If Alfred Hitchcock had lived long enough to make a modern, R-Rated suspense film, it might have looked something like Shirley.
It’s dark and psychological and creepy.
The story takes place a few decades ago. A young married couple arrives at the home of an acclaimed horror author and her college professor husband.
They are invited to stay for a while in exchange for some housekeeping duties.
It would seem like a comfortable arrangement if it weren’t for the fact that the hosts are a couple of wackos right out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
They are a bitter couple who bicker and fight and soon turn their sharp talons on their new house guests, subjecting them to a barrage of hurtful, humiliating comments and questions. They are not nice people.
The queen of this ivy-covered, living hell of a house is Shirley Jackson, the author.
She is ugly, both literally and figuratively, an aging, unattractive, alcoholic, literary primadonna who is purely obnoxious and more than a little scary.
Pretty much what you might expect the author of horror stories to be. Several clicks beyond eccentric.
It’s a great role for Elisabeth Moss. And she plays it to perfection with her frumpy appearance, puffy-faced lack of makeup, disheveled hair and geeky glasses.
There is a little streak of Bette Davis in her line delivery that smacks of smugness and a serious underlying superiority complex.
You fear that the young couple is soon going to become the helpless victims of some twisted mind games brewing in Shirley’s head.
Elisabeth Moss owns the role of Shirley.
I’ll admit that I was not a fan of her performance in the recent remake of The Invisible Man (2020).
Frankly, I couldn’t understand how or why the rich, successful husband in the story could ever be so insanely obsessed with such a bland, marginally-attractive wife.
In fairness, some blame might also fall on the writing and direction, but she just seemed to be a bad choice for the part. There is never a fix for bad casting. It just doesn’t work.
In Shirley, on the other hand, Moss is the perfect choice to play a brilliant, but unbalanced writer plagued by dark demons that drive her creativity and success.
She plays it ugly and pathetic making her character Shirley genuinely creepy and scary.
Shirley is a well-crafted movie.
The hand-held cinema verite style, coupled with the dark, muted lighting create a sense of confusion and evil.
The camera is often straining to see, trying to look through a group ot people in a crowded room or attempting to peer through partially opened bedroom doors.
At times the whole vibe reminded me of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
I wondered if the young newlywed wife’s name, Rose, was possibly a nod to that classic film.
Like Rosemary’s Baby, Shirley oozes style.
Director Josephine Decker isn’t afraid to spice things up with sexual content and nudity that earned it the R-Rating.
The opening scene shows the young couple on a train having some very spontaneous, very risky, and very passionate sex.
Sexual tension resonates throughout the film, adding another level of suspense to the psychological drama.
Movies like Shirley always seem to be an homage to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.
His influence runs through so much of modern cinema. Filmmakers find themselves consciously or unconsciously mimicking his visual approach or effective use of music.
There were moments here that vaguely reminded me of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho (1960).
I don’t want to say much about the story details. That would be unfair.
Suffice it to say that Shirley digs deep into the psyche of a tortured writer struggling with her craft, and that the ending is a delightful revelation.
Shirley won recognition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
That’s pretty prestigious. The award is well-deserved.
It’s a fine piece of filmmaking showcasing the raw talent of Elisabeth Moss in a challenging role that she makes her very own.
May I have the envelope, please?
Shirley is available everywhere June 5.