The Mad Women’s Ball (2021)

The latest of many actor/director co-credits from Mélanie Laurent, The Mad Women’s Ball, is a solemn period drama set in a prison-like mental institution in 19th Century France.  It’s a formulaic film in a lot of respects, touching on every dramatic cliché you’d expect in its women’s sanitorium setting.  There’s nothing new here you won’t see in goofier, better-publicized works like Girl Interrupted, Cosi, Unsane, or your local drag scene’s cabaret parody of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  And yet, those clichés are all performed so earnestly in The Mad Women’s Ball that their familiarity hardly matters.  At the risk of repeating a cliché observation myself, Mélanie Laurent’s extensive background as an actor shows in her filmmaking’s focus on performance & characterization, two details that add enough specificity & emotional impact to the central drama that it avoids backsliding into tedium.

It helps that the ghost story half of The Mad Women’s Ball actually does manage to feel novel, in that it takes the existence & presence of “spirits” seriously without forcing an illustration of them onscreen or tipping the tone into horror.  Our POV character (Lou de Laâge) is the kind of stubborn, free-thinking intellectual who would routinely get institutionalized for “hysteria” by their embarrassed, cold-hearted families in this era.  Except, she also suffers the burden of constant communication with spirits of the dead which, as you can imagine, are in no short supply in her new asylum/prison/home.  She slowly earns her way out of confinement by proving her supernatural connection with these spirits to her nurses & guards (including Laurent as her sole kind-hearted advocate), helping them reconnect with ghosts of their past in exchange for the promise of freedom.  Meanwhile, she finds uneasy, unlikely sisterhood with her fellow “patients,” who range from genuinely ill to politically troublesome, like herself.

As the title implies, The Mad Women’s Ball culminates in a grand masquerade where the local wealth class is invited on asylum grounds to gawk at (and sexually violate) its patients as they dressed in costume – apparently a very real, very fucked up tradition in some mental institutions at the time.  Until that physical convergence of life inside & outside the asylum, Laurent contrasts their parallel timelines with an aggressive crosscutting effect, her one major stylistic imposition on the plot.  Otherwise, the film’s aesthetic recalls the melancholic Bates-in-prison episodes of Downton Abbey, with the chaotic echoes of unwell women resisting “therapy” (i.e., torture) echoing throughout its dank, joyless hallways.  This is a long, somber, delicate film with only occasional flashes of musical accompaniment.  The contrasting crosscuts between life inside & outside the asylum are absolutely essential to giving it a sense of vibrancy, and it makes total sense that its narrative would have to resolve with those two worlds crashing into each other.

Outside those crosscuts, I’m not sure Laurent does much to call attention to her craft as a filmmaker here.  She mostly just provides a stage for her characters & performers to shine, treating their individual quirks & personae with full respect – whether they’re a bipolar pickpocket with a wicked mean streak or a spiritual medium whose genuine talent for communication with the dead is misunderstood for madness.  Laurent chose to direct a film set in a time that was brutally unkind to women, seemingly so she could extend kindness & empathy to them in retrospect.  It’s surprisingly heartwarming, despite the institutional cruelty & cultural familiarity of its setting.

-Brandon Ledet

Possessed (1947)

As far as Joan Crawford noirs go, it’s unlikely there are any hidden gems left to discover that are going to top the glorious heights of Mildred Pierce. Likewise, Crawford’s turn as an axe-wielding maniac in William Castle’s Strait-Jacket is untoppable as her genre-defining work in the psychobiddy canon, Baby Jane included. What the 1947 mental breakdown melodrama Possessed offers, however, is the unique experience of enjoying both of those distinctly delicious Joan Crawford flavors at once. Possessed is pretty much a trial run for Crawford’s over-the-top psychobiddy era, except that it’s dressed up in handsome, finely crafted noir clothing. By which I mean it’s great (even if it’s not the best example of either genre).

In Possessed, Crawford is a live-in nurse whose obsession with a nearby, unexceptional fuckboy drives her to a frayed, near-catatonic state. She starts the movie wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a daze, mumbling the fuckboy’s name over & over to herself, unsure of how she got there and what crimes of passion she may have committed along the way (a stuporous intro later echoed in Ida Lupino’s teen pregnancy melodrama Not Wanted). While undergoing several layers of Freudian analysis that diagnoses her as A Frustrated Woman, she tells her story of unrequited love & violent revenge to men in lab coats who nod in feigned concern. While caring for a wealthy but suicidally depressed patient as a live-in caretaker, Crawford had fallen hopelessly, obsessively in love with her patient’s womanizing neighbor, who rejects her after an intense but brief sexual fling. Her schemes to hold onto his time & affection after their abrupt break-up escalate in increasingly mad, unhinged stabs of jealousy, ultimately resulting in her hospitalization and possible arrest for violent criminal acts.

The stark shadows, howling winds & rain, and overwritten dialogue like “I seldom hit a woman, but if you don’t leave me alone I’ll wind up kicking babies” all firmly land Possessed within the realm of noir. Even Crawford’s maddening obsession with her playboy neighbor is like a gender-flipped variation on the femme fatale trope, where attraction to an aloof, mysterious figure leads our anti-hero to great personal peril. It’s a perverse pleasure, then, to see Crawford act out a prototype of her late-career psychobiddy roles here as a woman on the verge. She’s an unreliable narrator to her own story, one whose hallucinations combine with the noir lighting to create a kind of J-horror ghost story effect, wherein she’s haunted by her own paranoid delusions & urges to kill as relief for her pent-up sexual frustrations. Possessed can’t offer the pitch-perfect melodrama of Mildred Pierce nor the deliciously over-the-top axe murders of Strait-Jacket, but Crawford’s crazed performance bridges the gap between those disparate ends of her career, and it’s a convergence well worth seeking out.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970).

Boomer: Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a complex movie. I saw it as part of the same “Women on the Verge” film programming block at the Alamo Drafthouse last summer that also showcased An Unmarried Woman, on back to back weekends, no less. The film is largely based on the real recollections of notable 1950s model Anne St. Marie from recordings made by director Jerry Schatzberg; this was his film directing debut after having largely worked as a fashion photographer, and he made tape recordings of his conversations with St. Marie in her declining years. These tapes form the backbone of the narrative of Lou Andreas Sand (Faye Dunaway, in what I think is the finest performance of her career), with Aaron Reinhardt (Barry Primus) standing in as a fictional version of Schatzberg himself. This structure, even if unknown to the audience, lends the film a sense of verisimilitude, even in the moments in which Lou’s recollections are self-contradictory or self-aggrandizing and lacking in any kind of internal inspection.

