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A one time Nazi doctor, Klaus (Günter Meisner) continued his horrific torture and murder habits during his exile in a remote village in Catalonia. His final victim is a young boy, who he murders following an assumed bout of torture and likely rape. Overwhelmed with guilt, Klaus attempts suicide by jumping from a high tower. He survives the fall and, unable to breathe, is confined to a glass-windowed iron lung. Years later, Klaus is cared for by his wife Griselda (Marisa Paredes), and their young daughter Rena (Gisèle Echevarría). Depressed by her lot, Griselda hesitantly accepts help from a young man named Angelo (David Sust) after Klaus sees him and demands he be allowed to stay. What she doesn’t know is that Angelo is the now-adult witness to Klaus’ final crime, who as a boy endured a grueling sadomasochism relationship with the ex-Nazi.

In a Glass Cage
In the early days of the internet I was still a burgeoning horror fanatic, and spent a lot of my web-time in search of suggestions from more knowledgeable horror fanatics. This led me to a Geocities-style website (if you don’t remember those you are so young) I believe was entitled ‘Losman’s Lair of Horror’, or something along those lines (I can’t actually find it anymore, so I assume it has gone the way of the dodo). This site housed a subsite that listed particularly disturbing movies from different genres, not just straight horror, and briefly described what made them worthy of disturbing note. These included mainstream psychological thrillers like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, avant garde art house oddities like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, splatter favourites like Jackson’s Meet the Feebles, independent, cheapo trash like Leif Jonker’s Darkness, and truly hardcore filth like Mou Tun-fei’s Men Behind the Sun. I wrote myself a list, stuck it in my wallet, and whittled my way through it over a period of probably three years. Only a handful of films eluded me in the pre-DVD era, including Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood, which eventually hit DVD in 2002, Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie, which got a Criterion release (!) in 2007, and Agustín Villaronga’s In a Glass Cage (aka: Tras el Cristal), which Cult Epics originally released on DVD in 2004.

In a Glass Cage is exactly the kind of controversy-stirring, art house horror film you expect it to be based on its plot description and reputation. It moves at a hypnotizing, deliberate pace, is edited with a strange rhythm that creates psychological dissonance, and its studious, steel photography disturbs on a subtle, almost clandestine level. Despite the years of controversy that surround it, the film isn’t actually all that explicit, which isn’t surprising based on its enduring critical popularity (the most brutally violent movies are usually only acclaimed in incredibly specific circles). The imagery is unmistakably grotesque, and the concepts are plenty perverse, but the real depravity is meticulously obscured from view, and our imaginations are left to fill out the remainder. The unrest isn’t found in viscera, but ideas, and the inescapable atmosphere that is populated by deviant villains. Villaronga’s cool visuals recall Pupi Avati’s House with Laughing Windows, and the passive perversions of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s even more notorious Salo: 120 Days of Sodom. There’s a sense that the director took some inspiration from Mario Bava as well, but he’s not as interested in lavish colours or baroque decorative elements. He experiments with gothic sensibilities towards the climax, but is more focused on creating a more subtly eerie atmosphere for the bulk of the film, which in turn sees him better earning the more straight-laced horror.

In a Glass Cage
In a Glass Cage works as an organic and subtle descent into a psychological abyss, but in experiencing the film a second time I’m actually more interested in approaching it as a puzzle in three parts. Early assets are found in a sense of worrisome ambiguity. It’s difficult to assume anything for the first 20 or 30 minutes. Griselda and Angelo trade off roles as Klaus’ protector and attacker, giving the audience the vague impression that perhaps she’ll be a willing participant in future violence, or that perhaps he isn’t after the same retribution we assume he will be. This is all arguably moot, and our allegiances are reset at the onset of the second act, but it preps the audience to sit on edge as the story moves into the more traditional middle section. Villaronga takes the second act into Italian giallo territory, as Angelo menaces Griselda from the dark corners of the villa. Here he ratchets tension with German Expressionist shadows, and calculated camera movement, then releases it in the form of flashy, stylized (though still not bloody) violence. Initially, I remember feeling like Villaronga is just throwing his audience a bone to keep them holding on as he drags them further into oddity and perversion, but this time I found myself respecting the break in style. The last act is a mix of existential loathing, the most upsetting, boundary-pushing, horror-show moments, and the aforementioned Bava/James Whale gothic elements.

Rena also becomes a more central character as the story progresses. She’s a particularly compelling character I sort of missed out on the first time around, and yet another plucky kid in a long line of Spanish-made horror/thrillers that treat children as stronger, cannier, and sometimes more frightening creatures than adults, including Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child, Paco Plaza’s The Christmas Tale, Isidro Ortiz’ Shiver, J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, and Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Actually, outside the absence of some his favourite visual motifs, there’s a lot here to assume that del Toro was a fan, and was perhaps at least somewhat inspired by In a Glass Cage when he made The Devil’s Backbone. At the very least he snagged composer Javier Navarrete, and worked with him on both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.

