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Monday, June 13, 2022

Review: North American Lake Monsters

Let me just say this right up front. Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters is one of the greatest horror collections ever published. An absolutely unique voice, deeply fleshed-out characters, and plot lines that will both break your heart and shock you. Nathan’s focus is on the regular 9-5 “common person” trying to get by. One of the major themes of the collection is characters who are trying to find some kind of compromise. Things are never gonna be great, but is there a way to make life worth living, and what price do you have to pay? To learn to live with compromise, to take what you can get, to learn to be happy with the only choices you have, to live with the decisions you make, is the crux of many of these tales. Also, a major theme in this collection is failure. When confronted with the supernatural, with malignant evil or forces beyond your control, human beings… fail. They cry and they beg and they run. And somehow Nathan manages to mix such bleak themes with a poetic beauty, these are gorgeous stories of heartbreak and ruin. 

Nathan reminds us that the horror tale is not just one of cultivating fear or providing the reader with a fun rollercoaster ride of adrenaline. Here the horror tale explores the ways we are transformed by the dark, by the strange horrors we can find ourselves lost in. How dark can things get and still be able to find a way to live with it. There is a strong feeling of despair to these stories, things will never be what you had hoped they would be. His writing is a prose of pain, of emotion. Of rending hearts and silent cries alone in the night. His mastery of character is so rare in horror fiction. Breaking from the tradition of Lovecraft and Ligotti, his stories revolve around the characters. They are absolutely real, as you read his work you feel like one of these characters could have been someone you worked with or had talked to briefly at the bus stop. 

Nathan is a master of the elliptical tale. His stories in this are never what you think they will be about from a brief plot description or the beginning pages of the tale. He is not interested much in big exciting set pieces here. Here he delves into the most private thoughts of his characters, the secrets that they will tell no one, the shames and the regrets that fester in their soul. These are explorations of humanity, raw and unfiltered. You see yourself, in your most private and exposed moments here, facing the dark and the uncertainty of existence. Because you become so connected to the characters, because you understand their plight, the horrors in the tales are just that much more hard-hitting.

Some brief descriptions of the tales contained within:

You Go Where It Takes You. The perfect story to open up the collection on. And also one of the rare stories that actually emotionally messed me up when I finished it. It is a real sucker punch to the face. Absolutely heartbreaking and disturbing in equal measure. A strange man walks into a single mom’s life. He meets her at her waitress job at this run-down diner. This story of the vortex of darkness one can find oneself in, brought into your life by some strange yet intriguing man who promises to help you, reminds me of a Ray Bradbury story, but with a denouncement so bleak that Bradbury wouldn't have dared. When life has failed you, will you take a chance at a new beginning, no matter what the cost? 

Wild Acre. A tale of beasts and how we live with traumatic events we are forced to live through and how they affect us in the long term. When our lives are on the line, when our friends are in danger, how will we react? And is surviving no matter what worth it?

S.S. A young man trapped in a life of embarrassment and despair. When he sees a lifeline out, a monstrous path he could take, but one that is better than the life he is living now, is it right to take that path? A tale that is genius in the way it shifts in and out from harsh realism to subtle and surreal dream imagery

The Crevasse. A bleak tale set in Antarctica. An expedition team has to bring an injured man back to basecamp, but then encounter a strange hole in the ice, a hole that has held a secret for eons. The sounds of whimpering dogs lost in the eternal night. A homage to classic cosmic horror tales but one only Ballingrud could have written.

Monsters of Heaven. A tale of strange beings falling from the sky. Beings strange, silent, and... sexual. People kidnap these things, injured from their descent from the sky, and hide them in their homes. Some people even call these alien things... "angels".

Sunbleached. The lure of the dark and seductive and the price you pay when you get what you want. A classic vampire story told in a unique way.

North American Lake Monsters. We kill what we don’t understand. And sometimes we are the monsters of the story. A mood piece and an examination of how we react to the strangeness of our lives.

The Way Station. We live lives unknowable to others. And our private hurts and fears can shape our world in very real ways. 

The Good Husband. A tale that shows how bleak a horror story can be. It reminds me a lot of Bob Clark’s film Deathdream. Maybe a hint of Eyes Without A Face? A story that does not look away from pain but explores it to its limit. A real test of endurance, how much misery can a reader handle?

The world we inhabit is a bleak one. A vast infinite black emptiness hangs over our heads, and we scavenge on this cold dark earth for whatever pleasures we can grab before we die. But all the same, we try to love, to give, to nurture, to try to hang on to some small glimmer of hope. Even in the darkest of times. What hope can be born from the repulsive, the abhorrent? What faith can we find in this weak and failing flesh? What compromises must we make and what long-standing dreams must we leave behind to find some kind of happiness? These are the questions Nathan’s stories in North American Lake Monsters ask. His monsters are beautiful in their cruelty and loving in their malice. They represent something beyond the day-to-day life, the banal work days and lonely nights. They represent mystery and transgression. Something to long for and desire even as it ruins you. Smoking cigarettes, drinking whisky, desiring the shadowy and the inhuman, the poisonous things we do to make life livable. These beautifully rendered visions of a compromised hope, of a longing for more in a world of dirt and failure. There is an honesty to horror, an acknowledgment that the world is a harsh, cruel, and bizarrely unknowable place. Yet beauty can still be found. And hope, even in the darkest of places.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Review: Men

Men, directed by Alex Garland, seemingly came out of nowhere, a bit of a teaser trailer but that’s it really for promotion. His previous films, Ex Machina and Annihilation, showed promise as a director of real vision, an intellectual director with things to say. And now his new film Men is out, and I think with Men he has delivered his most personal and most accomplished film yet. There are also virtuoso acting performances from Jessie Buckley playing Harper and Rory Kinnear playing every man in the film, and a genius soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The film centers on Harper, a woman hurting from a recent disastrous breakup with her husband. He threatens to kill himself after she tells him she wants a divorce. He then seemingly falls ( he may have purposely jumped ) out of a window above her apartment, landing on a fence, splitting his arm in two, and bleeds to death right there on the sidewalk. An emotionally wounded Harper rents a house in a small out of the way village to get some air and some mental space. The house is gorgeous, surrounded by a vast forest and beautiful countryside. But while she is trying to get some distance from the trauma of the breakup she keeps running into these strange random men. They start off lurking around her, in the background, but then they start to assert themselves more and more into her life. They seem to hold some kind of bias against her, they all want to either want to degrade her or imply that she was at fault for her ex-husband's death, even though she has never met them before and they really shouldn’t know anything about her. They range from openly accusatory, to insultingly dismissive of her. And the threat of the men just keeps increasing to the point of them stalking her at her house and then trying to break in. The first half of the film is a masterwork of tension and slow-building dread. Then in the second half, the film escalates into just insane body horror and maybe even a nebulous undercurrent of cosmic horror. A lot of films falter at such a transition but the film’s logic is solid and earns it. What follows is a closer look at the film and does contain spoilers. 