In additional to great performances from Primus and Dunaway, Roy Scheider also gives a stunningly brutal edge to Mark, playing against type (like me, you probably grew up with Scheider as tough-but-fair Chief Brody in Jaws or as the paternal lead Captain Bridger on seaQuest DSV) as an abusive, hypocritical asshole. Or is he? Lou’s memories are so riddled with inconsistencies that it’s impossible to know for sure what he really did or didn’t do (although, yeah, he probably was a jerk, because everyone is in this movie, to some extent).

Britnee, what did you think of this approach to storytelling? It’s not exactly Rashomon, since we’re not seeing the same events from multiple characters’ points of view; it’s one truly unwell woman’s conflicting recollections about her life as she tries to make sense out of all the misfortunes that have befallen her, both her fault and her own, and her conscious and unconscious attempts to make her own mistakes fit a framework of existence in which everything bad happened to her and outside of her power, and all the good things in her life were the result of her actions. To me, it’s mesmerizing in its lack of self awareness while still making me very sympathetic toward Lou. How do you feel?

Britnee: At first, I was really confused as to what the film was trying to do. Was Lou lying purposefully? Were any of her recollections real? It wasn’t until I was a good half hour or so into the film that I realized the confusion I was feeling was exactly what Lou was feeling. Dunaway does such a wonderful job of making Lou’s character likable, so that her potentially false memories come off as being innocent rather than malicious. The back and forth between Lou’s flashbacks and reality made me feel like I was a peeping tom in the window of her mind. Often, spending time in Lou’s mind became super uncomfortable (especially in her memories of abuse), but those moments really helped me understand her character and sympathize with her. Her not knowing the difference between fantasy and reality is truly terrifying, and I couldn’t help but feel for her.

Films about the fashion industry always tear at my heart. Watching women being objectified and tossed out like trash once they’re of a certain age (usually 30 years old) is difficult. On a lighter note, watching films like Puzzle and comparing it to today shows how much the world of fashion and modeling has progressed. Models of all ages and sizes are gracing the covers of major fashion magazines and runway shows now. The industry still promotes some ridiculous standards for women to live up to, but it does seem to be getting better. One of the saddest scenes in Puzzle was when Lou’s was hired for a shoot as her modeling career was coming to a close. She puts on a red Lucille Ball wig and is glowing with excitement to show off her new look when a younger model arrives, completely ignoring her. To make things worse, one of the women working on the shoot makes a rather patronizing statement about her new look at the same time. She was getting kicked while she was down, and you could see it all over her face.

The fashion world was so cruel to Lou, and the saddest part is that she had no true friends or family to fall back on for support. At first, it seems like Aaron is the only one in the world that is concerned about Lou, but in the end, he uses her just like everyone else. She has so much faith and admiration for him, so watching him exploit her mental illness during the interview made me so angry. Brandon, did you feel the same way about Aaron?

Brandon: It’s important to note that Lou interacts with two entirely different versions of Aaron, reflected in two entirely different timelines. I do believe that Aaron exploited Lou and worsened her mental condition through his own greedy actions, but I’m not so sure that his taped interviews with her were the worst of that exploitation. Furthermore, I’m not entirely convinced that any interview was recorded in the first place. Boomer mentioned that the film was based off a real-life set of interviews the director recorded with a fashion model he once collaborated with, but that information is extratextual. Within the reality of the film, confidently saying that anything that materializes onscreen actually “happened” is a bold claim. Lou might be, through no fault of her own, the least reliable narrator I’ve ever encountered. It’s not that she’s actively lying to make herself appear more important or morally superior through historical revision, either; it’s that she’s so mentally fraught that her memories and real-time perception cannot be trusted – least of all by herself. It’s difficult to say whether the older, contemporary Aaron is actually visiting her in the recorded interviews framing device. Not only is Aaron much gentler & kinder in those exchanges than he is in earlier memories, but Lou also interrupts one of her exchanges with him to mentally project herself on the beach outside the window, interacting with an entirely different character in lipsync. We see the world through her shattered-glass eyes, so I don’t know that we can even trust that she’s talking to Aaron in those exchanges at all. She could as easily be just talking to a wall and playing her arrhythmic castanets to no one.

If he does exist as represented onscreen, I suppose Aaron exploiting his former crush and collaborator’s mental breakdown for filmmaking fodder is a little cruel, but his intentions mostly appear to be noble. He’s at least recording her story in her words, offering a creative platform for an artist whose industry has abandoned her as she’s gotten too old and too “difficult” to turn them a profit. It’s the younger Aaron, the one who more likely exists, who really came across as a villain to me. I think of Puzzle of a Downfall Child as one of the Driven Mad By The Patriarchy mental-breakdown dramas (which are generally excellent as one-woman acting showcases, proven true by Dunaway here). As with the protagonists of films like A Woman Under the Influence, Persona, safe., The Nun, The Love Witch, and countless others, Lou is a broken person who’s lost her sense of reality and sense of self trying to live up to patriarchal standards by becoming The Ideal Woman. Whether or not she was biologically predisposed to having dysfunctional mental health, the cruelty & exploitation that defines her life as a woman in the modern world is what sends her over the edge. Even when she’s still a young schoolgirl, all anyone wants from her is sex & profit, a systemic objectification that continues throughout her adult life. As her only close friend, Aaron was in a unique position to be the one person in her life who could help her, to be the one person concerned for her well-being instead of pushing her to satisfy his own desires. Instead, he pressures her into (ultimately nonconsensual) sex through the guise of artistically collaborating as photographer & model. It’s the most devastating betrayal of a film that’s overflowing with selfish cruelty in nearly every scene.

What I’m having a difficult time reconciling here is how those two versions of Aaron (the framing-device interviewer & the in-memories photographer) overlap, and what Schatzberg is saying about himself in the process. CC, do you read a lot of guilt & remorse in the director’s depictions of his own real-life relationship with Anne St. Marie here or do you think the project was more driven by his pity for her, blind to how he came across onscreen through the avatar of Aaron?

