Shelter in Place, the debut feature from co-directors Chris Beyrooty and Connor Martin, is the latest in the ongoing tidal wave of Covid-19-inspired media to hit audiences this year. However, unlike the majority of the projects that I have seen following this trend, this film manages to take this already-worn premise and sink it deep within the uncanny valley — its themes, performances, pacing, and tone manage to coagulate into an unsettling blood clot of domestic strife, dread, and desire.
When the global pandemic hit, most forms of travel were suspended in an effort to limit the spread. Caught up in this emergency order, the honeymooning couple of Sara (Tatjana Marjanovic) and John Burke (Brendan Hines) are stranded at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. While Sara makes her living as a social media influencer, connecting with her fans nearly every day via her smartphone, John finds it hard to be locked down doing anything for very long, twiddling tunes on his guitar and swilling away the hotel’s alcohol. They are the only guests, while the entire hotel is staffed only by the general manager Ty (Kevin Daniels) and the maid Adela (Ola Kaminska). While the days creep along, supplies start to dwindle, and tensions begin to rise. Sara starts noticing strange quirks out of the corners of her eyes. She cannot tell if something is truly nefarious going on or if it’s because she’s decided to stop taking her prescription medication. Still, whatever it may be, it’s certainly not friendly.
“They are the only guests, while the entire hotel is staffed only by the general manager Ty…”
Shelter in Place manages to take the most fundamental aspects of cabin fever and throw them directly into the middle of one of the largest metropolises in North America. As a result, it provides an excellent petri dish to explore just how alone we all felt during those many months in isolation. Whether inside the many vacant halls and rooms of the Roosevelt Hotel or outside, combing the eerily empty streets, when things start going wrong, it’s immediately apparent that no one is coming to help. This feeling is utterly compounded by the filmmakers’ stellar cinematography, sound design, editorial flair, direction, and fluid chemistry between the cast.
The camerawork by cinematographer Michael Dean Greenwood is downright Kubrickian in its composition. Even if we discount the few narrative similarities to The Shining, it’s obvious that the 1980 horror film has some influence on Shelter in Place. Single-point perspective, slow-moving tracking shots, and frames-within-frames are utilized to compound the distinctive freakiness of the hotel and its iniquitous underbelly while also serving as a visual metaphor for the domestic split happening within Sara and John’s marriage. But these compositions are even more unique due to how much emphasis is placed on our periphery — we notice things that we shouldn’t, we’re shown things that only some characters know, and then we spend the rest of the time dreading each reveal.
"…gets under your skin, worming around like a parasite that’s eager to burrow into your brain."