In a Glass Cage (1987)
By: J.R. Gregory on May 2, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Cult Epics (USA). All regions (NTSC). 1.85:1 (Non-anamorphic). Spanish 2.0. English Subtitles. 108 minutes
The Movie
Director: Agustin Villaronga
Starring: Gunter Meisner, David Sust, Marisa Paredes, Gisela Echevarria
Screenplay: Agustin Villaronga
Country: Spain
In a decrepit room, a man is taking photos of a bruised, bloodied and naked boy. The boy is strung up and dangling from the ceiling, his feet unable to reach the ground. The boy lapses in and out of consciousness, and the man hungrily takes it all in, first with the camera, then with his eyes, and then with his hands, embracing the boy. The man then uses a length of wood to strike the boy, killing him. The man then staggers upstairs to the roof, looks over the edge, and falls to the ground. However, this deed has not gone unobserved, for someone is watching the scene from outside the room.

So opens In a Glass Cage (Tras el Cristal), the remarkable feature from Agustin Villaronga.

In a Glass Cage is an unflinching examination of the darkest aspects of the human experience, reminiscent of Pasolini's Salo. It is unsurprising then that In a Glass Cage has endured heavy criticism and censorship since its first screening at the Berlin Film Festival in 1986. Indeed, In a Glass Cage has been banned in Britain, and twice refused classification in Australia (once for the Mardi Gras Film Festival in 1995 and again in 2005 when Siren Visual sought to release it on DVD). There have been numerous films about child murder (Eastwood's Mystic River, Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling or Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone being examples) but none compare to this.

The film then moves to sometime later. The man, Klaus (Gunter Meisner), survived the fall, and is kept alive in an iron lung. He is tended to by his wife, Griselda (Marisa Paredes) and young daughter, Rena (Gisela Echevarria). Klaus depends completely on them for his care, entertainment, and continued existence, a situation that causes deep resentment from his wife. She despises the fact that they have been forced to live in exile in Spain, because of Klaus's work as a Doctor in Nazi Germany where he experimented on young children in the concentration camps. She laments that he had not died in the fall, making life easier for them all.

Into this situation comes Angelo (David Sust), a young man who claims to be a nurse. With coercion from Angelo, Klaus insists that the young man be hired to look after him. Over the next few days, Angelo reveals that he was the one watching Klaus when he murdered the boy in the opening scene, and that he hid the child's body to conceal the crime. Angelo says that he stole Klaus's diary, and reverently recites passages while masturbating onto Klaus's face. Angelo says that he wants to live for Klaus, to do what he did to the boys in the concentration camps, reliving his experiences through him. Klaus is powerless to disagree, and the abuse begins anew.

In a Glass Cage is, arguably, too arthouse for horror fans and too horrific for arthouse fans. Covering subjects like paedophilia, child murder, child sexual abuse, Nazism, physical disability, abuse of power, and the cyclic nature of abuse, it was never going to reach a mainstream audience. Such topics might make for a straight exploitation picture, however this film is too well-made and thought out. Consider the way the film is shot, its stylized manner. Everything is filmed in subdued blues and greys, with occasional flashes of red to punctuate proceedings, accentuating the horrific actions. The use of colour in this way, the way it drains life out of every frame, makes for a stifling atmosphere that carries the feeling of dread over every aspect of the story. Then there is the high quality cast, including Marisa Paredes who has worked with Pedro Almodavar (All About my Mother, High Heels, The Flower of my Secret); Gunter Meisner has had 30 years experience working in the German film and television industry; these are not unknowns but respected actors. Each time we see Griselda, we feel her weariness at her role as carer, and her bitterness at being trapped in it. Klaus, for the majority of the picture, is limited to using his face to express the torment his desires creates in him. All players bring intensity to their roles. Then there is the score, full of rumbling bass-lines, underpinned by the constant rhythm of the sound of the iron lung. The music is intentionally heavy, making it even harder to resist the dour atmosphere.

Villaronga doesn't flinch in depicting child murder either: a syringe is plunged into a child's chest and we watch in close-up the child's death throes; another boy has his throat slit, the camera focusing on the blood flowing down his chest. Each of these scenes has a protracted build-up, involving humiliation and torture, and one scene in particular brought to mind the opening murder in Argento's Suspiria. These scenes and many others (another example amongst many is the implied fellating of an adult by a child under the age of ten) are shocking, and because they are enacted on children, there are no cheap thrills here.

This is not some cynical shocker like Hostel or Saw. In a Glass Cage is a step above this. A pervading sense of depraved eroticism touches everything. Nor is it easily interpreted, particularly with the ending being as ambiguous as it is. Nor is it a revenge movie, as many audiences would demand; it is too subtle for that. This is a genuinely disturbing movie that will haunt you long after it has finished. No one comes out of this film unscathed, least of all the viewer.
The non-anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is clear for the most part. Perhaps it is due to the lack of colour, but parts of this print do get dark and difficult to work out what is going on. But then again, it could just be that the director is trying to blur the boundaries around identity.
Sound is in stereo. The score by Javier Navarrette is mesmerising.
Extra Features
Chapter selections, a menu and a short interview with the Director are all that is included. The interview is interesting, revealing that the director was inspired by the deeds of Gilles de Rais, a 15th Century soldier with Joan of Arc who raped and murdered around 400 children, to write the movie, as well as the lengths they went to get the film out of Spain.
The Verdict
Many films claim to be extreme, but few can justify such a label. In a Glass Cage is unquestionably extreme. Without relying on gimmicks, Villaronga has managed to explore the darkest aspects of humanity, and present us with a dark nightmare that is at turns, poetic, painful to watch and evocative. Its atmosphere, character, craftsmanship and high production values elevate this film above the ordinary. Combine that with topics deemed taboo, and a willingness to show such grotesque behaviours, and you have a genuinely unsettling experience that few are willing to travel. To shy away from this darkness, to turn away and pretend it does not exist, is cowardice, and In a Glass Cage is not made for cowards. Definitely not for the faint of heart or easily offended, it is disappointing that it has suffered at the hands of censors and been denied an audience, for there are rewards here. A truly disturbing work, even for the most jaded of horror fans.
Movie Score
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