CC: I honestly feel uncomfortable trying to parse out the director’s intent here. This is a film that directly grapples with how people present their own image, clearly establishing that we cannot be trusted to present ourselves truthfully. If nothing else, that alone makes any attempt to guess Schaztberg’s intent a maddening puzzle with no possible satisfying answer. We can all at least agree that Aaron does bad things and it’s not flattering; supposing anything more than that would be pure speculation.

No matter what he intended with his minor self-portrait or his more elaborate depiction of a woman in crisis, Schatzberg is at least in good company. I find it fascinating that so many male directors of the 1970s were fixated on this topic. Much like Cassavetes in A Woman Under the Influence, Altman in 3 Women, Scorsese in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Polansky in Repulsion, Schatzberg toes a thin line between empathy and exploitation in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. These are all sympathetic portraits with a shared critical eye for how women are ritually broken down by their place in society. As Ebert described when he called movies “a machine that generates empathy,” they put you in the mind of a type of woman who rarely gets to center her own story. They’re also excellent actors’ showcases for women who are unlikely to find such substantial roles elsewhere, most significantly Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. That’s why it’s disappointing that they’re so often filtered through the directorial male ego. It also may be part of the reason I consistently find this genre deeply upsetting and unenjoyable, even if the films are well made.

To his credit, Schatzberg did collaborate with a female writing partner, Carol Eastman, who earned sole credit for the movie’s completed screenplay. It was Eastman who chose to base the final product off interviews Schatzberg conducted with friend & model Anne St. Marie, who he claims he never had a sexual affair with in real life. As such, the depictions of Lou, Aaron, and every other character onscreen is just as much a creation of her voice as anyone else’s. Boomer, how do you think this collaboration with Eastman distinguishes Puzzle of a Downfall Child from other examples of its genre where the male director wrote the screenplay on their own? Is it important at all that a woman co-write this film? What might have been lost if it were written entirely by a man?

Boomer: That’s a great question. I mentioned before that this film and An Unmarried Woman were part of the same Alamo Drafthouse specialty series, which took its name, “Women Under the Influence: Life, Love, and Madness in the ’70s,” from the aforementioned A Woman Under the Influence, the first film in the showcase. The fourth and final film was the seldom-seen Play it as it Lays, based on Joan Didion’s novel and directed by her husband; they, too, shared writing credit. Jazmyne Moreno, whom I mentioned before as the host of Austin Film Society Cinema’s screening of On the Silver Globe and who is the current host and programmer of AFS’s Lates Series, was the (co-)programmer for these, and I respect her judgment a lot; she’s an amazing person and I’ve never been let down by any of her programs (her introduction for Sun-Ra’s Space is the Place and a screening of Friday Foster way back in March 2017 are particular highlights of my Austin filmgoing experiences). We’re coming to these films with nearly 50 years of cultural criticism in the interim, and all of the touchstones of women-driven empathy machines of the era that you noted are well chosen, because you’re right: there is an issue of cultural distance via time that separates us from what were groundbreaking films at the time but which are not entirely without an element of exploitation with regards to the women at the core of the film. But just because Hans Robert Jauss is dead doesn’t mean he was wrong: every text has a different face for each reader, and can be interpreted in myriad ways.

I share your discomfort with trying to parse Schatzberg’s authorial intent, but I have to admit that I’m equally vexed by trying to suss out what Eastman’s intention was, not least of all because I would be projecting my male reading onto her female authorship, which this discussion has made me acutely aware of. I can’t make claims about her intentions with any authority, so I hope it will suffice it to say that my personal head canon is that she either (a) liked Schatzberg and wanted to lovingly take the piss a little by making his author avatar a bit of a dirtbag, or (b) she was subversively using the medium of the screenplay to take potshots at him behind his back. I hope it’s the former, but the latter is also of interest. Either way, even though Schatzberg was close to the film’s original inspirational personality, I still find it doubtful that the film would have been as sensitive to Lou had Eastman and her pen not been there to ensure that there was a woman’s voice in the creative room. Brandon mentioned the way that Lou was the victim of systemic objectification from a young age; it’s easy to imagine a film without Eastman’s influence playing Lou’s pubescent “seduction” only as it was first shown, a kind of mutual attraction, affection, and teasing, and not as it really was upon later revisitation, a clear-cut case of a man taking advantage of a much younger woman. We can never be sure, but I’m glad we don’t have to know.

We’ve talked a lot about issues related to the fashion industry and systemic sexism and all of its accompanying moral evils. What I remembered most about this movie after spending a year apart from it before this rewatch was Dunaway’s performance, which may be the highlight of her career. Contemporary reviews were mixed; the New York Times cited ” a character of such lovely, tentative lucidity that to be with her is, as it should be, worth a whole movie,” while Variety stated she “first garners wholesome pity, but the plot development soon banishes her to bathos and finally boredom.” Britnee, what did you think? Were there any other performances in the film that stood out to you?

Britnee: Dunaway’s performance in Puzzle was definitely one of her best. Her best performance to me will always be her portrayal of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, which is a film I quote at least once a week. Puzzle is a close second though. Dunaway really has a way of having characters take over her completely, just like when a ghost uses a human body as a vessel. Interestingly enough, her role in both films is based on an actual person, as is her star-making role in Bonnie & Clyde. Maybe biopics are her jam?

I really enjoyed the scenes of the film that were set at Lou’s beach cottage. I would have loved to hangout with her there, sipping coffee or tea while listening to her stories that intertwine fantasy and reality. Her character reminds me of some of my favorite family members and friends whom I visit to get a good story, be it a delusion of grandeur or a memory from many years ago. I just love to listen, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Lou’s character so much.

The only other performance that stood out to me (other than Aaron, which I mentioned earlier) is Mark. As Boomer mentioned, his character in Puzzle is so different from Jaws’s Chief Brody. Years ago, I watched All That Jazz, where Schneider portrays a character loosely based on Bob Fosse, who is a womanizing douchebag. I remember being slightly heartbroken seeing Chief Brody play a “bad” guy, and that feeling resurfaced while watching Mark in Puzzle. If I had not been so familiar with his Jaws character, I don’t think his performance would have been as stand out as it was. Either way, he still wasn’t nearly as interesting as Lou.