All the men in the film are played by Rory Kinnear, all of them insidiously threatening to Harper and somehow all related in their disdain of her. Having the same actor play all the men certainly adds a subtle hallucinatory quality to the film that just increases its nightmarish feeling. From implying that she should have just given her ex-husband a chance to apologize after he was physically abusive to her and, that it may in fact have been her fault he died, to policemen dismissing her as paranoid when she complains of a naked man stalking her outside her rental. The men are an utter delirium of toxic masculinity. Towards the end they start to seem to have a joint purpose and even share the same wound after Harper cuts one down the length of its arm, splitting the arm in two, which is also the same type of wound her ex-husband died from. All the scenes of the men subjecting themselves on Harper have this creeping intensity and are just dread-inducing sequences. 

The film overtly is about the horrors of relationships and desire, after all, what is more strange than the person sleeping in bed with you? Seemingly a nightmare of brutish men that seek to control and manipulate in the name of love. While toxic masculinity is one of the main themes of the film there is an undercurrent of a differing interpretation. There are underlying hints, easily missed, that there may be another side to the story. Is Harper as innocent as she seems? Between subtle lies she tells to the pointed avoidance of any details of her and her husband's relationship before the breakup, the film pointedly does not fully back up the men as monsters thread, not fully anyway. What if the recurring men of the title actually are externalized figures of her subconscious? The film is both so allusive with its intentions and so over the top with its aggressive imagery you could make the case that maybe Harper is an unreliable narrator and the film is shown from some dark side of her perspective. Maybe she had actually wanted her ex-husband to die and the film is a projection of her tormented psyche? If you said that the film is actually about Harper in some way intentionally killing her husband, and the film centers on her fleeing from the externalized regret and guilt, personified as the monstrous, nothing about the film would have to be changed. The film allows both a reading of a woman tormented by a corrupting masculine force, but also hints that a woman's sexuality can torment and manipulate a man, to the brink of destruction and breakdown. Where the film shines is in its examination of human relationships and interactions, at their most nightmarish, and is brave enough to be unsparing in its focus. 

At the end, the men are shown to actually be pathetic and degraded, pleading with Harper to take him/it back. The men/thing seems powerless before her sexuality. The men develop female sex organs and start birthing and rebirthing themselves over and over. All the while begging for her to accept it back into her life. A filmic moment as powerful as similar scenes in Society and Eraserhead, likewise delving deep into a Beckettian horror of the body and its functions. The ending is just genius filmmaking, in the best traditions of surrealist horror, searing images into your brain that will live in your nightmares for years. Then the film ends on this extremely ambiguous note. Does Harper take him back? Or does she kill him and end this horror? The film refuses to say. It may read as a transgressive subversion of the “final girl” trope. You expect a badass girl power moment in the end, for the disgusting and abusive men to be defeated by a justified and therapeutic act of vengeance from Harper. But that is not what we get, which leaves one in a state of confusion. Is this film not what we were led to believe? Men ends not in predictable stereotypical cliches but in utter mystery.

Men stands as a new classic of horror cinema. A part of a new canon of classics alongside such films as Under the Skin, The Witch, Hereditary, The Untamed, Evolution, and The Neon Demon. With themes of dehumanization, the breakdown of a classical sense of reality, the collapse of the family unit, a revitalized focus on the female protagonist alongside the failure of the male hero, and a sense of an unrelenting future coming of failure and ruin. These films guide us into this strange new century as guideposts of where we are at and examinations of what is to come. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Review: Richard Gavin's Grotesquerie

What does grotesque mean? A radical departure from the natural, the expected, or the typical. Absurdly incongruous. Fanciful, bizarre. In Richard Gavin’s new collection Grotesquerie, the book certainly lives up to the name. In this collection Gavin plunges deep into grotesquery, there is a radical deformation of reality in each story. He sets out to corrupt our safe worldview in each story, every time in new and ever more unsettling ways. Characters find out how close pure nightmare is to their day-to-day lives, one wrong step, one horrible decision, meeting the wrong person, and you may wind up in this place of profound dark reality. These are diseased stories, some kind of decay slowly, subtly rising up and by the end, the rot has completely taken over. I would also say this is Gavin at his most murky, and by that I mean these stories feel like drowning in some fetid swamp, water black with lichen and fungus, a swamp that has never seen the light from the sun. Meanings are vague and the stories kind of shift around in unexpected ways. These stories are abstract, diseased, surreal, and disturbing. This collection finds Gavin really going for the throat of his readers, these stories are meant to disturb and to make the reader uneasy. While in past collections his influences may have been more Blackwood and Machen, in this one his influences seem to be more Ligotti and Aickman, There is an insidious underside to these tales. A willful descent into delirium. Desired dooms and erotic anxiety. There is a sexual edge to some of these stories, a descent into perversity and the darker realms of fetish. This is certainly a more edgy Gavin, more of a drive to transgression and perversity than we are used to seeing from him. Grotesquerie may be his most horrific collection yet. 

These are tales with ideas behind them, this is intellectual horror in the best of ways. Gavin is exploring a certain worldview. Maybe he is also seeking a kind of salvation in darkness? His dedication to craft and his love for the genre is apparent in each of these tales. What his characters endure, live through, and survive may be dark and horrendous but there is revelation there for those who seek it. There are lessons to be learned, wherever in the lowest pits of hell or in the darkest of abysses, there is knowledge waiting for the adventurous. Gavin is one of the great names in horror fiction today, an absolute master of the literature and a student of the field. And Grotesquerie stands as one of the great works of our era. Here I will touch a little on some of my favorite works of the collection:

Banishments: which opens the collection, is a legitimate descent into nightmare. As the tale goes on it goes deeper and more intently into the realm of the surreal and the nebulous. This story never allows you to gain your footing and just when you think you know where the story is heading, Gavin twists the narrative again, leaving you lost in shadow and darkness. This is a tale of a coffin. A coffin containing a decayed and diseased form floating in a post-disaster flooded river.. The coffin lands on the black earth. The inverse of birth. A strange new kind of emergence presents itself. 

Neithernor: One of the weirdest stories I have ever read. A tale of a man looking for a present for his wife and the strange art… and artist he discovers. Written for a Robert Aickman tribute anthology, this tale shares Aickman’s reluctance to make his subject matter obvious while also taking Aickman’s subtle perversities and amping them up. One of the things the stories delight in, in Grotesque, is leaving the reader in darkness and confusion by the end, and this tale shares that perversity. 

