoe-horned in just because he was available to do it, and to be blunt, he doesn’t look weird enough for this. I’m not saying every psychologically unbalanced character must look like Jackie Earle Haley, because there are some actors who look perfectly well-adjusted and do a great job at acting insane. I just wish one of them had been cast instead of Rhys Meyers.
Shelter doesn’t seem to have been broadly reviewed or seen, and may well sink without a trace. Even without panning it, I note its similarities to an under-watched supernatural thriller called Fallen, starring Denzel Washington. Incidentally, that had Elias Koteas as the psycho, and he does at least look the part.
The adverts I saw didn’t really telegraph the more supernatural side to proceedings, so maybe that’s why it surprised me so much. I say with a great deal of confidence that not everyone will have the same soft spot for this film that I seem to have nurtured. It’s fairly unoriginal and, at its worst, it’s overly solemn and trite. But Shelter is still reasonably unsettling to the casual filmgoer if not the most hardened of horror fans. And better, it’s the plot that’s unsettling rather than sound editing designed to have you vacate your seat for an empty shock.
Minus a star if you’re not me.
Shelter is in UK cinemas now.
You can find more film-related goodness (and occasional badness) from Mark at his blog, The Mad Prophet.