I had no idea who Anne St. Marie was prior to watching Puzzle, but I have found myself searching for her modeling photographs and articles about her career since watching the film. Brandon, did Puzzle spark an interest in Anne St. Marie’s career for you?

Brandon: Not really. I don’t mean to sound too dismissive of Anne St. Marie as a historical figure & an artist, but there’s nothing especially unique to her story (as presented in the film) that doesn’t apply to all fashion models everywhere. A straight-forward birth-to-death biopic or even a feature length documentary on her life would most likely struggle to fill the time with something to say, besides just packing the screen with her more notable photographs. Puzzle of a Downfall Child doesn’t have many major events in Anne St. Marie’s life to build a traditional narrative around, which is partly what affords it so much room to explore the more intangible aspects of her life’s story: the ways her mental illness distort her understanding of the world and the ways the fashion industry compounds the mental & emotional toll of The Patriarchy. How much of those themes & tones are specifically true to Anne St. Marie and how much was an artistic fabrication of Schatzberg & Eastman’s is up for debate, but I feel like I’ve already learned more about the type of person Anne St. Marie was through this movie than I could ever gather by reading a factual biography on her life & career.

If I were going to investigate Anne St. Marie’s career any further, I’d most want to see a slideshow or a lookbook of her best outfits & photographs. Fashion is an artform I know embarrassingly little about, but I do find its visual pleasures to be magnificent. Like the opera or the ballet, it’s an artform that I always love to see interpreted through cinema for the inherent visual splendor of its setting, especially when paired with a genre conceit or avant-garde filmmaking techniques: Blood and Black Lace, Phantom Thread, The Neon Demon, etc. Puzzle of a Downfall Child does a great job of utilizing a fashion industry aesthetic for cinematic visual indulgences and thematic explorations of systemic misogyny & mental health crises. Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film. I’d love to see some of Anne St. Marie’s work just to appreciate the visual pleasures of her artform, but I feel like abandoning the birth-to-death biopic template that sticks to factual bullet points about the subject made for a better story & a better film.

CC, can you think of any notable fashion industry artists—whether model, designer, or photographer—where that would not be true? Is there anyone who has worked in fashion who you’d rather see a factual biopic about their life than a poetic cinematic interpretation like Puzzle of a Downfall Child, or would that loose interpretation always be the preferable approach?

CC: I also tend to prefer this interpretive, expressive style of filmmaking over the traditional biopic. If I wanted to dig into a straightforward biography on a historical figure’s life, I’d just read their Wikipedia page. Even the most factually accurate biopics never really get to the core essence of their subjects the way these more artistic interpretations do. You can never truly capture a person’s inner life on film, but movies like Puzzle of a Downfall Child at least edgecloser to that ideal than a straightforward biopic ever could. Besides, just providing the facts of their life isn’t really all that interesting, so this way is much more entertaining.

There are a few fashion figures I’d like to see receive this treatment. The first that comes to mind is the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Not only does Schiaparelli have an interesting biographical background as someone who fled her childhood as the daughter of nobility and academics (and the tedious suitors therein) to marry a fortune teller in London and start her own career as an designer (and eventually a single mother); she also just had an approach to fashion that might make for a great movie artistically. Interpreting fashion as a graphic artform and not just a utilitarian necessity of life, Schiaparelli worked closely with Surrealists like Salvador Dali & Man Ray. I’m no filmmaker so I can’t speculate exactly how one would interpret her life & work for the screen, but I imagine the clash of couture fashion & Surrealism alone would give you a lot to work with.

I could also imagine an interesting movie based on Schiaparelli’s mentor Paul Poiret. In fact, most of the names that immediately come to mind for movie treatments are designers, not models. That’s likely because designers are already afforded their own voice creatively in a way models aren’t, so I already somewhat know what they have to offer. One of Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s more striking choices is in offering a voice to a type of fashion industry figure who’s usually denied that outlet, apparently repressing it to the point of inflicting insanity.


CC: For a film about fashion I found most of the clothing to be pretty lackluster in this. The make-up was on-point, though.

Britnee: One very minor scene in Puzzle that stuck with me was when Lou and Aaron were eating hot dogs in Central Park. Watching Faye Dunaway eating sloppy street hot dog made me laugh for a good bit.

Boomer: It wasn’t until Brandon pointed it out that I realized that yes, this is very much like a giallo film. No wonder I loved it so much.

Brandon: It’s appalling how little effort has gone into properly distributing this film on physical media. You can catch restored 35mm screenings at film festivals or scattered repertory venues, but it’s never seen official VHS or DVD distribution in the US (oddly, it has been afforded that respect in France). Luckily, that lack of proper stewardship does leave the movie open to more . . . questionable modes of distribution, which is why you can watch Puzzle of a Downfall Child in shockingly high quality on YouTube right now. A proper Criterion Blu-ray release for the film feels both necessary and inevitable, but for now take what you can get:

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)
September: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

Shock Corridor (1963)

It’s rare to find films of a certain age that take an honest look at mental illness, racism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychiatric issues with sympathy, and fewer still that take a deft approach to the subject. Anything that predated 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest generally treated those with these illnesses as villains or obstacles, portrayed asylums as bedlams that protected society from vagrants rather than places where one could ever hope to become well again, and if the protagonist was unwell of mind, such sickness was something that could be overcome with machismo or the love of a good woman, not through medical practice or therapy. Not so in the case of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (released 1963, one year after the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest, although Fuller had been shopping the original screenplay around since the 1940s), in which mental patients are presented as objects not of derision but as people deserving empathy, not as evil madmen but as victims of society who were pushed to the psychic breaking point and beyond.

Reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) has spent the past year training with Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn) in order to accurately portray an incestuous fetishist and be committed to a local mental hospital. His goal: to earn a Pulitzer by solving the murder of a patient who was killed by meeting the three witnesses, also patients there. His editor Swanson (Bill Zuckert) is behind this plan, but his exotic dancer girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) objects, worried that Barrett’s time among the madmen will break him psychologically as well. She eventually relents and poses as Barrett’s sister in order to have him “involuntarily” committed. Once inside, Barrett must maintain his cover under the observation of Dr. Menkin (Paul Dubov) and kindly orderly Wilkes (Chuck Roberson). He is placed in a room with a patient known only as Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), whose operatic exultations occur day and night, and he sets to work making contact with the three witnesses: Stuart (James Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes), and Boden (Gene Evans).