Scold’s Bridle: A Cruelty: an absolutely delicious tale of torture devices, bondage and discipline, and desperation, all told in a subdued way, undercutting the debased subject matter. A rare horror tale that actually succeeded in pushing the edge and is genuinely shocking. This story stands out from the collection also for being a non-supernatural tale, almost a conte cruel of fetishistic dark erotica. 

After the Final: One of the greatest “tribute” stories I have ever read. This one was written for the Grimscribe’s Puppets anthology dedicated to the master of the horror tale, Thomas Ligotti. And I would be hard-pressed to think of another tale that so delves into a writer's work and works as this obsessive and dark love letter to the work of Ligotti. Full of subtle homages and directly engaging with many of the themes you would find in Ligotti’s work, Gavin is obviously a student and a fan of his and you can tell with the love and the care that went into crafting this tale. Just an amazing story.

The Sullied Plane: Horror erotica at its finest. Imagine Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, in its sexual frankness, meets Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, in its atmosphere of weird tentacled beings, things made of shadow, lurking just out of sight… but told in a whisper. Strange and secret couplings may or may not be happening behind the scenes of a family New Year's Eve party. 

Crawl Space Oracle: A tale of users and being used. Also, there is a slight hint of cuckoldry hidden in the background. A tale of a woman who connects with an old friend to try to get some financial advice, only to have the tables turned and for her to be the one to be of use. 

I highly recommend Grotesquerie to anyone who loves great horror fiction. Grotesquerie both pays homage to the long tradition of horror fiction and blazes new trails, creates new forms and new directions for horror to take. I would say this volume stands with the best works to have come out in this new era of horror. Grotesquerie, alongside Brian Evenson’s The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters, Adam Nevill’s Wyrd and Other Derelections, Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark, and Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh, all stand as a new corpus of horror literature for the 21st century. 

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Guest review: Antichrist by Brian O' Connell

      If we are to believe its director, the 2009 horror film Antichrist arose from the heavy miasma of a profound, debilitating depression. “There was no pleasure in doing this film,” he admits in an interview shortly following the film’s scandalous debut at Cannes. He speaks of having to force himself to write ten pages every day just to complete the project, of filming at half his ordinary capacity, of the whole experience being “a kind of hell”. And yet, he insists, the film is by far his “most important”, “made from what I would call a pure heart”. The apparent significance of this deeply personal background for him encourages an understanding of the film as atypically candid, indeed as confessional, as, in a word, honest.

Of course, there has long been a widespread, not entirely unjustified reluctance to take Lars von Trier at his word. His nearly thirty-year reputation as, variously, malevolent prankster, canny showman, sadistic misogynist, wannabe Nazi, visionary genius, shallow provocateur, and above all else—in an endlessly, tediously re-invoked cliché—cinematic “enfant terrible” has more than invited a certain degree of skepticism (to say the very least) as regards his intentions and means of achieving them. Antichrist has stoked this sort of controversy perhaps more than any of his other films. Featuring (we may as well get these things out of the way now) an infamous CGI fox who intones pronouncements of doom, explicit shots of unsimulated penetration and fake blood spurting out of a cock, and, of course, what else, that ghastly, wince-inducing close-up of a self-performed clitorectomy responsible for one of the most stunned silences in Cannes history, the film offers a veritable buffet of what many consider to be the very worst tendencies in von Trier’s filmography. Moreover, the central thematic strand of Antichrist’s second-half—an eyebrow-raising evocation of the age-old association between the feminine and the Satanic—openly courts the accusations of misogyny that have dogged von Trier since his 1996 melodrama Breaking the Waves. Was this not yet another cynical charade, a calculated provocation, even, to quote British TERF Julie Bindel, “the sickest general release in the history of cinema”?

Well. Without personally offering an overall verdict on von Trier in general—an issue on which, both as a great admirer of his movies and an individual troubled by his worst behaviors and tendencies, I remain as divided as anyone else—I would like to venture that, at least with this film, he has been almost totally sincere. There’s no doubt the man is a troll, and even Antichrist is laced with a tremendous amount of sneering irony and black humor, but watching the film, his insistence that it was created in a place of genuine suffering and apathy rings true. For better or worse, the fogginess of Antichrist’s narrative, its ambiguous characterizations and sometimes inscrutable abstractions, the knotty tangle of troubling themes, repulsive imagery, and leaden, joyless despair with which every moment is weighted: all resonate with the absolutely draining and abject experience of serious depression, regardless of whether it makes compelling viewing or not. And feminist or anti-feminist, it’s fairly obvious that the mingled anxiety about and fascination with female sexuality and violence against women on display here is clearly something extremely personal to von Trier. Antichrist is one big, disgusting, indigestible outpouring of its filmmaker’s many hang-ups and neuroses, so naked and unprocessed that it’s almost unintelligible: and consequently, depending on your personal position, is either intolerable or utterly fascinating.

         For a tale so steeped in ugliness, the film opens with an astonishing flourish of visual beauty. Like its sister sequence in the subsequent Melancholia, the prologue to Antichrist presents a painstaking sequence of slow-motion images that evoke, to borrow a phrase from critic Michael Sicinski, “the exquisite, agonizing beauty of stasis”. Facing each other in the shower, the all-too self-consciously archetypal She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and He (Willem Dafoe) initiate a frenzy of copulation drained of its delirium by the solemnity with which it is shot. The molasses-slow movements and luminous black-and-white simultaneously evoke a sort of sustained paradisiacal ecstasy and an atmosphere of morbid, icy decay, nowhere more apparent than in the close-ups of Gainsbourg, whose wracked expressions convey a marked ambiguity between pleasure and pain. The couple fucks in a matrix of water and snow, the various scenographic accouterments (first a heater, then a washing machine, further on a tumbling glass bottle) acquiring a slightly absurd tinge as the sequence progresses. These devices serve a twofold purpose: to conjure an almost tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of soon-to-be-broken cosmic harmony, and to succinctly establish the domestic sphere which will prove to serve as the locus of horror and cruelty.

As He and She tumble from room to room, their erotic bliss seemingly unbound by rules of spatial consistency, their toddler Nic (Storm Acheche Sahlstrøm) wanders from his pen, observing his parents’ copulation with an unsettlingly wry smile on his face. Shortly thereafter he is standing before the bright open window, seemingly drawn forward by flakes drifted in from the wind; inevitably, he slips and falls, his terminal drop intercut with a close-up of his mother as her head kicks back in orgasm. The body hits the pavement, kicking up a funereal cloud of snow; her eyes gleam in release; the washing machine’s cycle finishes, signaling the end of this exquisite aestheticism and expelling us into the horrors of the narrative proper.

What does this alluring, impossibly macabre opening offer us? Grief, yes (probably the defining element Antichrist’s many “elevated horror” descendants have borrowed from it), but also the seductive danger of the natural world, the erotic thrill of death, and a perverse portrait of the nuclear family. There is, moreover, a gruesomely literalized allusion to the Biblical Fall of Man: and in Nic himself, one might well perceive the Antichrist of the movie’s title, an innocent son whose death brings about utter damnation and disaster instead of salvation.