In a Glass Cage

Video


This represents the first Cult Epics release I’ve reviewed (since most of the stuff they’ve sent me in the past has been too porny for DVDActive), and I’m already looking forward to more (assuming they aren’t of the porny variety, of course). The studio’s original DVD release was fine and dandy, but the film was so dark it was hard to discern the actions of certain scenes. This new transfer exhibits the usual signs of age, and features some basic film based artefacts, including grain, small white flecks, frame wobble, and some strobing effects, but is otherwise incredibly well maintained and cleaned. The wobble and strobe are easily the most noticeable issues outside the overall darkness (which cannot be avoided given the source material), but neither are they particularly overwhelming. Digital artefacts are minor, and don’t appear to be the effect of DNR or any other artificial means of covering up inherit impurities. The darkest scenes tend to be grainier, but even at their worst these still feature discernable basic details, and sharp enough black separation. The sharpness of the image isn’t a huge factor in the wide shots based on the stark, sterile nature of the backgrounds. There are a few layered set pieces and complexly textured wall decorations (Griselda’s room is easily the most complex set in the entire film), and these appear basically clean, if not a bit rough. The extreme close-ups fare a bit better, appearing quite sharp, and about as lifelike as one can expect from such a stylized presentation. The bulk of the film is coated in steely blue hues that pervert skin tones, backgrounds, props and wardrobes, turning them either greenish or purple. Even the costumes are largely made up of black, white and blue. Only the brightest and most vibrant highlights (a red robe, a yellow clock, a green apple) are able to pop out from the wash, which gives them all the more power. Black levels are well represented, and contrast levels appear to be accurate without more than a hint of edge enhancement. The contrast balance is especially successful during the more plainly gothic, smoke-laced moments that finish out the film.

In a Glass Cage

Audio


With this new transfer comes a new 5.1 remix, though Cult Epics also includes the original 2.0 mix, and both mixes are presented in the form of uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio tracks (both in the original Castilian Spanish). First the bad news. The dialogue, which is a bit mushy and slightly distorted on both mixes (distortion largely occurs on heavily aspirated consonants), is slathered over the stereo speakers, rather than being appropriately centered. Often incidental effects that are appropriately ghost-centered on the 2.0 track are also spread inappropriately over the front channels. Though the 5.1 track better presents Javier Navarrete’s mellow musical (including a wider spread and all around bassier warmth), the echo effect of the spread dialogue and effects became so distracting I changed over to the 2.0 track pretty early in the process, and didn’t turn back. The 2.0 track features more overall sharp distortion, and doesn’t spread some of the spookier ambience over the rear channels in the same manner, but is a generally more effective experience. The key thing here is to understand the diabolical way Villaronga plays with sound, juxtaposing natural sounds, specifically birds chirping, with the omnipresent hiss of the iron lung (when the lung stops working nature becomes louder), and this is plenty obvious on both tracks. It’s unfortunate that fans are left to choose between Navarrete’s music and natural dialogue, but I suppose it could be worse.

In a Glass Cage

Extras


The extras on this and the matching DVD release appear to be all-new, and start with ‘Exorcism of Agusti Villaronga’ (35:20, HD), a 2011 interview with writer/director Agusti Villaronga, and actors Lluis Homar and Marina Gatell. Villaronga discusses his inspiration, his research into Nazi war crimes, writing the screenplay, themes, controversy, the trials and tribulations of casting, photography and colour, music, and his newer film Black Bread, which won him a Goya for best picture and director, and was selected as the Spanish entry for best foreign film at the 2011 Oscars. Homar discusses the basics of dubbing Günter Meisner, whose German accent was apparently too thick, and his thoughts on the film’s power. Gatell, who doesn’t appear in the film at all, talks a bit about working with Villaronga on Black Bread. The interviews are padded substantially with footage from In a Glass Cage and Black Bread. This is followed by more chatting from Villaronga in the form of a 2010 Q & A session (13:40, HD). This one is a little frustrating to watch, as a question is asked, Villaronga speaks, and then a translator re-speaks everything. Much of the same ground is covered.

Next up are three short films from Villaronga. Anta Mujer, from 1976 (22:30, HD encoded, but VHS quality), is an almost indecipherable art film that seems to be based on a legend or myth. Laberint, from 1980 (11:30, HD encoded, but VHS quality), is also demandingly arty, but more visually interesting, appearing somewhere between H.R. Giger and Jodorowsky. Al Mayurca, also from 1980 (23:30, HD encoded, but VHS quality), features something closer to a narrative, but still gives off a healthy Jodorowsky vibe in telling the pseudo-stories of about motherhood and religion(?). The extras are completed with a trailer.

In a Glass Cage

Overall


In a Glass Cage certainly isn’t for everyone, but its dark and disturbing material isn’t treated as sensationalistic or exploitative as the synopsis, and might actually appeal to viewers that normally turn away from such stuff. It’s certainly disturbing and art house, but it’s also intriguing and impacting. Cult Epics has done right by this transfer. It’s probably not going to win any awards, but it is quite true to the heavily stylized source material, and looks better than the already decent looking original DVD release. The soundtrack features some pretty big problems, unfortunately, but not enough to recommend against purchasing the disc, and fans are likely going to love the new extras.

* Note: the images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality, and were taken from the matching DVD re-release.


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