Each man has been institutionalized after their psyches were fractured by manifestations of America’s social and political failings, representing the dark underside of the American dream. Stuart was the son of a poor, abusive, racist father. When Stuart was captured while serving in Korea, he came around to their way of thinking easily, as they showed him the first kindness he had ever experienced in his life. When he was returned to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchanged, he was denounced as a traitor and treated as a pariah; despite being brainwashed, his countrymen had no sympathy for him and instead debased and abused him. As a result, he has retreated into a delusion wherein he is Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, still fighting the war.

Trent was the first black student in a segregated university in the American South, who suffered such harassment and hatred at the hands of his classmates that his mind has broken. He is introduced as a thief of pillowcases, and we quickly learn what that means: he steals these from other patients and cuts holes in them to create a makeshift Klan hood. Trent no longer sees himself as he is but as white, and he stirs up the other patients in the ward by shouting racist, white nationalist invective, including inciting violence against other black patients. Finally, Boden was an atomic scientist who, upon realizing the earth-shattering power of the atom bomb and that he had contributed to the scientific “progress” that gave mankind the ability to wipe itself from the face of the earth, broke down and regressed to the mentality of a child. Once a talented artist, he now spends his days wandering the titular corridor, where patients are allowed to congregate and socialize, drawing crude renderings of his peers.

Barrett’s time on the inside begins to have a profound effect on him. As his own mental state begins to deteriorate, the film becomes a race against time to get to the truth before Barrett’s faculties diminish beyond the breaking point.

When looking at the release date and the subject matter, one couldn’t be blamed for jumping to the conclusion that the film would be heavy-handed or unsympathetic, but not so. And even if one knew the film was sympathetic, it would likewise be easy to assume that it would be have the moralistic and paternalistic “eye” prevalent in propaganda of the time, but that is not the case here either. Instead, the tone is like the film overall: a mixture of documentarian distance and character study, which echoes the (color video, in contrast to the B&W film that makes up the plot of the movie) documentary inserts of Japan in Stuart’s psychic break and the indigenous dances and rituals that constitute Trent’s breakdown. Although there are some dated moments, most notably the attack on Barrett by a ward full of glassy-eyed women identified only as “nymphos,” they are few and far between, and do not detract from the film’s overall thesis: mental illness may be “invisible” in ways that physical illness isn’t, but it can be no less debilitating or life-altering, and the key to healing is sympathy, not criticism. Sadly, over half a century later, this is a lesson that still needs to be reiterated, but it renders the film no less potent now than it was in its day.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Hereditary (2018)

It’s no secret that I love horror movies. Of my top ten movies of 2015, 3-5 were horror (depending on how you categorize thrillers like Cop Car and Queen of Earth); in 2016, that was a solid five out of ten, and in 2017, six of fifteen. I even did a list of my favorite horror movies by year for the past fifty years in 2017, and that’s not even getting into my months-long Dario Argento retrospective before that. So it might surprise you to learn that I’m rarely actually scared by horror movies. We’re entering a new golden age of horror (both in film and in the real world, at least here in the U.S.), but it’s rare that a film manages to induce such fear and anxiety in the animalistic part of my brain that it manages to topple the wall of critical theory that usually takes center stage in my viewings. In essence, the value, entertainment and otherwise, that I normally get from a horror film viewing, is in the dissection of its component elements and its social statements and theses. For instance, as captivating as Get Out was, the rhetorical space created in the theater between me and the text was one of intense interest in and attention to the social criticism and symbology of the film rather than making me actually afraid at least until the arrival of those flashing lights at the end, when I feared our protagonist was about to be murdered by the police, as so many young black men in our country are every day. In the past half decade, very few films have managed to actually engage with my fear response over my academic interest “in the moment”: Don’t Breathe, The Babadook, IT, The VVitch, Raw, the aforementioned Cop Car, and probably one or two others that aren’t coming to mind immediately. That pantheon now has a new member: Hereditary.

What an amazing film. I’m going to do my best not to spoil anything about it, but be forewarned: if you’re so sharp a person that discussion of foreshadowing and artistic influences can spoil something for you, you should go and see the movie now now now and come back when you’re done. Ok? Welcome back. First and foremost, I’d like to salute the marketing of this film for so thoroughly managing to disguise the premise. I can’t remember the last time a film’s trailers and TV spots threw such an opaque veil over the text’s true subject matter and so effectively obscured the content to preserve the surprise, successfully. Last year’s mother! did this by crafting a trailer that told you nothing about the movie, really, but that ended in more of a severe disconnect between audience expectations and authorial . . . let’s call it “artistry.” That same division may be coming for Hereditary too, given the disparity between the critical consensus and audience response (sitting at 92% for the former and 59% for the latter on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing). There was even a moment close to the end of the film that sent much of the auditorium agiggle, despite being one of the creepiest sequences.

I’ll refrain from making too many broad statements about the general public’s unwillingness to be shocked, but suffice it to say I’m long past being surprised when the average moviegoer expresses disproportionate outrage when something genuinely novel comes along simply because it isn’t what they would expect. This is part and parcel of the democratization of criticism, as the internet provides a platform for everyone to express their views, from that racist idiot in your office, to that guy on the bus who’s been reading the same David Foster Wallace essay collection for months, to that group of women at the next table at Phoenicia who want nothing more out of a movie than a kiss between a handsome man and the lady whose love changed him (and to lowly old me!). This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it certainly blurs the lines of discourse. I’m going off topic (surprise), but the point holds true: the film that you’ll see after you buy your ticket is going to be a different experience than you’re expecting, and that’s a good thing.

So what should you expect instead? (To allay the fears of those concerned that this is potentially spoilery information, let me advise that there are some dream sequences in which the imagery is thematically relevant and resonant but not necessarily literal.) Since you aren’t me, I can’t just say: “Remember that bizarre dream we had after watching the final segment of XX while on post-surgery painkillers last year? It’s basically the same narrative, but with Toni Collette instead of Tyne Daly.” I mean, it is almost exactly that, but that doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. Imagine a horror movie version of Ordinary People and you’re halfway there; add in some concerns about the heredity of mental illnesses and imbalances, a dash of the St. Patrick’s Day segment of 2016’s Holidays, a few handfuls of Rosemary’s Baby, a pinch of Killing of a Sacred Deer, and a dash each of Hausu, Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Ring, and Carrie, just for good measure. Admittedly, this is a jumble, but it leads to a cohesive narrative that is shocking, creepy, and depressing, all in good measure.

