Thursday 8 March 2012

Shellter (2009)

Director: Dan Donley
Stars: Cari Sanders and Will Tulin
This film was an official selection at the 3rd Phoenix Fear Film Fest in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
I remember Shellter best of all the features shown at the Phoenix Fear Film Fest in 2010. It was less slick than Sexy Killer, less funny than Trippin', less microbudget than Ouija Board, but it was more brutal than anything else shown. It's a film that messes with your mind, not least because it's rooted in real life experiments that did exactly the same thing. That's the trippiest part of the experience that is Shellter: the realisation that some of the extremes that we see people go to in this fictional setting were reached for real in Ivy League university studies into human behaviour, specifically the Stanford prison experiment and the Milgram experiment at Yale. Everything that we see is psychological in nature, effectively asking us over and over again what we would do if we found ourselves in the same situations that the characters find themselves in. Would we do anything different? Are we capable of 'questionable things'? That's where real horror lies.

It's easy to see where the psychology came from here: Dan Donley, who wrote, directed and shot the film, has a masters degree in the subject. He's fascinated by historical events where normal people did abnormal things. He'd like to know why both rank and file German soldiers and Jewish prisoners did what they did in the death camps. They weren't necessarily the sociopaths, racists or political opportunists that the people who designed the final solution were. They were people, good or bad, who did inhuman things. After Shadows, a psychological thriller that's only horror in name because agents told him that horror is the 'only genre you can sell without known talent', he wanted to make something more overtly horror, an extreme movie that 'would make people squirm in their seats'. That aim quickly pushed Shellter into the realm of torture porn, a dubious genre with a dubious name that mixes extreme violence and sadism, but without intelligence.

And intelligence is the big difference here. The Saw films, now the highest grossing horror film series of all time, like to believe that they're intelligent, but to me they're just complex. They're Rube Goldberg machines on celluloid, each building towards another ick moment grosser than the last. That's no bad thing, but the focus is the complexity, the intricacies of the devices rather than the psychology of the characters. Replace the villain with a coyote and the victims with a roadrunner and you have exactly the same story, just with less gore and more escapes. The first Saw movie, which I thoroughly enjoyed, cost a mere $1.2m to make, peanuts in the film industry, and it grossed a hundred times that. Shellter has so many ick moments that it makes Saw look like Bambi but it all means something and it achieves another of Donley's goals: for his film to not just make the audience feel it mentally and physically but for it to change them.

Our lead character is Zoey, who wakes up from a dream that looks like 3D without the benefit of glasses in a hospital bed. 'You're safe,' says the doctor who attends her, perhaps inevitably. He's wearing a white coat and has a friendly bedside manner. He explains that they're in a nuclear fallout shelter, one intended for VIPs that didn't make it. The world has gone to hell, something backed up by the TV which is running on an emergency channel. Her family are 'dead or worse', 'survival is literally one in a million', 'the world you knew doesn't exist any more', 'the infected went crazy'. He lays it all on her quickly, emphasising that this small underground location is it. There's no escape, there's only survival, and gradually Zoey realises what survival really means, which isn't anything remotely pretty. She is carried along on a wave of necessity, spurred by the doctor and what he needs her to do, often without advance warning, and it changes her.

When I first saw Shellter, partway through a day long horror festival of shorts and features, it felt like I'd been rooked between the eyes. Most obviously it contains much that makes us squirm, not least what seems like every medical ick moment in the book, each of which to many people are ickier by far than the murder and rape scenes. We see those all the time: we're already conditioned. We're not so conditioned to surgery without anaesthesia, self amputation, genital mutilation, let alone orbital pre-frontal lobotomies or gluing orifices shut with surgical adhesive. With apologies for the cliché, you won't want to go back to the hospital again. The physical ick factor is outweighed by the mental ick factor though. Everything we see is done by a person, a person who is apparently just trying to survive, or yes, just following orders. We ask ourselves why they do it and then we ask ourselves whether we would do it too in the same situations.

When I watched Shellter again, a couple of years later, I went through all the same reactions but also noticed just how much more Dan Donley was involving us in proceedings than I had initially thought. The middle of the film contains a reenactment of the Milgram experiment, in which a survivor named Emily is strapped into a wheelchair that is hooked up to an electric current. The doctor asks questions and every time she gets an answer wrong, he has Zoey press a button to deliver a shock, then increase the voltage before the next question. Initially it only tickles but it quickly reaches dangerous thresholds. The point of the experiment is that it isn't about Emily at all, it's about Zoey and why she continues to press the button even when it causes obvious pain. While the story focuses on Zoey, I wonder how much it's really an experiment about us. Donley seems to be more interested in our responses than he is about the technical aspects of his film.