These five strands—grief, nature, sex, gender, and religion—become intertwined in maddeningly complicated and often outright baffling ways throughout the subsequent scenes. It’s this murky, portentous meshing of unpleasant themes and ideas (which, I maintain, rings true to the muddled, gloomy mindset induced by depression) that has led some to dismiss Antichrist as incoherent. But to search for one clear throughline or allegory here is a mistake. Antichrist is instead a remarkably open and wide-ranging text, untied to any one single narrative or thematic strain: a horror movie whose simple set-up allows its filmmaker to hold a nightmarish mirror up to all manner of cultural myth-making surrounding human relationships and our place in the world.


        Take the words of the aforementioned talking fox as its basic thesis. “Chaos reigns,” it tells Dafoe, who has happened upon it consuming its own entrails. It’s the ultimate image of the film’s understanding of nature: a sadomasochistic hellscape ruled by a suicidal law of self-cannibalization. von Trier drives home this idea repeatedly in some of the most unsettling images in his entire oeuvre. There is the fawn with a stillborn fetus dangling from its sex, the baby bird that tumbles out of a nest only to be swarmed by ants, the acorns that ceaselessly fall on the roof of the cabin in an eerie echo of Nic’s death. “Now I heard what I couldn’t hear before,” says She of their pitiless nocturnal rhythm. “The cry of all the things that are to die.” Contrary to its (increasingly dwindling) popular conception as a self-sustaining ecosystem, nature in Antichrist is bent on a perpetual destruction that turns ever more inward, devouring its young, mutilating itself. It’s a law the characters themselves will eventually internalize as their sex grows more brutal and their acts more violent: a backdrop against which the gruesome destruction of their genitals, organs of pleasure and propagation, seems an almost obvious final consequence of a world in which birth only means death.

He seems to be disturbed less by the fox’s unnatural capacity for speech and more by the import of his words. He is, after all, a psychologist, a rationalist, a bastion of civilization in the primeval hell he has confidently taken his wife to. But just what civilization, what rational order is he working to defend? We see glimpses in the film’s opening act, before the couple arrives in the woodland that will prove the site of their annihilation. Taking his wife out of the care of medical professionals (a scene punctuated by a telling close-up of severed plant roots in a vase of water), arrogantly confident in his own ability to treat her without medication, we observe the mechanics of a callous and heartless oppression masquerading as marital love and care. During one of her early panic attacks, when she fumbles for sex in an attempt to escape her terror, he pushes her away, then clamps his hand over her mouth and places his heavy thigh over her stomach. His words are in the soothing, even tone of a therapist, but his body language emphasizes a violent domination. The implication is even more explicit in the sequence following her halfhearted suicide attempt over a toilet bowl, following which he drags her away and immediately starts fucking her on their bed, a cruel reversal of her desire in the preceding scene, and a contemporary resurrection of the horrific psychiatric history of inducing orgasms in mentally ill or “hysterical” women. Wheezing in agony, she vanishes beneath his heavy body, his pale buttocks thrusting into her in as unpleasant a depiction of heterosexual intercourse as I’ve yet seen in cinema.

The cruelty is not only physical but psychological. Repressing his own grief—we only see it visibly once, in the tears on his face at the funeral—he trivializes his wife’s by treating it in the cold, impersonal language of a scientist. She observes, in one of the film’s more melodramatic sequences, that he has only ever interested her as a specimen, that he is indifferent to his child’s death. He doesn’t respond to these provocations, his face composed and impassive, masking his feelings with a supposed neutrality that, in truth, is simple inhumanity. To cap it off, in a remark that seems to have been the most personally hurtful to her, She accuses him of having said, or at least implied, that the subject of her abandoned thesis was “glib”. Though he denies the accusation and the question is never returned to, his indifference and dismissal will give rise to his own undoing.

        The subject of that thesis, which we don’t find out until a marvelously-constructed “discovery in the attic” sequence in the third chapter, lays bare what is really at stake in his conception of civilization. The “civilizing”, “rationalizing” arrogance of patriarchal society has resulted in nothing but mounds of murdered women: a legacy documented in the innumerable woodcuts of witch burnings pasted all over her research space, and summed up by She in the simple, awful word gynocide. It becomes clear that He is a mere contemporary extension of this order, one which violently subjugates women to their role as wives and mothers and exterminates any deviation. The domestic paradise of the prologue becomes loaded with sinister meanings, an entire machinery of oppression manifested in the banal appliances of the household. We understand that She has lived with an awareness of, and possibly experienced (if only psychologically), the violence of this tradition long before her son’s birth. She is afraid of her husband—an abject terror hauntingly expressed in the film’s most iconic image, when He and She have sex at the base of a tree whose roots intertwine with pale, cadaverous hands. Here is the most succinct and searing illustration of the film’s understanding of the heterosexual relationship under patriarchy: it is to be fucked atop a mountain of corpses. And if her response is madness, is the deformation and possible murder of her child, it is only a product of the impossible double-bind between her existence as an individual (who loves and truly grieves her son) and her existence as “Woman” (with the consequent awareness of both her son and her husband as emblems of the patriarchal regime that tortures her). Torn between guilt, desire, rage, and fear, it is no wonder (by allegorical logic, anyway) that she ultimately self-destructs and conforms to history’s ghastly portrait of femininity, a hysterical, murderous witch who enacts a sexual terrorism upon the illusory order of Man.

It’s a doomed endeavor, of course. At the climax of the film, He overcomes his pain and strangles her against the wall of the cabin. The outcome is obvious from the moment he wraps his hands against her neck, and after only a brief, bitter struggle, She is finished. Watching this scene with a group, I was horrified to hear one of my male friends sighing with relief. It would seem that, by appealing to the outrageous, cartoonish violence of misogynistic stereotypes, von Trier has successfully created a scenario that can bait a male audience member into cheering on the murder of a woman. It’s a trap, of course. For what we witness is not so much the victory of one man over the forces that would destroy him as the brutal, barbaric reassertion of a rule infinitely more destructive and evil than anything She could manage individually. He burns her corpse like a witch’s on a stake, and the earth dissolves to reveal a multitude of naked bodies beneath the soil, the victims of a trans-historical campaign of murder in which She is now only one inconsequential chapter. The epilogue returns to the glowing black-and-white of the prologue, finding the man picking berries at the top of a great hill, feeding off the nature he strives to destroy. But his security is offset by what is the perhaps most intensely surreal stroke in a film full of them: the sight of thousands of faceless women, approaching from all sides, converging upon him. They are the manifestation of the sorrow, the pain, the fury of the many millions of women subjected to the brutal dominance of male hegemony over the centuries. It’s an image that’s terrifying, overpoweringly emotional, and weirdly funny in equal measure, a perfect summation of the film’s bizarre tonal contortions as well as its thematic concerns.

