In 1988, the LA Times film critic Kevin Thomas wrote a glowing review of a disturbing new Spanish film I'd never heard of : In A Glass Cage (Tras el Cristal) . I read the review three times as I ate my breakfast, my enthusiasm growing. By the time I'd washed up and dried my oatmeal bowl, I was anxiety-ridden. My need to see this was positively alcoholic.
I had a full day of work ahead, so I'd have to wait until tomorrow (Saturday).
The film was screening at one LA theater only, the AMC Century City. Today, the complex is still in operation, and they've added a fifteenth screen. Times have changed radically, though. If Augustin Villaronga, the film's director, took a pistol, broke into the projection booth, and demanded that they screen his film today, they'd take the bullet instead. The conservatism that has infected the big exhibition corporations is frightening. It's probably fair to add that the film itself would not be funded today, not with its focus on the abuse and killing of children.
I made an important and much-appreciated phone call around noon that day to Brad Shellady, the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait. I read Kevin Thomas's review of the film to him at an exasperated pace while failing to gag my own enthusiasm and ridiculous expectations. Not surprisingly, Brad signed up on the spot and we agreed to meet on the following day for the 1.40 afternoon session.
I'd met Brad recently at a Fangoria convention when my brother was in town. He'd gotten himself strangled by the The Tall Man (Angus Scrim) before heading back to Australia.
Brad and I became fast friends, bonded by our addiction to horror.
Originally from Chicago, Brad was living in Whittier, a serious hike from LA, and was in the process of securing a distribution deal for his doco. It also turned out that he was on very good terms with Gunnar Hansen (the original Texas Chainsaw's "Leatherface").
Gunnar turned out to be a gentle, bear-like guy with an embracing, easygoing manner. While we were chatting, though, I kept flashing back to Stephen King's description of meeting him in Danse Macabre. Gunnar had bounced the writer's son up and down on his knee, and King had experienced a quiet moment of dread. I'd grown up with images of Leatherface myself, but none correlated with the man with whom I was enjoying a friendly chinwag.
Brad and I met twenty minutes before the screening in Century City. I was studying the one-sheet when he tapped me on the shoulder. He paused and studied it, too. "Nice," he said.
The theater, which was fairly small, was three-quarters full by the time the trailers ended. There was a definite air of expectation present. I noted that half the audience were elderly. Strange. Had these people read the reviews? Perhaps they were Jews expecting a film of a very different nature?
The film opens with a powerful sequence, elevated by Javier Navarrete's profound synth score, in which Klaus (Gunter Meisner), the film's villain, beats a young, semi-camatose boy who is suspended from the rafters of an abandoned building.
The ex-Nazi doctor is watched by an unseen man. When, moments later, he throws himself from the roof of the building, the hands of the man gather up his personal belongings, setting the stage for an incredible, future confrontation.
A grueling title sequence, comprised of concentration camp photographs, follows. Villaronga leaves us with no uncertainty that we are in for a mind-blowing experience.
From the outset, we're in the hands of a master filmmaker.
We discover that Klaus didn't die; he was paralyzed by his suicide attempt and rendered incapable of breathing independently. He now lives inside an iron lung in a chateau in rural Spain. His wife Griselda (Marisa Parades) and daughter Rena (Gisele Echevarria) cater to his every need. They are unaware of the experiments he carried out on children during the war, and his fascination with death.
When the youthful, unqualified Angelo (David Sust) arrives at the house and offers to nurse the inert Klaus, Griselda's opposition to the offer is quashed by Klaus. Seeds of tension and resentment are sewn between Griselda and Angelo while Klaus regains some of his much diminished power.
Although Angelo constructs an odd relationship with Rena,
...his focus is definitely on his patient.
When the boy offers to revive Klaus's past by bringing him children, the film enters grim territory indeed, and asserts an incredible, cinematic grip.
The sequence in which Angelo tricks an orphan into visiting the "sick man" in the iron lung is one of the most grueling, dread-filled chapters in the history of cinema. After it had unspooled, the theater began to empt. They couldn't get out those doors fast enough.
When the second death of a child occurs, the remaining audience, with the exception of Brad and myself, headed for the exits.
Now we were alone.
Ironically, the film's more visceral horrors dissipate after the second murder. The narrative takes several interesting twists and embraces surrealism when Rena's character takes a stand against Angelo's brutality.
The climax, though unexpected, finds grim beauty in transference. It is stunning.
The last image, which is encased in a glass snow globe, surely inspired the final shot of Michel Soavi's brilliant Dellamorte Dellamore ('94).
Bryan Singer's Apt Pupil ('98) also borrowed heavily from Villaronga's masterpiece, whether he'd like to admit it or not.
Brad and I were very different people when we stepped into the Century Century sunshine almost two hours later. We'd been shaken awake by an original, brave, aesthetically perfect work of dark art, one of a dramatic force that hasn't been equaled by any other director or even by Villaronga himself.
Expectations weren't met. They were eviscerated.
Unfortunately, Javier Navarette's incredible score for In A Glass Cage has never been released on LP or CD. The composer did go on to score Pan's Labyrinth, Villaronga's 99.9 (which is available) and The Devil's Backbone.