It’s a little late in the year, but the award for sickest, vilist and most out there horror film of 2010 has been captured by Dan Donley’s indie gem Shellter. Donley managed to make me squeamish enough while watchingthat my stomach roiled more than once and I had to set aside dinner. While there’s a fair amount of gruesomeness to the proceedings, that wasn’t what set me off. Rather, it’s the intense mental breakdown of Shellter’s lead, and a situation which forces her to commit atrocious acts just to survive another few minutes that set my teeth on edge. It’s one of the most disturbing films I’ve watched this year, yet I can’t wait to give it another go round.
Zoey (Carrie Sanders in her feature debut) wakes up disoriented and confused in an underground bomb shelter. Hazy recollections (filmed in blowout colors with muted audio that enhances their dreamlike quality) start to come back to her of men in hazmat suits taking her out of her home. Soon she’s met at her bedside by The Doctor (Will Tulin) who solemnly informs her that a viral outbreak causes the infected to eat the living. He tells her he has been rescuing survivors, few as they are, and bringing them in to the shelter. He tells her the food and water supplies have been contaminated, and feed her a specially prepared meal before sticking her with a sedative. The Doctor uses this sedative over and over to keep his patient disoriented and pliable, wearing down her cognitive capacities. While in this forced sleep, snippets of memory return to Zoey, and we learn the rescue team's motives and actions may not have come from a place of pure intent.
Tulin is fantastic in the role of the psychotic Doctor. Much like Dieter Laser was born to play the role of Mad Scientist in The Human Centipede, Tulin, who resembles a bug eyed Clint Howard, owns the screen as the twisted Doctor, whose rules and research quickly become obvious that they are for his own amusement, and not meant to stem the tide of any viral outbreak. His every action centers on physically and mentally breaking down his patients, and he takes a special liking to Zoey as she’s the first to not give in to his advances immediately. He goes about his business of torture in a matter of fact way, with a zealot’s certainty that all his actions are in the right. Through sedatives, drugs and starvation, he is able to manipulate first the nurse, then Zoey, to take part in his increasingly bizarre experiments. He sees no irony in hiding from the infected while preparing meals out of the survivors that he's rescued.
Tulin initially finds himself assisted by The Nurse, and it speaks to the depth of Donley’s film that she initially comes off as a terrifying figure (her introduction is a fantastic jump scare) to one the audience will find sympathy for. Clad in a blood-stained uniform, The Nurse has had her lips (both sets of them) sewn shut for, as The Doctor claims, “telling lies”. With Zoey under his thumb as a new plaything, The Doctor quickly tires of his assistant, and she meets a gruesome and sad slow torturous end.
Make no mistake; you will see a lot of torture in this film. From scenes of forced cannibalism and intravenous feeding (through the nostril with a meal comprised of pureed foot and bone no less), lobotomies, rape and body modification, Shelter will be a tough watch for most people. A starved Zoey is reduced to drinking urine and slurping cold soup out of a filthy bedpan in addition to chunking down pieces of cooked human flesh in order to survive.
While the film is chock full of gory, disgusting scenes, it’s not the over the top carnage that makes Shellter such an uneasy, compelling watch. Donley creates situations for Zoey where she must make a choice that boils down to “her or me”. There’s a scene where The Doctor forces Zoey to zap a new refugee with an electrical shock every time the new girl answers a question incorrectly. As the voltage raises with each incorrect answer, the helpless woman is left screaming for mercy at first, until she can no longer answer at all, her muscles gone slack and eyes rolling in to the back of her head. Still, The Doctor berates Zoey to “Increase the Voltage” and “Push the Button” quickly, warning her that it could just as easily be her in the chair. Despite her reservations and shaking hands, Zoey complies every time, until the woman in the chair is nothing but a smoking husk.
What follows is even more revolting. Another woman is brought in, and when she refuses the Doctor’s advances, he decides to lobotomize her to make her more pliable. While the restrained woman begs for mercy, Zoey has to make the same choice all over again: “her or me”. Demonstrating once again the lengths of debasement one will go through just to survive, Zoey holds the woman’s head in place so the procedure can continue. It’s at this moment the Doctor knows he owns the woman, heart and soul, and from that point on, there’s little difference between Zoey, and the lobotomy victim. Sapped of her free will, there’s little she won’t do to please the Doctor. It’s not until the cycle we saw wind down at the beginning of the film starts up again before she finds the urge to fight back.
While Donley isn’t afraid to push against boundaries of what audiences will find acceptable in a film, his work doesn’t come off as gratuitous. Earlier this year, I had the misfortune of watching Penance, (my min review can be found here) a film so revolting it could only be done by someone with deep seeded mommy issues. Shelter treads the same grimy territory, but concerns itself with exploring just how far a person will go to survive, even when the conditions are intolerable. It explores whether we take action based on experience and upbringing, or if deep down we’re little more than walking husks of base instinct.
Being a horror film, things have to come to climax with a twist ending. If you pay any attention at all to the film, you’ll probably figure it out within the first twenty minutes. Shelter still manages a clever spin on the twist that plays with the idea of the Stamford Experiment, and how long it takes for someone to breakdown under incredible duress.
Shellter isn’t for the weak of heart and it’s not going to be every horror fan’s cup of tea. If you objected to the Saw and Hostel franchise because of the violence (as opposed to the more legitimate reason that they’re just not very good films) you won’t like this film. But if you’re looking for something to push your boundaries, or want a well crafted, low budget indie film, give this a download at IndieFlix, or order it from Amazon.
Sorry for the ad in the trailer, it's the only embeddable one I could find. I'm a little concerned over who Disney thinks their target audience is for Disneyland nowadays.