Against my better judgment, I have attempted to extract one possible reading of Antichrist in this piece. But I wish to stress how much of this film eludes my language—a difficulty that should be clear given how much of it I haven’t talked about—and how little it can be domesticated into a clear-cut metaphor for one thing or the other (least of all a cogent commentary on gender relations!). Most of its strength derives from its lack of clarity, its unpredictable digressions, and the troubling sense that it may be leading us toward some very dark territories indeed. Are we seriously being asked to contemplate the idea that female sexuality is evil? That nature itself is evil? That men and women are locked in an eternal, foredoomed battle? You could think about these questions for hours if you’re so inclined, and they certainly represent some of the more complex territory horror films are capable of exploring (though they’re usually all too reticent to: those descendants I mentioned earlier mostly lack even a fraction of this film’s bravery and weirdness), besides simply being part and parcel of the guaranteed Lars provocation package. But they’re ultimately less important than the rattle of those acorns on the roof, the fog that rolls across the dirt, the gothic glow of the camerawork, the morbid intensity of both Gainsbourg and Dafoe as they each move toward a confrontation with their worst selves. Fittingly for a project conceived out of depression, Antichrist first and foremost functions as an emotional (and sickeningly visceral) experience rather than one to be definitively understood or broken down. By that metric, it is one of the most remarkably effective and profound horror films I’ve ever seen.

Stepping back from all of the analyses, I’m attracted to the simplicity of Roger Ebert’s enthusiastic response, a response that hinged upon the simple idea, scrapped from von Trier’s original screenplay, of an earth created by the Devil instead of God. It is a “mirror world”, a world in which everything is wrong. A paradise that is hell. Sex that births death. Nature that destroys. Love that is hate. A lonely, disordered wasteland of pain, marked solely by agony and futility, through which Man and Woman wander burdened by the damnation of their knowledge, one an impotent monster of unfeeling sterility, the other a nightmarish wellspring of frenzied sexuality and despair. Trapped forever in the torment of their accursed Eden: a new creation myth for Satan’s church.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Review: Ringu


Ringu. The film begins with a young girl, haunted and scared for her life, having just watched a strange video almost a week ago that rumors say is cursed. A video that unleashes on the viewer a series of weird inexplicable images, and after watching it your phone will ring, with a sinister voice telling you that in one week you shall die. She is found, her heart stopped, her face distorted with fear. Then we cut to a reporter named Reiko investigating the strange occurrences surrounding the rumors of a cursed videotape, now circulating as a kind of urban legend among school children. Her investigations lead her to actually watch the cursed tape, putting her and her young son, inadvertently, in danger. She recruits her ex-husband, Ryuji, who has psychic gifts, to help her try to escape the deadly fate the VHS tape has put on her. He willingly subjects himself to a viewing of the tape, not believing in the curse, to try to find clues to help Reiko. They discover that the tape has connections with a woman named Shizuko, who was vilified for her ability to predict disasters, and her young daughter. The daughter, named Sadako, was said to have strange powers, the ability to kill with a thought, and was the offspring of the psychic woman and, if whispered rumors are true, something that came from the ocean, something that may not have been human. They find out that the young girl was murdered and buried in a well, killed by an ESP researcher who was studying the family and decided to make an attempt to stop her from unleashing her dark powers. Figuring that finding Sadako’s body and releasing it from the well where it has lain for decades would release the curse, they race against time to find where the well is and end the curse. They find the body, and Reiko cradles the skeletal remains, a child tragically long dead and forgotten, in a motherly embrace. They return home, the child given a proper burial. Reiko is safe now that the curse is broken, the week has passed. Except they are all wrong. Sadako comes for Ryuji, crawling out of his television set and completing her curse upon him. Reiko wonders why she was saved from the curse and he was not. Then she releases the only way to escape the curse, is to perpetuate the curse. So the film ends with Reiko, to save her son, willingly spreading the cursed video, thereby keeping the video virus circulating.

One of the all-time great filmic expressions of sheer dread, Ringu was a huge and unexpected international hit when it was first released out into the world in 1998. Almost singlehandedly resuscitating horror cinema which was in a steep decline in the 1990's and also influencing horror films for decades to come. From art-house horrors like Hereditary and It Follows to big-budget Hollywood horror like Insidious and Sinister, Ringu changed the map of horror cinema forever. Drawing influence from such different sources as Japanese horror films like Onibaba and Jigoku with their use of folklore and imagery, classic American and English horror films like The Haunting and Night of the Demon with their slow pacing and carefully curated sense of dread, and more modern films like Videodrome and They Live, with their critiques of technology and society. 

Sadako is the buried secret that modern society would prefer to pretend not to exist. She brings visions of ruin and decay, visions that she must have endured while starving to death deep down in the darkness of the well. She brings a foretold doom, the same doom she felt as the light dwindled into black as she slowly died in the wet earth. Her curse spirals outward, seething from a black hole in the dark soil. These videocassette transmissions were sent out, infused with some kind of black magic of the earth. She emerges a week after exposure to stop your heart. She is shrouded in mystery, her black hair concealing her face. A large deformed bulbous eye is revealed, scanning you like a video camera. The background static of the television roaring in your ears, or is that the sound of the never-ending ocean waves? There is some hidden, unknowable force behind this. Is it her father, inhuman, something that may come from the sunless depths of the ocean? Or is there some force behind the video transmissions, some kind of occult technological demon, shaping humanity with its corrupting media? Sadako is media as contagion, the fleshy corpse behind the seemingly sterile image of the television screen.  

Does video technology, unfathomably, come from the ocean? Does the drive of technological innovation have a darker origin than we are aware of? Who is Sadako’s father? Just what abysmal intelligences lurk in the alien depths of the Earth? And what dark purpose has she unleashed upon the world? The incessant waves can drive someone mad. And the intrusion of video media has completely taken over every sphere of human life. Ringu is a film that is shrouded in mystery. It hints at horrible secrets but never explains the nature of the dark heart beating at its core. To watch Ringu is to continue its infectious agenda. To talk about it is to ensnare others in its bleak orbit. What is the end goal of Ringu? Maybe we are doomed to find out as Sadako’s curse continues growing and spreading like a dark mold on the underbelly of our media-driven society.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Erotic Nights and Nightmare Cities: An Ode to Late Night Cult Film Fans.