As passive participants, we aren't drawn into the same type of experiment that Zoey is. However she's drawn in through assumptions. She makes judgement calls, consciously or not, about her situation and they shape the actions she takes. A subtle component of the Milgram experiment was that when participants stopped pressing the button, they were prompted to continue with comments of increasing vehemence. That's replicated here, not just in the overt Milgram scene but throughout the film. Each time Zoey questions her surroundings, the doctor reenforces them with increasing vigour. We aren't subject to that, so we quickly realise that the doctor is not all there, but we are subject to the same assumptions. The core twist of the film is a kick in the gut but the lesser ones carry just as much impact: the changing status of the characters and what that means, as well as the deliberate inability to keep track of time.

The way this is all structured means that we've become part of the experiment. After all, if Dan Donley asked you what you would do if you woke up in a nuclear shelter and had to do X, Y or Z, you wouldn't be able to answer fairly because you aren't there. You'd be detailing what you think you'd do or what you like to think you'd do, not what you actually would do. You may not have a clue what you really would do. That's the point. Yet here, we're thrown into the same situation as Zoey, albeit by proxy, and are given the same amount of information to work from. So we make assumptions and judgement calls, just as she does, merely without the power of life and death at our fingertips. We may surprise ourselves in the decisions we take, especially when the twists arrive and we realise what we've been suckered into believing. The real kicker comes when we watch the film again to see if we changed our minds, even with foreknowledge of the twists.

The cast are generally very good, though few of the actors have much experience. Another key story element is that almost nobody is given a name during the film, keeping everything notably impersonal. Fortunately the Shellter website helps identify who played who so due praise can be handed out. Cari Sanders does an excellent job as Zoey, even though this was her film debut. It can't have been an easy part to play, especially for someone fresh to the screen. Will Tulin is a gloriously freaky mad doctor, exactly the right mix of pragmatic, driven and batshit crazy. He gets no end of great moments, but the best for me were during the Milgram scenes. His clinical delivery of banal lines like 'increase the dosage' and 'administer the treatment' are note perfect, perhaps due to his background as a broadcaster, as he hosts a morning radio show in San Diego. As the only male character with a lot of screen time, his dominance is especially notable.

Nobody else lets the side down. A number of other characters enter the shelter, though few get to leave, and while they share obvious characteristics they and their situations are agreeably different. Three stood out for me. Erin Mae Miller gets little to do as Amy, but she does a huge amount with it, eliciting massive amounts of sympathy as perhaps the victim with the most sustained presence in the film. Maria Olsen is the apparently wackadoodle nurse who spends her entire time soaked in blood but unable to speak. She apparently read well for another part but wanted the challenge of this one. She lived up to it superbly with a grounded horror presence. Best of all though was Sophie King, an Aussie actor who plays Emily, the ostensible subject in the reenactment of the Milgram experiment. Almost her entire part is a death scene but it's the most powerfully played and gruesomely believable death scene I've seen in a long while.

And yet everything inevitably comes back to Dan Donley, who needs to make more feature films and soon. He found his way to film while working on his masters degree, through a catalogue of classes at community college. He now has a couple of decades behind him shooting TV shows, commercials, awards ceremonies, you name it. His first feature was Shadows, which I really need to track down and which he wrote, produced and directed. From the trailer it appears to start at a number of places that we know well but then move off into a good deal of new territory. Trailers can be misleading, of course, but given the substance behind this film I'd hope we can trust that there's substance in that one too. It was released in 2005, with Shellter following four years later and playing well on the festival circuit. At this rate we should be due another feature next year. How about it, Dan? What's next?

1 comment:

dan donley said...

Thanks for "getting" SHELLTER, I really appreciate the kind words. And thanks for the shout out for the actors. They were all really great and went the extra mile.

SHADOWS has another great group of actors. I don't want to give away the plot but a bunch of college students go to a haunted house... this is where we all laugh because we've all seen this film a hundred times. SHADOWS is horror lite and people are surprised about the comedy. It was meant to be a nice little popcorn horror film with a little T&A and I guess this was a little too much skin because Amazon refused to sell it. Send me your snail mail addy Hal to and I'll send you a copy.

I'll make another film when I figure out how to make money on the first two... or until I just want to make another one. It's about time, isn't it?

Thanks again, and great review!