Annie Graham (Collette) is having a hard time dealing with the recent death of her mother, Ellen, a mentally unstable woman with dissociative identity disorder. Mental illness seems to run in her family, as her depressed father starved himself to death when she was an infant, and her schizophrenic brother committed suicide after accusing their mother of “trying to put people inside of him.” She is an artist who works in miniatures, several of which appear throughout the sumptuous but isolated home she shares with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and teenage stoner Peter (Alex Wolff). In many ways, Charlie is most like her mother, as she likewise creates miniatures and figurines, but unlike Annie’s meticulously carved, sculpted, and painted recreations of reality, Charlie’s tiny homonculi have electrical outlets instead of faces, or pigeon heads instead of humanoid ones. After further family tragedy, Annie meets Joan (Ann Dowd) outside of a grief support group, and the older woman lends her a sympathetic ear before introducing her to the occult as a way to communicate with those who have moved on. Or does she? Is there really a conduit to speak with the loved ones who have died, or is it all in Annie’s head? Or is perhaps neither of those things true? Or both?

I’m at a loss to say more without giving away some of the movie’s biggest swerves, especially given that, as noted above, I wasn’t in “critical film theory” mode while watching. From the opening moments, when we swoop in on one of Annie’s miniatures of the home in which the Grahams reside and the tiny dollhouse becomes Peter’s bedroom, the film captivates the width and breadth of your attention. I wasn’t inspecting the music to see if it mixed high and low frequencies to create tension (CW for the link: uses a jump scare from a Conjuring film); I was too concerned about the characters and what was going to happen to them to worry about any of those things, and I’ll be processing the ideas and concepts in the film for days to come, but I can’t get into those without telling you too many of the film’s secrets. Just go see it, if you dare.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

My First Kiss and the People Involved (2016)



A grainy digital camera indie about a group of mental patients in a halfway home, you might be tempted to brush off My First Kiss and the People Involved as something that can easily be understood & forgotten within its opening minutes of lyrical daydreaming. It’s not the film you’re expecting. Surely, My First Kiss and the People Involved traffics in the standard indie drama empathy inherent to small scale films about systemic mental health care. However, it also mirrors the helplessness & delusion of its disenfranchised subjects by veering into the unexpected territory of a psychological horror. At times, the film’s tense paranoia & dread of sudden violence plays like the silent horror classic A Page of Madness by way of a classic Hitchcock thriller, which is not at all the expectation or precedent it sets in its more tender, but familiar first act.

Our window into the goings on of the halfway home is a wordless, listless patient named Sam. As she’s largely nonverbal & extremely sensitive to sensory overload, we specifically experience this world through her hands & singsong daydreams. The movie opens with Sam getting lost in small details: pinwheels, spider webs, flowers, magazine advertisements, television static. In a way she’s the world’s least reliable narrator, in that she doesn’t have the ability to narrate. We just watch her navigate a chaotic space in a daze, which is perfectly fine with the film’s early, minor events. Her quiet, easily-overloaded perspective adds an air of lyricism to her housemates’/fellow patients’ negotiations about movie night or living room masquerades or introduction to a cute rabbit as a household pet. Things get too intense when Sam starts to feel romantic stirrings for a fellow patient, though. That anxiety fully kicks into gear with her witnessing a possible murder, a traumatic event she can’t report or communicate to the outside world due to the limitations set by her particular condition.

Out-of-nowhere actor India Menuez is having a great year professionally, appearing in supporting roles in the two much-hyped indies White Girl & Nocturnal Animals. Her starring turn as Sam in My First Kiss and the People Involved offers a much quieter, tenderer showcase of her talents than those smaller roles are likely to, though. We experience the world through her physical touch & her internal paranoia. When a rabbit appears to speak or when a boy leans in for a too-much-too-soon intimacy we’re dazed in the same overwhelmed, disjointed mind frame. There’s something of a 90s indie movie vibe in My First Kiss’s more familiar aspects. The grainy digital haze, the Courtney Love vibes in its more tragic counselor and the ripped up & faded blue jeans all recall the era. Where a 90s work might’ve stopped at generating empathy for its vulnerable, fractured protagonist, however, this film pushes further into the paranoia of a psychological horror, forcing the audience to perceive the world through that vulnerable lens instead of merely pitying it. Menuez does a great job of anchoring the empathy in this way, bringing a light, but frustrated tenderness to a role that requires surgical precision to work. The film does its best to surprise & subvert expectations within the confines of its means & genre, but it’s Menuez’s performance that allows that subversion to hit with full, meaningful impact.

-Brandon Ledet

Shock (1946)



Like a lot of people, I always picture Vincent Price as an older man when his name comes up, as if he were air-dropped into the world as an already-established horror legend in the 50s or 60s. The truth is that Price toiled away as a workman character actor for decades before he was really set loose to chew the scenery in pictures like The Abominable Dr. Phibes & The Masque of the Red Death. One of the earliest glimpses of the Vincent Price that was to be came in the form of the 1940s tawdry noir thriller Shock. A subpar Hitchcock descendant that functions entirely within the rigid boundaries of its genre, Shock is a fairly standard sample of in-its-prime noir, one that might not be especially worth digging back up from its ancient cinematic grave if it weren’t for Price’s villainous performance. The babyfaced future-legend is a lot more measured here than he would become at the height of his onscreen treachery, but there’s enough mad scientist stirrings in this early performance to telegraph the weird, wonderful trajectory his career would eventually take. If you’re a fan of Price’s horror work, this early landmark should not be casually dismissed or overlooked.