           Staying up all night even though you have to work in the morning, watching Erotic Nights of the Living Dead for the fifth time. Life has not been kind to you. But the strange synthesizers and bone-thin zombie hordes coming down the beach after George Eastman give you some kind of meaning. The strange atmospherics of weird horror films and sleazy sex films become a reason to keep going, you work like someone already dead, but when you get a new movie to watch in the mail, the promise of transgression and perversion keeps you going. Then you continue on with Porno Holocaust and then A Virgin Among the Living Dead. Something in these films makes sense to you. They present the world in a way that refuses to lie. Seedy, sex-driven, brutal, selfish, like you know the world to actually be. This isn’t bland sterile fucking like in the mainstream pornos, and this isn’t boring funhouse hack and slash like in the Hollywood slasher films. This is perverse and bizarre. A decayed dream world that is both alluring and degraded at the same time. Alone at night when the world is sleeping outside your windows. The flicker of the television set in your dark room. You will scour through hours of garbage to find that one scene, that scene of poetic perversion, that will live inside your head for the rest of your life. Films from Italy, Spain, and Japan stack up to form a mini barricade around your television keeping out the banal sadness of the outside world. The smell of weed and cheap snack food fills the air. 

Work, doing the same meaningless tasks over and over for a boss who controls your life. The only solace you get is from the strange visions of some poor quality, blurry, low-grade horror film played out on your irises at three in the morning. Watching the maid get her hand stabbed to the wall and her head chopped off by a crowd of ravenous zombies in Burial Ground. Watching a vagina open up in a man’s head as he is taken over by an alien in Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell. Watching young lovers run down and mutilated by undead templars riding dead horses in Tombs of the Blind Dead. These dark, sometimes surreally campy, sometimes deliciously malevolent, visions keep you going through your banal and slowly crushing life. These films offer you something you can not find in your daytime life. A real transcendence. The grittiness, the sweaty flesh, the ramshackle sets, offer a vision of real life that makes the bigger budget mainstream films feel like lies, like purposeful deception. We are born into some rotten and fallen world. We grow and we change. We fuck and we strive. We wither and we die. And these films show this in a way that Hollywood never could. 

            The characters who live to fuck. Debutantes and libertines walking straight into some abysmal nightmare. The strange creatures emerging from old forgotten graveyards, dark underground tunnels, unexplored islands, old abandoned gothic castles, among dozens of other locations. Creatures who are a mix of cheap makeup and ingenuous prosthetics. Like some ramshackle monster straight out of some deeply disturbing fever dream, they have a mix of the grimy and the surreal. And the naked flesh of the stars of the films, poked and prodded, stroked and inflamed. These films offer an intoxicating mix of occult mystery and sexual luridness. In Anthropophagus, set on a sweltering, sun-bleached island off the coast of Greece, we follow a group of tourists stalked and eaten by a maniac cannibal. The atmosphere is drenched in sweat, abandoned buildings, hidden catacombs, and a strange pulsing synth score. Anthropophagus is committed to pushing the limits of onscreen violence, offering sights that will shock and absolutely scar themselves in your psyche. In Nightmare City, hordes of atomic zombies burst out of airplanes, into television studios, through amusement parks. It is a film of an unrelenting madness, exploding out into the world. In Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People, mushroom monsters attack a group of shipwrecked survivors. Hallucinogenic terror and long past midnight camp humor converge into a singular viewing experience. There is something pleasurable in having your comfort levels pushed by these films, in the delicate scars they leave on you, the strange sights, and the weird ideas you return to again and again.

            The films unfold through the night. The night is quiet with everyone asleep. Just you and your stack of films. Sometimes wide awake soaking everything in, sometimes half asleep fading in and out through the movies, your dreams and the movie intertwining. Undead hordes descending on fleeing lovers, alien doppelgangers infiltrating a family home, a curse visited upon a town, creatures emerging from long-forgotten crypts, radioactive mutants invading an apartment complex. These are the visions you live for. In a world of disappointment and failure, these visions give you a reason to live. No one you talk to has any idea about the films you watch. They have never heard of them and they don’t care to. They yap on about movies sure, the boring big-budget action films and the oh so important dramas that they will forget about a month from now. But your films you will cherish for your entire life. You will watch and rewatch them. Learning every line, thinking about every camera angle, delving into every idea the film presents you with, memorizing each curve of flesh. Until they become a part of you. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Guest review: In a Glass Cage by Brian O'Connell


    Out of the darkness, the image of an eye, so close to the lens and so deeply shadowed that it’s almost an abstraction, staring directly at the viewer. Cut: we now directly face onto the camera lens itself, a startling reversal, its round black lens an impassive mirror to the round black pupil of the previous image. A series of subsequent close-ups, each fading out from black, present us with isolated, fetishistically observed details of mortified flesh: bound feet, bound hands, a young bloodied face. All this observed and photographed by a large, middle-aged man who gazes upon this tortured boy—we see now that it is a boy, and furthermore a child, no older than ten—with an obscure mixture of wonder, erotic fascination, and stony despair. After photographing him, the man comes near the child’s face, lecherously presses his lips close to the corner of the mouth in a cold, sidelong kiss. He staggers back, and, almost as if he’s ashamed, wipes the trace of the kiss from his lips with a handkerchief, all the while regarding the boy’s bruised shoulder blades as he dangles from the rafters. Sighing, he contemplates the scene deeply for a moment, and then, steeling himself for the work he has yet to do, slowly lifts a wooden plank from the floor, raises it, and, for once mercifully off-camera, murders the boy by clubbing him once, sharply, in the back of the head. In the following moments, he will proceed to attempt suicide by leaping from the roof of the building. At the same time, everything described has been observed not only by the audience but by an unseen voyeur, their presence implied by shaky P.O.V. handheld camerawork and the quick panting of their breath on the soundtrack, who sneaks into the basement chamber and collects the murderer’s ghastly notebooks from the floor.

     The opening scene of Agustí Villaronga’s 1986 horror film In a Glass Cage presents images and implications that most viewers will find so repellant as to be almost unwatchable. After all, these subjects—suicide, sadism, pedophilic desire, and especially violence against children—remain perhaps the most universally reviled taboos in our society. And yet, in a tight four-and-a-half-minute sequence, Villaronga confronts us with them all, and in uncommonly graphic detail. Not only are we shown the naked and degraded body of a young child, but we are literally forced to take the abuser’s perspective, the inaugural montage of bodily details directly replicating the erotic-sadistic-objectifying gaze of the killer. Our gaze is sutured to that of the perpetrator of violence (and, moreover, his unseen witness), actively encouraging us to partake in their bestial fascination.

