Judge Daryl Loomis loves his iron lung because breathing on his own is such a hassle.
A Nazi pedophile in an iron lung…and the man who loves him.
That may sound like the basis for the worst episode of Jerry Springer to ever air. It's also, in essence, what In a Glass Cage is actually about. It might be diminishing to the power of the film, but that's what we do sometimes to deal with the most disturbing things, and the reality is quite different. The debut feature from Agustí Villaronga (Black Bread) is gorgeous, suspenseful, and very disturbing, enough so that I have to make some stupid Jerry Springer crack to try lightening my mood.
Facts of the Case
During WWII, Klaus (Günter Meisner, Far Away, So Close) was a Nazi doctor who became sexually obsessed with his experiments on children. Guilt got the better of him, though, but his unsuccessful suicide attempt gave him a life sentence in an iron lung. For years, his care has come from his wife, Griselda (Maria Paredes, All About My Mother), but one day, Angelo (David Sust) appears at their estate asking to be the nurse for Klaus. Griselda doesn't trust him, but she agrees to let him stay, only to find out that Angelo plans to take over the family and restart the experiments that ended when Klaus jumped off the roof.
In a Glass Cage is a difficult film, both for what it explicitly shows and for the concepts it forces onto the viewer. It's a very simple home invasion horror story on one level, and an effective one at that, but underneath the surface is a study of the nature of desire and corruption. Villaronga takes an absolutely abhorrent character in Klaus and puts him in the sympathetic position of an invalid. Anybody could put him out of his misery at any point, but he just lays there, waiting for nothing and living with his memories, which haunt him constantly and were the reason for his suicide attempt. His wife is completely oblivious to the crimes he committed, but her life is ruined all the same by the effect of those crimes. She no longer wants to care for her husband so, almost magically, Angelo appears. As much as Griselda doesn't trust him, the relief from her burden and her husband's desire to have him stay make it easy for her to accept his presence. Almost immediately, though, he starts to take control of the house. Their young daughter, Rena (Gisèle Echevarría), looks at him as a friend who can be a father figure in place of her real dad. Her trust is misplaced, but Angelo's ability to so quickly gain it from her speaks a lot to his scary charisma that will later allow him to commit new atrocities in name of, and for the pleasure of Klaus.
Angelo's quick friendship with Rena informs his actions later in the film, but his relationship with Klaus is the most important part of the film. He nurses Klaus to an extent, but uses the man as a mentor and a sexual object, as well as inspiration to restart the experiments that Klaus performed during the war. This is where the real power of the film lies. It's not just that the acts he performs in service of Klaus are disturbing, though they are indeed genuinely disturbing; it's that it slams home the idea that dark desires can become guilt, but given encouragement, can turn the guilt right back into desire. Angelo exploits this relationship, relishing in the idea of continuing the disgusting experiments that Klaus began during the war, using the power he gains through this relationship to empower himself into taking over the family. Only then can Angelo's fantastically dark, murderous intentions take hold.
When Angelo's goals finally become clear, In a Glass Cage finally realizes its potential as a psychological thriller and an extremely effective horror movie. It's a very slow build in the first half, which give way to Argento-style suspense and horrific imagery that suggests the horrible potential of corruption. In doing so, the film becomes the picture of horror. Villaronga uses palette of blues and grays to accentuate the film's medical coldness. The director establishes an extremely claustrophobic world that he then exploits through a series of tense chase sequences between Angelo and Rena. The ending of the film, as a result of all of that, becomes especially strange and may come across as unsatisfactory, but Villaronga isn't going for something with a nice and clear resolution. He would rather leave the viewer with a surreal and deeply unsettling image to send them off with the idea of the cycle of corruption continuing again. In a Glass Cage is very solid as both a psychological study and a thrilling horror film. It's beautifully made, but conceptually difficult enough that, given an individual's tolerance for action involving children, may be too much to handle. That's part of its power, though; there are no apologies here.
Cult Epics has always produced high quality products and their Blu-ray release of In a Glass Cage is no exception. The 1080p image is far better than it has ever been, with a newly restored and gorgeous high definition transfer of the film that shows off the beauty of the cinematography. The colors, stark as they may be, are nearly perfect and the black levels are deep and solid. There's a little bit of dirt here and there, but it's never really a distraction. The sound is also very good, with a pair of mixes that, though they fare almost the same, they fare nicely. The lossless 2.0 mix is the most accurate, but the 5.1 mix is a little better. Both are focused on the front side of things, but the surround adds a little bit to the atmosphere. The purists will not be dissatisfied, though, as the original mix is clear and bright.
The disc has some great extras, as well. It starts with a brand new long form interview with the director, who goes in depth with not only this film, but his entire career. He has dealt with issues of children in peril his entire career, so everything he says is mostly relevant to both sides. He understands what he makes and rightly admits that In a Glass Cage could likely not have been made today. Next, a film festival question and answer session explains a lot of the same issues in a shorter and looser fashion. Additionally, we have three short films from early in Villaronga's career. All three are transferred from VHS and don't look particularly good, but there is a note before each apologizing for the trouble and explaining that these were the only available sources for the film. Anta Mujer, filmed in 1976, reminds me very strongly of the early work of Alejandro Jodorowski (Fando y Lis) with its dismissal of narrative and focus on blasphemy. Laberint, from 1980, eschews narrative altogether in favor of what looks like a modern dance performance. Al Mayurca, also from 1980, actually tells a story and has more of the appearance of an actual film. These all scream student film, but they're interesting to watch to see the growth of the director over the years and to see where the themes he would employ consistently over the years spawned from.
In a Glass Cage isn't a pleasant film on any level, but it's an effective horror film at its core and a very good study of the potential of corruption and desire. The performances are fantastic and the story is disturbing and extremely suspenseful. With a gorgeous new hi-def transfer and nearly two hours of special features, this edition of In a Glass Cage is a must own for cult film fans.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cult Epics
• Short Films
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