Shelter first published by Sight & Sound, June 2010
Review: “Isn’t it possible that what you’re looking at is what you’re actually seeing?”
With this line, delivered by open-minded but faithless psychiatrist Dr Harding (Jeffrey DeMunn) to his more doctrinaire psychiatrist daughter Dr Cara Jessup (Julianne Moore), Shelter (aka 6 Souls) sets out its reflexive stall. This is a film that uses its overtly generic trappings and overextended plotting to dramatise and provoke that strange division of self involved in any viewer’s commitment to a suspension of disbelief.
Where Michael Cooney’s previous screenplays for The I Inside (2003) and Identity (2003) both featured increasingly implausible scenarios whose irrationalities are resolved by a paradigm-shifting twist at the end, Shelter uses similar tropes to move in the opposite direction, from a wholly rational framework towards the unequivocally paranormal. Indeed it begins more or less where Identity ends, with the discussion of a case of multiple personality syndrome – and even that is summarily dismissed by Cara as a mere ‘psychological fad’ whose existence was embraced and promoted by, amongst other things, ‘ill-conceived Hollywood movies’ – i.e. movies precisely like Identity. In this opening scene, Cara is the outspoken champion of empirical reality, and a resolute opponent of the kind of low-brow cinematic sensationalism in which, ironically enough, she is about to become embroiled. Only the gothic rain lashing outside against the stained-glass windows tells of the brewing storm from which she seeks to shelter herself with the certainties of forensic science.
Yet if Cara represents the film’s voice of reason, she is also a devoted Catholic – “a doctor of science and a woman of God”, as she puts it – so that the dialectic between rationalism and religion, so conventional in supernatural thrillers, is here embodied, more unusually, within a single person, dividing her motivations and our allegiances, in a film that is itself split between two directors, Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein (who previously collaborated on the 2005 action-SF Storm). Cara’s faith, much like our suspension of disbelief, is required to see her through to the film’s preposterous end. Here, the dead really do come back to life, but not quite like the resurrected Jesus of Cara’s New Testament, nor indeed like the ‘ghouls’ in Night of the Living Dead (1968) – the latter being expressly the favourite film of Cara’s brother, and set in the same hinterlands of Pittsburgh.
In a sense, the twist in Shelter is that there is no twist. Even the blind old mountain woman can see “with better eyes than yours” that there really is something unnatural going on with the psychiatric patient (played by a versatile Jonathan Rhys Meyers) whom Cara believes to be Adam Sabre, but whose name is in fact legion. In this film, what you see is indeed what you get, and Cara’s science cannot ‘cure’ or explain, any more than her faith can dispel, what her own eyes (and ours) can see. That much of the film’s preternatural evidence comes in the form of video footage or aged filmreels only adds to the impression that this is a metacinematic discourse on seeing and believing, with the viewer rendered as helpless as Cara herself before so much incredible spectacle. Drawing on the same nuance of performance that she exhibited in Joseph Ruben’s equivocal thriller The Forgotten (2004), Moore (who shares her surname with Christian Moore, Shelter‘s faithless charlatan of an antagonist) makes herself the perfect vessel for our own clashing belief and disbelief.
With its Se7en-style brand of macabre deaths, its J-horror spectres, its hillbilly gothic and its diabolic thrills, on the surface Shelter is pure, albeit polished, trash, leading viewers by the nose through a series of ever more bizarre clues to a conclusion that does not so much transcend as define genre. It is crazy fun, but when such rococo materials are used to engage with the problem of evil, not to mention with the complex connections between reason, belief and perception, they might just leave viewers divided in more ways than one – as might the ambiguity of the ending which, despite Cara’s hitherto unwavering faith, seems to leave the devil with the best tune.
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Synopsis: Pittsburgh, the present. Following her husband’s random murder, Dr Cara Jessup clings for comfort to the Catholic faith from which her young daughter Sammy and father Dr Harding have long since lapsed – while her professional life is devoted to debunking the myth of multiple personality syndrome. So when Harding introduces Cara to his latest patient, who is sometimes wheelchair-bound David Bernburg and sometimes able-bodied Adam Sabre, she remains skeptical. Meanwhile family friend Dr Charles Foster, who first found Adam, dies of a mysterious illness. Cara’s research into David’s past brings her to the mountains, where she learns from god-fearing Mrs Bernburg that her son David, crippled in an accident, was tortured and murdered in 1983 – when Adam was just six. Brought to the scene of David’s death, Adam reveals a third, disoriented personality – the Satanic rocker Wesley Crite, who in fact died in 1994.
Visiting Adam’s house, Cara discovers a corpse (later revealed to be the real Adam) covered in strange sigils. She then finds Sammy chatting with Adam, now claiming to be Charles. Cara returns to the mountains where she saw one of the sigils, and encounters Granny, who can temporarily ‘shelter’ patient’s souls in specially marked vessels. Cara learns from local historian Monty that during the 1918 influenza epidemic, Granny had punished faith healer Christian Moore for his charlatanism by sucking out his soul and sealing his mouth with soil – and realizes that her patient is in fact Christian himself, returning through the faithless that he ‘shelters’. Harding vomits soil and dies – and now Christian comes for the ailing Sammy and, after murdering her uncle Stephen, sucks out Sammy’s soul. As Christian, now inhabited by Sammy, addresses Cara as ‘mummy’, the psychiatrist strangles him. The dead Sammy gasps back to life, humming a tune that only David knew.
strap: Måns Mårlind & Björn Stein’s psychothriller uses Dissociative Identity Disorder to compartmentalise faith and suspension of disbelief