     This sequence succinctly establishes the whole formal and thematic edifice of In a Glass Cage, a film which, I think, has been often misrepresented by much of the non-academic writing that discusses it. The prevailing interpretation, as expressed in such writing, is that In a Glass Cage is an art-horror film about trauma, both individual (the sexual abuse of children) and historical (the atrocities of Nazism), and how it violently reproduces itself across generations. A surface-level examination of the narrative would certainly encourage this reading. The story tells of Klaus (Günter Meisner), an ex-Nazi and murderous pedophile, who, after the failed attempt at suicide at the climax of the opening sequence I’ve just described, finds himself almost completely paralyzed and dependant upon the respirations of an iron lung to live, which his frigid wife Griselda (the great Marisa Paredes, of Almodóvar fame) and their daughter Rena (Gisèle Echevarría) reluctantly undertake the management of. Some years later, a mysterious youth (David Sust) suddenly appears unbidden at the house, insisting that he serve as Klaus’ nurse. Gifted with the fortuitous name of Angelo and bearing a countenance comely and sinister in equal measure, Griselda is immediately suspicious of the new nurse, but Klaus insists they hire him after a private conversation between the two. It will come as no surprise that Angelo was the hidden voyeur at the start of the film, and, moreover, a victim of Klaus’ sexual violence in his youth. Having closed in upon his onetime abuser in a completely helpless and vulnerable state, he will proceed to sadistically reenact Klaus’ past crimes in front of him, torturing the monster of his childhood even as he gradually evolves into his mirror image.


This clever cross of Teorema and The Night Porter would appear to offer a very straightforward argument: violence is cyclical. The victims of violence can grow up to reperpetrate it. Trauma is passed on like some sort of genetic disease, an interminable merry-go-round of victims turned executioners, with no end in sight. This is a common enough theme in horror, particularly contemporary horror: Hereditary, Suspiria, The Wolf House, and Let the Right One In all offer radically different variations on the same idea. (Some prominent older examples might include The Shining or The Brood.) But I’d be hesitant to place In a Glass Cage’s treatment of the thesis on the same level as these other films. Compared to Hereditary’s evocation of how trauma structures of the nuclear family and domestic space, In a Glass Cage has little to no interest in its nebulously evoked family unit, essentially eschewing it altogether (Griselda is dispatched with as rapidly as possible) for a psychodrama between individuals—and ambiguously sketched individuals at that. Suspiria and The Wolf House frame their narratives within a heady historical context of mass totalitarianism and collective abuses of power. But the background of Nazism in Villaronga’s film feels almost arbitrary. Yes, we see images of concentration camps; yes, we hear of wartime atrocities: but the film isn’t truly concerned with these things in and of themselves; the actual nature of Holocaust violence (insitutional, not individual), its political context, the social setting and history that would be required to make Nazism a subject instead of a mere allusion, all are totally absent from In a Glass Cage’s sequestered mansion. Villaronga shows his hand when he explains that his original inspiration for the film came from the fifteenth century (alleged) serial killer Gilles de Rais, whose crimes he simply transplanted to a more contemporary era by setting them during the Holocaust. His interest is not in Nazism at all. Rather than Klaus’ actions acting as the metaphor for Nazism they’re so commonly taken to be, Villargona reverses the equation: Nazism acts merely as a canvas against which Klaus’ crimes can be contextualized. (The opening credits montage of concentration camp photos is the starkest example of this: the film doesn’t start with Auschwitz because it has anything to say about genocide, but because Auschwitz is as absolute and immediate a symbol of evil as we have in contemporary times—an evil that is immediately linked with transgressive eroticism, as evidenced by the photograph of a male German soldier kissing his gun-toting friend on the cheek.)

Which leaves us with the psychological interpretation, the argument that the film is creating an honest, if not “naturalistic”, portrait of how individuals process the wounds that have been inflicted upon them. The hollowness of this argument, when applied to In a Glass Cage, should be immediately evident to anyone who has seen a film that actually does fit that description, or to anyone who has experienced a comparable trauma themselves. In a Glass Cage is so psychologically flat as to be nearly opaque. Angelo and Klaus do not convince as people or human beings—in truth, they’re little more than shadowy puppets. We don’t enter their psyches and we never really understand their actions, even with the purely nominal explanation their vague histories offer us. If you watch In a Glass Cage as an expression of the “trauma begets trauma” thesis, it becomes an almost risibly simplistic and extremely dull viewing experience, particularly when compared to the richer treatment of this idea in other horror films. In a Glass Cage, frankly speaking, has nothing interesting or intelligent to say about the effects of trauma. And I don’t think it intends to, either. Like Klaus’ Nazism, the trauma explanation serves solely as the narrative pretext for what essentially amounts to an extreme sadomasochistic fantasy: a primal scene of domination and submission so archetypal as to erase any individual histories that might help us understand it.

It is this perceived shallowness of substance that has led some to dismiss it merely as a high-toned exploitation film. And it is. In a Glass Cage is about as pure an example of exploitation cinema as I can think of. It is a film more or less totally lacking in meaningful psychological or political insight, instead drawing its effects almost solely from the lurid magnetism of its perverse scenarios. The handsome cinematographic strategies and trendy historical allusions can’t disguise the whiff of Gothic grindhouse pulp that lurks barely beneath the surface of every single sequence. Villaronga chooses his topics not because his film has something profound to say about them, but because they offer a perfect constellation of absolute taboos with which to attract and repel his audience in equal measure. And his aesthetic strategies certainly don’t subvert the film’s lurid prurience in any way. Instead, they try to provide it with the most thrilling and least mediated means of expression possible.

    If I’m coming off as condemnatory, it’s only because I wish to dispute the dominant discourse surrounding this film. The high-minded expectations established by that discourse led to my initial disappointment and frustration with the movie back when I first saw it in 2020. I hope my words have provided a solid counter-argument to this narrative, which doesn’t, in my view, accurately characterize In a Glass Cage’s actual strategies and intentions. Let me now hasten to add that I do still think it is, in its own way, a sophisticated and intelligent work of art. What really makes this movie interesting and worthwhile is that it always remains acutely conscious of its own status as exploitation cinema. Indeed, rather than any narrative theory about fascism or cycles of violence, it is this awareness, which occurs on a primarily formal level, that becomes the very bedrock of the film: the audience’s prurient compulsion to look at, for lack of a better term, “abject” imagery and scenes (a compulsion Villaronga the filmmaker obviously shares) is replicated within the film so many times that it inevitably plays as self-commentary. In a Glass Cage thus ultimately reveals itself to be about the forbidden allure and, yes, the pleasure of looking at and experiencing the unspeakable. “Horror, like sin, can become fascinating,” Angelo reads in Klaus’ diary early on. It might as well be the film’s thesis statement.