A soldier returning from deployment in World War II discovers his wife is frozen in a state of stone-faced shock, despite seeming healthy over the phone mere hours before his arrival. Her doctor passes this catatonic state off as a symptom of stress due to her husband’s delayed return from the war. The truth is that the woman witnessed the doctor (played by Price) murder his own wife through a hotel window in a fit of rage. In order to cover his tracks the doctor holds the woman hostage in a mental institution, attempting to convince her & anyone who’ll listen that she’s crazy & the murder was a hallucination. With the doctor’s mistress whispering in his ear & the patient’s husband becoming increasingly skeptical of the diagnosis, the walls start to close in on the dastardly cretin and his cruelty grows in its self-preserving wickedness. Will his evildoing be exposed before his unnecessary shock treatment procedures forever destroy the mental stability of his victim/patient? Surely, if you’ve seen any thrillers from the era before you know the answer to that question, but the because this film is built on suspense instead of mystery, the fun is in the performances & the melodrama, not in guessing what happens next.

Hitchcock expertly, leisurely surfed the balance between trash & art and this knockoff certainly falls on the less prestigious side of that divide. Even 1940s audiences bristled at its tawdry insensitivity, especially miffed that it exploited shock treatment & PTSD, which were hot topics on the heels of WWII, for cheap dramatic weight. In a modern context these transgressions play more entertaining than they do offensive.The film’s mental health mumbo jumbo is quaintly (if not horrifyingly) out of date and it’s actually fairly easy to accept the way it sleazily turns real life issues like women wrongly committed to mental institutions & the real world practice of insulin shock therapy into tawdry thriller fodder, thanks to its distance in time. There’s actually an almost progressive, Rosemary’s Baby type criticism built into the story about the way women are manipulated & institutionalized by men who patronize & refuse to believe them (not that shrieking, “I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!” helps at all in this particular case). There’s one specific moment when the victims’ soldier-husband confides to Price’s wicked doctor, “She’s out of her head. She’s got a crazy idea that she saw a murder. I don’t know what to do,” that had me screaming, “Well, did you try believing her?!” and I assume that was an intentional effect on the movie’s part. There’s plenty to pick at here, misogyny-wise, especially in the way that it’s only the women’s lives that are ever threatened & the fact that the doctor’s heartless mistress manipulating him with her womanly ways is largely to blame for the villainy, but Shock does have its surprising moments of feminist critique peaking through some of its thick noir sleaze.

Like I said, you’re not going to get much out of Shock that you couldn’t find in some other trashy thriller of the era, except if you look to Vincent Price’s performance as the wicked psychiatrist. There are a few moments of post-German Expressionism weirdness in the imagery, but they’re mostly relegated to a single dream sequence featuring the troubled protagonist running in a strange void & a passage of time montage steeped in calendar page-turning noir cliche. A young Vincent Price stands as the film’s sole beacon of distinctiveness, but he delivers in an uncharacteristically dialed back, measured performance that becomes increasingly ridiculous as his rash decisions reflect the walls closing in around him. The movie serves as a sort of bridge between two eras of the iconic actor’s career, starting with a dramatic stage play seriousness, but ultimately touching on some distinct mad scientist vibes by the time he attempts to erase the woman’s memory (and possibly her existence) through overdoses of insulin & hypnosis. Price’s performance makes Shock more than worthwhile as you watch the early formation of a distinct onscreen personality that fully blossomed in the decades that followed, but is rarely seen with such grounded dramatic weight & dead-serious delivery. The campy impulses in me might’ve wished that he went even more over-the-top with the role, but by toeing the line between those halves of his career, he delivered something much more special, something you can only find in Shock.

-Brandon Ledet

Equals (2016)


Is it all transgressive or radical anymore to point out that Kristen Stewart is a divinely talented actor? Have her Twilight days been sufficiently been wiped out by the ever-expanding wealth of killer onscreen work she’s put in outside that franchise? I hope so, because it’s becoming tiresome starting reviews like this (my third defensive preamble for her talents after American Ultra & The Clouds of Sils Maria). Kristen Stewart’s main problem, if she has one at all, is that the film industry often seems confused about exactly how to utilize her detached onscreen cool, a visible lack of urgency that lands her presence somewhere between James Dean & Lauren Bacall in its smooth, smoky, effortless charm. Although it nearly approaches the YA romance territory that has threatened to pigeonhole her career, the dystopian sci-fi drama Equals does know what to do with Stewart’s detached cool. Besides indulging in an always-welcome, heartachingly sincere story of sci-fi romance, Equals presents a future where emotion has been outlawed, a perfect platform for Stewart’s own emotive talents, which are typically communicated through subtle body language & small shifts in tone. It’s not my favorite Stewart performance by any stretch, but it might serve as a convincing argument on her behalf for those still on the fence in regards to her immense, underappreciated talent.

As much as I’m rambling on about the many merits of Kristen Stewart here, the true protagonist of Equals is a man named Silas, played by Nicholas Hoult. Silas navigates a cold, clinical world in which war has been eradicated by outlawing human emotion. As a member of the emotionless Collective, Silas lives & works in a society of Spocks. Everything is bland, uniform, and designed for logical, streamlined function, the entire world an Apple Store. Silas’s peaceful life as an illustrator of “speculative non-ficiton” is threatened when an outbreak of the disease S.O.S. (or “switched on syndrome”) starts to trigger “behavioral defects” (emotions) in members of The Collective, including our protagonist. Silas dutifully takes his prescribed pills, but continues to feel anyway (likely a comment on the effectiveness of anti-depressants), and eventually finds himself dangerously infatuated with a coworker, played by Stewart. His love interest is dealing with her own rapidly-progressing S.O.S., however undiagnosed & unmedicated, and initially treats his advances like the unwanted attentions of any other workplace creep. Their attraction is inevitable, though, and sets up an achingly sincere, doomed-to-fail romance full of secretive, tender sexual encounters that put both Hoult’s & Stewart’s characters at risk for correctional “defective emotional therapy” at the hands of The Collective’s governing elite, a “treatment” that often ends in encouraged suicide.

