In a Glass Cage
by Barry Meyer
Controversial art house horror film. Available here.
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1986 saw a pair of shocking directorial debuts, both fearlessly pushing the conventions of horror to new heights. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the widely seen Transgressive Art House Horror fav, proved to be as thought-provoking as it was shocking, sending its director John McNaughton into the Hollywood forefront. The second debut being the little seen, but much maligned, In A Glass Cage, from Spanish director Augusta Villaronga. Instead of praise, In A Glass Cage was met with hostile objection and even banishment from theaters in the UK.
The degree of their public or artistic acceptability may be hinged on the perceived clarity of their moral centers.
McNaughton dances very close to the line of exploitation, giving some of the grisly murder scenes some standard horror genre thrills, but he cleverly averts the audience’s eyes with visual and audio trickery that leaves them thinking that they’ve seen more than they actually saw. In In A Glass Cage, Villaronga utilizes the same exploitative dance, never really lauding the sadistic nature as thrilling, but the chosen subject matter of his film — pedophilia — leaves a whole lot less room in which to play with the audience’s buttons.
From the opening scene Villaronga pushes the audience right to the line.
In an abandoned old church, a young boy is strung up by his hands, dangling naked and barely conscious. Klaus (Gunter Meisner), an ex-Nazi doctor hiding out in the small Spanish village, clicks away with his camera, adding more pictures to his journal of wartime and post war sexually deviant experiments on little boys. It would be easy to cue the audience to how clearly corrupt this man is, but Villaronga instead tries to put us inside the head of such twisted mind. He portrays the Nazi creep not as the stereotypical slimeball — all drooling and twisted — but instead shows Klaus’ treatment of the boy as almost tender. Klaus gently lifts the boys head and gazes into his submissive face, searching for something, then he drops to his knees to tenderly embrace the boy around the midsection before ultimately killing him with a blow to the head. The imagery is surprisingly not as ugly as we’d wish it to be, but is unexpectedly and undeservingly sensual.
Villaronga continues the divisive pretext. Now paralyzed from a suicide attempt (from guilt of all his dirty deeds), Klaus is entombed inside a massive iron lung — the glass cage referred to in the title. Angelo (David Sust), a striking and mysterious young man, has come to take over the care for the crippled doctor. His intent is clearly dubious and the two men quickly bond, forming a perverse and disturbing relationship. When Angelo decides to continue the bad doctor’s experiments and deliver boys to his bedside, Villaronga once again shockingly toes the line. Before killing one of the victims in front of the ex-Nazi, Angelo strips the boy to his underwear. Angelo positions him self menacingly behind the vulnerable boy. To his own admission (in a DVD extras interview), the director explains how difficult it is to work with real children in such touchy situations. He details that the child must never be aware of what the content is really about, and uses direction and visual trickery to give the impression that something else is at play. To give the appearance that Angelo is caressing the boy’s naked torso, Villaronga’s camera follows the killer’s hand as it merely hovers over the victim’s skin moving suggestively downward, only to slide away past the hip to retrieve a knife he’s hidden in his own coat pocket.
Though the imagery of these scenes may be perceived as sensual, even surreptitiously erotic, Villaronga is not endorsing the pedophilic or merciless behavior at all, but really demonstrating to the audience how the victims are seen through the killer’s eyes as objects of desire, and not as people. We don’t need to agree with the man’s perversity — is what Villaronga is saying — but we can’t deny their mind-set either. With such a touchy subject, the results are very disturbing, and such mixed signals can upset the general audience member, who doesn’t like to, or care to, look too deeply.
Aside from the controversy, In A Glass Cage is a particularly successful horror flick, utilizing shock value alongside some standard horror devices. Sust’s performance is so creepy that, regardless of his perverse nature, he just makes your skin crawl with his deliberate, sometimes desperate gaze. When he traps Klaus’ wife (Marisa Paredes) in her own bedroom, and then tenaciously strings up a noose over the balcony, Villaronga sets up one fantastically terrifying cat and mouse chase straight out of a Dario Argento film (complete with the wash of bold red from a torn down curtain).
This flick is clearly not for everyone. Nor is it for the general horror fan who is looking for the typical teeny bopper slasher flick or creature feature — although it could still fulfill the need for chills. If you are looking for something different from the standard horror film, then this one is sure to satisfy… or disturb.
Barry Meyer is a writer living in the shadows of NYC.
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