In a Glass Cage

Year: 1986. Running time: 108 minutes. Color. Directed by Agustin Villaronga. Starring Gunter Meisner, Marisa Paredes, Gisela Echevarria, and David Sust. Widescreen. Spain. In Spanish with optional English subtitles. DVD release by Cult Epics.

Review by Derek Hill

Director Agustin Villaronga's In a Glass Cage (1986) belongs to that special kind of art-house sub-genre, the Transgressive Horror Film. In other words, its pitch black subject matter, debatable amoral subjectivity, and kinky violence may be a bit too arty and pretentious for the average horror fan who is simply looking for a good old-fashioned slasher flick or monster a go-go. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you.

Films such as Pier Paolo Pasolini's almost unwatchable yet fascinating Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) comes to mind, as does Andrzej Zulawski's 1981 existential monster film, Possession. Both of these worthwhile films were firmly in the realm of the "intelligent" art-house take on the horror genre. Although both films aimed to repulse, horrify, outrage, and disturb the viewer, Pasolini and Zulawski were nevertheless not making straight horror films. Their objectives were to spur one to political action or to turn inward and examine the political crises within, so to speak. The films of David Lynch are also firmly within this art-house sub-genre, although he embraces the conventions of the genre more so than not.

In a Glass Cage, while not a full-fledged horror film, is a more slippery and tricky film to pin down. Yes, its pedigree is with the art-house Transgressives, but Villaronga's film is far too vicious, as it gleefully wallows in cinematic perversity, to remain an art-house Transgressive without stirring up some serious second thoughts. In many ways it's a lot closer to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), and the films of Jorg Buttgereit among others, than it is to its art-house kindred. It works better as a straight horror film than it does a meditation on sexual perversity. It understands the beats, the rhythms of the horror film. Villaronga pulls the viewer in with his thriller film style. But therein lies the problem, as well.

In a Glass Cage is a deeply troubling and unflinching examination of child torture, rape, and murder. It's Fritz Lang's 1931 classic M without the objectivity or distance. And it's told from the victim's viewpoint as well as from the all-too-human monster's, who in this case is one and the same.

Angelo (David Sust) is a very, very disturbed young man. Having witnessed the brutal torture and murder of a young boy by an ex-Nazi doctor (Gunter Meisner) as a young boy himself, Angelo descends into a pit of self-loathing and perverse fantasies wherein he is both victim and abuser. Years later, the adult Angelo pays a visit to the same villa where the ex-Nazi and his family (who are in hiding from the authorities and the outside world) still live. Klaus, the Nazi doctor, is paralyzed from the neck down from having thrown himself off of the villa's watchtower after killing the boy that the young Angelo had witnessed years ago. Now, encased in a metal oxygen tube (the titular glass cage), Klaus needs outside help since his wife Griselda (played by Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes) no longer can or will take care of him. Angelo, posing as a nurse, applies for the job and gets it when Klaus demands that he be hired, much to Griselda's suspicion and dismay.

Much of the film deals with the strange and perverse bond between Angelo and Klaus and how within this realm of unfettered morality and limitless sexual depravity, the roles of victim and abuser easily become clouded. At times it's reminiscent of the Stephen King novella Apt Pupil, in which King explored how a Nazi-obsessed teenage boy discovered that his next door neighbor had been a concentration camp officer during the war.

But unlike the King story, which has a moral core to it, Villaronga's film is a far more unbridled beast. Although it is frequently mesmerizing and brilliantly filmed, its aesthetic beauty is unable to disguise its nihilism and black heart. Crass enough to wallow in cheap cat-and-mouse shenanigans (the scenes of Angelo creeping around the villa at night; Angelo chasing Griselda), the film nevertheless presents one of the only truly effective psychological portraits of human evil on film. It's a schizophrenic film to say the least. But it's an unforgettable one, as well.

In a Glass Cage is now available on DVD from Cult Epics in a widescreen edition. Suggested retail price: $24.95. For more information, check out the Cult Epics Web site.