Nervousa Films // 2009 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // February 4th, 2011
How far would you go to survive?
The "Milgram experiment" is an infamous psychological experiment that's been taught to just about every introductory psychology class since it was published in 1963. In this experiment, subjects were instructed to give test questions to "learners" (actually researchers posing as subjects), who were supposedly hooked up to electro-shock generators. When the learners gave wrong answers, the subjects were to give them painful electric shocks, the shocks increasing gradually to fatal levels. Surprisingly, 65 percent of the participants obeying the orders of the experimenters and shocked the learners to the maximum level, despite the audible screams of those they believed they were torturing. The experiment has been repeated many times over the years, all over the world and with many variations, and the results have been remarkably consistent.
Most people find these results unbelievable -- we're certain we'd never be so gullible or weak as to commit stupid or immoral acts just because we were ordered to by an authority figure. Or so we tell ourselves, as we obediently take off our shoes and submit to porno-scans and TSA grope-downs at the airport. Whether we like it or not, all but the orneriest of us tend to become obedient little girls and boys around those we perceive to be in charge.
Naturally, this is irresistible storytelling fodder, as demonstrated by numerous documentaries, novels, films, and Law and Order episodes over the years. And in Shellter, a creepy little low-budget shocker by cinematographer-turned-director Dan Donley, the premise gets pushed to the very extremes of horror.
Shellter begins with a young woman, Zoey (Cari Sanders) waking up in a hospital bed, with hazy memories of being abducted and chloroformed by a pair of sinister gas-masked figures. She's informed by a doctor (William Tulin) that she's in an underground shelter, and that the world above has been decimated by a virus that has turned nearly all of humanity into flesh-eating zombies. The doctor and his assistant (Maria Olsen) are holed up in the shelter, performing experiments on survivors in hopes of finding a cure.
We barely have time to even begin suspecting that not all is as it seems, since it's immediately apparent from subtle clues -- the bloodstained walls, the crazy-eyed nurse with blood smeared all over her uniform and her lips (both pairs, as it turns out) sealed shut with surgical glue, and, oh yeah, the screaming woman strapped to an operating table whose amputated foot is being cut up and pan-seared before being fed to everyone in the shelter including the screaming woman -- that the doctor is, in fact, a sadistic lunatic, and Zoey probably ought to think about getting the heck out of there.
But of course, Zoey doesn't, because she believes the virus apocalypse story she's been told, and because the doctor, even though he's obviously a deranged psychopath, is still a doctor, or at least dressed like one. She stays in the shelter despite witnessing an increasingly horrific series of atrocities, obeys the doctor's maniacal orders, and even begins to assist in his bloody "experiments." I'd like to say that Zoey "descends into a nightmare of torture, murder, rape, and cannibalism (and worse)," but since the film dispenses with any notion of building up to the horror and cuts right to the splatterfest, it's more of an abrupt free-fall into the crazy than a descent.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it's apparent from the first minute of the movie what the next 86 minutes will offer. (Including the final "twist," which is so immediately obvious -- and no, there's no double-twist to subvert your initial suspicions -- that I'm not sure the filmmaker even intends it to be a shocking reveal.) Namely, lots and lots of extremely poor behavior, and lots and lots of agonized screaming.
To the film's credit, there's more to Shellter than just sick torture-porn thrills. Writer-director Donley is obviously out to tell a story of the kind of irrational obedience to authority demonstrated by the Milgram experiment -- there's even a scene that essentially reenacts it, except of course with real, not simulated electricity -- as well as the abuse of power by those in authority. There are references to the Nazis, of course, and to the Sonderkommando Jews in the death camps who helped the Nazis exterminate fellow Jews. And it's interesting, in a film that depicts so much violence and abuse of women, that Donley brings themes of patriarchal sexism right up front, most explicitly in a scene in which a male survivor is brought to the shelter, and the mad doctor buys his compliance with promises of patriarchal power and sexual dominance. (Although, of course, it's not stated so much in those terms as "you can do anything you want to the women here!")
Shellter also features some strong performances from its leads. For an actor who for the most part isn't asked to do much more than stare in dazed horror at what's happening to and around her, Cari Sanders is believable in portraying the stunned, conflicted compliance of a woman who knows she ought to clobber the crazy doctor with a pipe and get the hell out of there, yet is too intimidated and afraid to do so.
As the unnamed doctor, William Tulin doesn't have the most memorable face or much of a menacing presence, but his nondescript blandness works in the role; if Donley's going for a "banality of evil" vibe here, he achieves it in Tulin, who comes across as a mildly genial dermatologist even as he's stabbing a pick through someone's eye socket into their prefrontal cortex. As mad doctors go, he's certainly an interesting contrast to Dieter Laser's cackling, wild-eyed Dr. Heiter in The Human Centipede. Shellter doesn't have that film's polish or absurd sense of humor, but it's often genuinely disturbing in a way The Human Centipede isn't.
Unfortunately, as high-minded as Donley's intentions may have been, the film's reach far exceeds its grasp, and what could have been a compelling foray into the darkest extremes of human nature is undermined by ham-fisted and shallow storytelling and directorial choices. For instance, is it really necessary to smear every single wall of the shelter with random, "ooh, scary!" blood spatters? And the situation that Zoey finds herself in is so immediately insane -- so gorily, horrifically perverse -- that her ready acceptance of the situation beggars belief. There's no point -- ever -- at which the story tones itself down enough to resemble a real situation that a real person could find herself in, and as a result there's little about the film that indicates that the filmmaker is as interested in exploring his themes so much as using them as excuses to wallow in shock and gore.
Shellter is a low-budget labor of love, and comes to DVD in a package that's heavy with special features, but light on basic features. The film was shot on digital video and although it looks pretty good, with realistic, cleverly constructed gore effects and a clean image, it lacks cinematic polish. Naturally, it doesn't look like a Saw film, but falls somewhere between that and a film school production: competent, but a little cheap. Audio is clean and does the job, but if there's more going on here than a basic Dolby Digital mono soundtrack, I missed it.
Extras on the disc include a couple of deleted scenes -- one that I have trouble figuring out where in the film it would have gone, but which is pretty effective at driving home the film's themes, and one involving the discovery of some bodies that is creepy but probably wisely excluded -- and a slew of entertaining behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes. I'm always startled by how lighthearted horror film sets often are, given the grimness of the final product, and the juxtaposition between the gruesome, blood-splattered sets and the grinning, joking actors and crew is usually good for a laugh.
There's a truly disturbing, terrifying horror film to be made from the premise of the Milgram experiment and the theme of blind obedience to authority, but Shellter -- despite some decent performances and truly revolting, shocking moments -- isn't that film. I have to give Donley credit for pushing his film far beyond the mindless sadism of most films in the extreme horror sub-genre. Shellter attempts to walk a very thin line between psychological horror and torture porn, but it simply isn't clever or nuanced enough to manage it.
The court finds Shellter guilty as charged, and orders the bailiff to increase the voltage. Push the button, bailiff. Now!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Nervousa Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site