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ON MUBI OFF #4: "In a Glass Cage" & "Crimson Peak"

Two films, one by a Spanish auteur, one by a Mexican, take style nearly as far as it can go: Agustí Villaronga and Guillermo Del Toro.
Keith Uhlich
ON MUBI OFF is a column exploring two films: one currently available on MUBI in the United States, and the other screening offsite (in theaters, on VOD, Blu-ray/DVD, etc).

In a Glass Cage (Agustí Villaronga, 1986)
A number of directors have put audiences in the head of a murderer using a subjective point of view shot—Michael Powell, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, to name but a very few. The opening sequence of Agustí Villaronga's 1986 feature film debut, In a Glass Cage, further perverts that sense of empathetic identification by using subjective POV to put us in the mind of a killer in the making. We don't know who this germinal cut-throat is at first, only that he or she is bearing witness to a truly unspeakable horror: a middle-aged man lasciviously caressing, then beating to death, a naked, bloodied and helpless adolescent boy.
Though the actions playing out before us are clear-cut and repellent, the images nonetheless possess the hazy quality of a dream—we don't want to believe what we know we're looking at. And neither does the unseen person whose horrified heavy breathing we hear behind the camera; whose hand comes into frame to pick up a confessional scrapbook left behind after the kill; and who eventually witnesses the child murderer (who seems, frankly, more exhausted than elated by his crime—surely not his first) attempt suicide by jumping off the roof of his stately, secluded manor house. Roll opening credits.
This is certainly a confrontational way to begin a movie, yet Villaronga and cinematographer Jaume Peracaula's technique is so bewitching, so seductive that you can't help but follow into the depths. And what depths they are! The child-murderer turns out to be a former Nazi doctor named Klaus (Gunter Meisner), who is living in exile in Spain, but continues to indulge the rancid appetites he cultivated during the second World War. Even former SS men have crises of conscience, but Klaus's impulsive suicide attempt doesn't go as planned. He ends up paralyzed and dependent on an iron lung to live, with only his wife Griselda (Marisa Paredes) and daughter Rena (Gisela Echevarria) to see him through the ordeal.
Then Angelo (David Sust) shows up. The family maid (Inma Colomer), who visits a few times a week with groceries and other supplies, likens this gloomy interloper (who turns out to be that young witness from the opening scene) to a spectre who walks around as if he owns both the manor and the crippled man within it. There is something haunted about Angelo's face, with its soft and malleable features, hollow dark eyes, and half-healed scar, just above his eyebrow, that hints at some terrible past trauma. Griselda senses something is off from the start, but Klaus convinces her to let Angelo, who says he has medical training, stay on as a caretaker.
The first night gives a hint of the craziness to come: Angelo sneaks into Klaus' room. He opens the iron lung so that his patient begins choking.  He straddles Klaus and gives him semi-erotic mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Then he slides down between the man's legs and starts sucking him off. (More than a little bit of The Night Porter here, with the sadist and masochist roles queered and reversed.) It should come as no surprise that both Angelo and Klaus knew each other in the past, and that this is all part of the young man's plan to both get revenge and to embrace the monster—one that Klaus is largely responsible for creating—within himself.
Any way you slice it, this is some sick shit. And how much you take to In a Glass Cage depends on how well Villaronga's spectacular, balletic aesthetic, with its sinuous camera moves and saturated colors (icy blues punctuated with hot splashes of red), offsets the film's queasily explotative aura. Me personally, I was less taken with the Klaus-Angelo interactions (which reach an early apex when the young man masturbates on his tormentor's face—and there's still an hour to go!) than I was with the two peripheral female characters. Paredes rules the film in the early going, and in the best scene toys with killing her husband while swanning around the manor house like mamboing Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind. She also gets to play victim in a superb stalk, kill, and corpse-disposal scene that more than lives up to the gialli it's aping.
Once Paredes is out of the picture, the Klaus-Angelo thread mostly takes over, and it gets pretty repetitive in its openly pedophilic student-bests-the-teacher dynamic (peppered with alternately provocative and shameless doses of Holocaust chic). But there is true power in the side-story of Rena, whose own witnessing of Angelo's vengeance (as it slowly, violently plays out) perversely opens her mind, making her see her father and the atrocities he committed in ways that pave a strange path toward enlightenment and expiation. As much as redemption can be found, that is, in an image of a little girl—mad with newfound clarity—suggestively straddling an iron lung.
Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)
I typically don't expect much in the way of suggestiveness from Guillermo del Toro, whose films tend to work better for me, when they do at all, in their broad, bombastic particulars. When he tries to get deep (and I think this afflicts even a blockbuster-leaning comic-book property like Hellboy as much as it does an arthouse-courting horror flick like The Devil's Backbone) then I recoil—a true unbeliever in his transparent strain for seriousness. Though I will admit to being fully won over by the recent Pacific Rim, del Toro's unapologetically overwrought homage to Neon Genesis Evangelion, with its gorgeously towering mechas, shirtless Charlie Hunnam (for me a constant, pec-flexing pleasure since his Queer as Folk days—put aside whether he can act or not), and commanding Idris Elba, gleefully bellowing about "canceling the apocalypse."
I missed Del Toro's latest feature, the ghost story-cum-gothic romance Crimson Peak, in theaters, so I caught up with it recently on streaming. And I'm sad I didn't see it on a bigger screen because its pleasures are—no surprise—mostly in its extravagant visuals, sprung from the cowriter-director's fertile (if too often shallow) imagination, and realized with the ace assitance of cinematographer Dan Laustsen and production designer Thomas E. Sanders.
The early scenes introduce us to Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a circa-1901 novelist-in-the-making who has several visitations from her dead mother warning her to "beware of Crimson Peak." Several other admonishing spectres appear throughout the film. But they are, as Edith whomps forth in several dialogue exchanges, merely "metaphors"—for what, exactly, other their own striking half-computerized/half-practical design (best FX augmentation: the translucent tendrils of flesh and blood that dangle or drip from the phantoms' rotting flesh) is anyone's guess. Are they devilish muses? Theme-park demons? Subliminal fears made flesh? They're just there to strike a petrifying pose, nothing else to it.
This is the kind of ostentatious superficiality at which Del Toro excels, and he extends that approach, often enjoyably, to every other aspect of the film. The central decrepit mansion set, where much of the action takes place, is a marvel: Snow leaks through the caved-in roof. The hearths quite literally breathe flames. And the walls bleed liquid red ore that the mysterious master of the house, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, doing the genteel slimeball to perfection), attempts to mine with a contraption that might have been built in a collaboration between Wes Anderson and Tim Burton.
The performers, meanwhile, are dressed and moved about like figurines in Del Toro's dollhouse. I'm quite fond of how Jim Beaver's quintessentially American gruffness complicates his role as Edith's businessman father; the unspoken generational divide between parent and child is much more potent than the film's cheeky mockery of the pre-feminist society that tries to put our headstrong heroine in her place. I also like how Wasikowska's wardrobe slowly segues to virginal white so that it can eventually be stained red. And how Jessica Chastain plays much of her role as Sharpe's machinating sister, Lucille, with a studied yet simmering menace that boils over into full psychosis for the blade-and-shovel-wielding finale.
There's still a flimsiness to much of Crimson Peak that comes from an artist too enamored of his seductive effects, and with little facility to make them resonate beyond the immediate moment. The film is all lightweight flamboyance—an agreeable doodle from the Del Toro sketchbook that never invades the subconscious, a ghost of a movie that fails to ever muster a hearty enough "Boo!"


Agusti VillarongaColumnsGuillermo del ToroON MUBI OFF
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