     I’ve already discussed the carefully staged process of gazing in the opening scene: a precise series of reflexive cinematic gestures (the eye, the lens of the camera, the gaze through the window) that immediately establish both the film’s central theme of forbidden voyeurism—our own as well as the characters’—and align that voyeurism with the cruel perspective of the antagonist. We will remain stuck in this forced point-of-view for the remainder of the runtime: limited to the unsavory options of identifying with either Klaus or Angelo, the audience always shares a sadistic perspective that derives sexual gratification from violence and domination. This disconcerting strategy, which weaponizes the horror moviegoer’s morbid appetite for disturbing scenes and acts against itself, finds echoes in Haneke’s Funny Games and, more obviously, Pasolini’s Salò, to which In a Glass Cage is often compared. But the comparison is immediately short-circuited by the stylistic qualities of each film. In a Glass Cage has nothing of Pasolini’s formal austerity and icy restraint, the qualities which constitute the crux of Salò’s aesthetic and moral project. The constantly shifting sense of distance in Pasolini’s film ensures that our own prurient fascination with these awful scenes remains constantly foregrounded and self-indicting. Villaronga similarly emphasizes that fascination, but instead of indicting it, he actively indulges in it.

     His camera avoids the merciless wide shots of the austere approach to violence, instead electing to squeeze the mise-en-scène for every richly Gothic effect it can elicit. We’re treated to sweeping camera movement, startling and dramatic editing, and intensely stylized lighting, abandoning itself to every gloomy shade of blue, nightmarish architectural detail, or thick pool of shadow it can find. The atmosphere is lush and evocative, absorbing and suspenseful; even when it’s frightening or disturbing (and it often can be), it’s never truly disgusting or depressing in the way a film like Salò is. Just take a look at Griselda’s death sequence, an extended tour-de-force of grippingly emotive, suspenseful filmmaking that has rightly earned the film comparisons to the best of the giallo genre, and you’ll see quite clearly that the true divinity behind this film’s seductive chill is Argento, not Pasolini.

     Outside of the opening, the scene that most successfully communicates In a Glass Cage’s confluence of ideas, style, and purpose for me is a murder that occurs near the climax: Angelo’s slaughter of a boy soprano he’s abducted from a nearby school. Villaronga pulls out all the stops for this scene, investing the already transgressive subject of child murder with a deeply disquieting eroticism and leveraging his toolbox of cinematic effects (a dense, tensely edited collage of camera movement, costuming, sound design, color, shadow, flame, smoke, etc.) for maximum effect. Here the narrative fixation on sexuality and death and the formal fixation on complicitous voyeurism and fantasy reach their fullest expression.

    Klaus, as always, is trapped in his iron lung during this scene. Angelo has manipulated the little mirror above Klaus’ eyes to control his line of vision: he is forced to witness the murder, unable to look away. This compromised position, which incidentally anticipates a similar device in Argento’s Opera just one year later, has often been analogized in the academic literature on the film to the position of the cinema spectator in relation to Villaronga’s images. That affinity is the most important element in the film’s reflexive arsenal, particularly as we’re pushed into an instinctive sympathy with Klaus’ suffering—it mirrors our own suffering as victims of the film, of course. But just as Klaus has brought this suffering upon himself through his past actions, the audience has implicitly consented to this sight by virtue of their very presence in the theater: a presence essentially determined by, whatever the individual justification may be, a fascination with the taboo subjects In a Glass Cage has on offer, a willing subjection to whatever horrors it may serve up. This sadomasochistic contract between director and audience finds its mise-en-abyme in Klaus’ half-agonized, half-engrossed stare into the targeted mirror, the crucial element of self-consciousness that pushes the film just beyond the basest form of exploitation.

    Intercut with shots of Klaus’ gazing (much like the beginning of the film), we witness the murder itself through the subjective viewpoint of a sadist. Villaronga draws out the terrified boy’s gradual stripping in a long take before coming in close for the kill, following Angelo’s leather-gloved hand as it slides down the boy’s bare, shivering chest in a frankly sensual caress. This is a genuinely shocking, even amoral presentation of such a subject, one that encourages us to join in its fantasy of abject eroticism. One cannot escape the feeling that one is looking at something forbidden—which, the film is well aware, is exactly what gives the sequence its disturbing excitement, and a consciousness that it subtly but firmly neuters through its blatant artificiality. The sequence climaxes in a flagrantly dramatic, aestheticized fantasy of violence: Angelo’s glinting knife slitting the boy’s throat, unleashing an orgasmic gush of dark red blood that surges down his torso before dissolving into crackles of flame. The exquisitely fetishistic imagery of this scene should completely settle that this is not a film about history or society or trauma, but rather the erotic thrill of evil: a thrill Villaronga invites us to share in, himself shares in, in the awareness that it is entirely artificial.

    All of these cinematic strategies aim to play upon the perennial fascination with the ambiance of death, sex, and evil. We’re kept conscious of that fascination through a series of self-reflexive devices, but we’re never distanced from it or judged for it—we’re not even asked to analyze it. On the contrary, Villargona’s seductive style encourages us to break from the silence ordinarily surrounding such subjects and to freely lose oneself in the amoral pleasures and pains of simply looking at them. The dominant impression is one of fantasy and play, of an intense (but never persuasively “real”, and thus never truly threatening) exploration of the social imagination’s outer limits, and as such In a Glass Cage begins to act almost as a self-aware reflection on the function of horror cinema itself—a certain strain of horror cinema, anyway. Seldom will you find an exploitation film so refreshingly honest about its intentions: it’s not acting as political or psychological commentary, but as a fictive window into the scenes of our culture’s deepest fears and fantasies. A collocation of taboos—fascism, sexual violence, torture, homosexuality, and sadomasochism—are all presented as if off a checklist, but it is Villaronga’s technical skill in stoking our morbid curiosity about such subjects, along with his frequent self-conscious gestures at the audience and at himself, that make this a much smarter and more memorable exploitation film than most. Its clever selection of especially lurid material comes into full focus when viewed in the political context of its day: la Movida Madrileña, that great outpouring of creative, countercultural, and transgressive artistic energies in 1980s Spain during the transition out of dictatorship to democracy, a period that In a Glass Cage was released almost at the direct midpoint of. Almodóvar was giddily conjuring the same taboos in his comedies and melodramas of the period; Villaronga does the same in a horror film. In both cases, it is not the topics themselves that interest the directors or the audiences, but rather the ecstatic creative freedom of expressing all that has remained inexpressible and unmentionable: the amoral delight of pure social transgression.

The glass cage of the film’s title, while literally referring to Klaus’ iron lung, has often been taken to symbolize the way trauma affects these characters’ lives, imprisoning them in invisible traps, limiting their movement to familiar pathways of violence and subjugation. But having watched the movie twice now, I’m more inclined to think that Villaronga shows us his eponymous subject right in the second shot. The glass cage is that of the camera lens, of the cinema screen itself: a translucent scrim through which we can view our most perverse and unutterable fascinations, safely distanced from them by the artifice of fiction and irreality. Is that boundary secure? The answer is already obvious in how quick the film’s characters are to reenact the violence they both witness and endure, the sway their dark passions exert over their lives—and, by extension, our own. Glass is easily broken, after all.