Equals is mostly a slow, sensual drift through a cold, calculated future defined by its clean lines & blue lighting. Its romanceless dystopia most closely resembles the surrealist fantasy of this year’s The Lobster, but it approaches the subject from a more sincere, open-hearted place that recalls the sci-fi romance of titles like Her & Upside Down. There’s a metaphor to be found in the way this future society values “productive” lives over genuine mental health, but its true bread & butter is in the nervous, trembling touches Hoult & Stewart share as two young lovers unaccustomed to intimate human contact. The film finds its own visual language in the way it zooms in on actors’ bodies & faces in search of the tiniest of emotive responses, shrinking even the subtle bodily flirtation of Carol to a more microscopic stature (until, you know, it becomes full-on boning). There’s a little dose of subtle comic relief mixed in with this chest-heaving sensuality in the emotionless delivery of lines like, “You’re going to live, pal,” and [upon witnessing a coworker’s suicide] “That’s unfortunate,” but the film works best for those easily won over by sincere romance juxtaposed with a clinical sci-fi setting, an aesthetic I’ll admit I’m a huge sucker for.

Nicholas Hoult does a great job of selling the heartbreaking sincerity of this futuristic love connection (and, speaking of underappreciated actors, The Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s Bel Powley shows up to support the main cast), but Equals is Stewart’s show, not only because it fits the detached cool of her already established persona so well. As much as I appreciate the cold, clinical future presented here, it mostly makes me wish for a not-too-distant future where Stewart’s recognized for the full scope of her talent, not for being the girl from Twilight. Equals is a welcome step in that direction as well as a great, self-contained love story heightened by an oppressive air of emotional restraint.

-Brandon Ledet

Lights Out (2016)



When you were watching The Babadook, our favorite horror film of 2014, did you find yourself wishing that the film was tasteless, lifeless, and dismally formulaic? If yes, then you are going to love Lights Out. (Also, you are ridiculous.) The Babadook was a wonderfully written & performed depiction of severe depression and how it can affect parenting, one filtered through a demonic metaphor that both terrifies & inspires sincere reflection. Its delicate conclusion suggests that there are no simple solutions to clinical depression or whatever other monsters haunt our personal relationships, mental illness or otherwise. Lights Out, by comparison, is a grotesquely Hollywood take on the same metaphor. While The Babadook follows a mother as she struggles with her own mental health, Lights Out instead takes a distant, almost vilifying look at the same struggle. In The Babadook we empathize with a woman who finds herself uncontrollably annoyed by her own child; Lights Out shifts to the child’s POV, making the mother seem like a heartlessly selfish brute. Both movies represent depression as a monster made of pure darkness, but only one is visually interesting or at all unique in its specificity. Both are blatant in their shared metaphor, but only one handles it with any semblance of compassion or nuance. Both cover the same territory, but only one is worth watching. Hint: it’s not Lights Out.

Instead of following the story of the people who suffer the most in this mental health horror (the depressed woman & the young son under her care), Lights Out finds its audience surrogate in the boy’s older goth rock sister who no longer lives at home. This one step removal from the crisis at hand does little but deflate the emotional impact of the mother’s struggle (by making her look abusive & downright feral from an outsider’s perspective) and to clear room for a completely besides the point romance with another goth rock knucklehead it takes a significant amount of effort to merely tolerate. The estranged daughter returns home to find her mother in a manic state, the same as she was when she was a kid. The curtains are drawn; the mother is holed up & babbling to herself; her youngest child is too scared to sleep. The depression demon that haunts the household is given the physical form of Diana, a “childhood friend” (translation: lifelong illness) of the mother’s with severe light sensitivity and a jealous rage that threatens the physical & spiritual safety of anyone who dares to love her best bud. The images of a depressed woman’s home life as well as her distant past in a mental institution feel horrifically outdated & clichéd in an entirely stigmatizing, unrelatable way, especially in light of recent, empathetic works like Gabriel & I Smile Back. It’s the exact clumsy hand you’d expect in a Hollywood horror on such a delicate topic, but without any other discernible entertainment value present to distract you from the problem. What should be an interesting metaphor is boiled down to cheap jump scares, haunted house ambiance, and a violently fucked up climax that’s so unearned in its emotional & shock value provocation that it’s difficult to feel anything but cheated & manipulated in the tawdriest of ways when you (thankfully) reach the end credits.

Funnily enough, I went to the theater thinking I was going to watch the upcoming thriller Don’t Breathe, a horrific-looking film about a blind killer that (based on its trailer) could’ve easily carried the title Lights Out. That’s not the first time this happened to me, either. I’ve also gotten this movie’s title mixed up with the goofy Grand Canyon horror flick The Darkness from earlier this year before, for obvious reasons. (Full disclosure: I planned on watching all three anyway.) This confusion points to one of Lights Out‘s biggest problems: mediocrity, a total lack of distinction. It’s not silly enough to be campy. It’s not brutal enough to be disturbing (except maybe in that unearned finale). It’s not memorable enough to justify its existence in light of the far superior work The Babadook. There’s some interesting visual play with the film’s central gimmick that doesn’t allow its monster to appear in light, especially in the way it incorporates black lights, headlights, flashlights, candles, and gunshot flashes in its tool kit. However, most of the best uses of the gimmick (including its blacklit Blood & Black Lace mannequins) are spoiled by Lights Out‘s better-than-the-film trailer and are backed up by a cast of characters completely devoid of charisma. The one exception on that latter point might be the demon Diana, but she gets very little screen time & is mostly dealt with as a monster in the closet/under the bed threat instead of treated with the respect her mental health metaphor deserves. Lights Out is a bland, hamfisted misstep that bungles its attempts to tackle a serious, worthwhile topic. Worse yet, it feels like a subpar version of a recent, iconic work we’ve already seen & (in my case, at least) would rather watch again instead of seeing it bastardized. If you can manage it, I’d suggest skipping this film entirely & sticking to watching it’s actually well-put-together trailer, which works just fine as a two minute horror short. You’ll be much better off & I’ll envy your resolve.

-Brandon Ledet

A Page of Madness (1926)



I’ve been on something of a silent horror tangent lately,which has lead me to watching some really striking works of early cinematic achievement, but nothing comes close to the (literal) insanity on display in the Japanese film A Page of Madness. The film plays like a cold splash of water or an  open-handed slap to the face. From the first frame on, its wild, chaotic mode of loose story telling and terrifying black & white cinematography feels entirely anachronistic for the time of its release. A whirlwind of rapid edits, bizarre imagery, and an oppressive absence of linear storytelling make A Page of Madness feel like a contemporary with, say, Eraserhead or Tetsuo: The Iron Man instead of a distant relic of horror cinema. It’s an early masterwork of disjointed, abstract filmmaking and it’s one that was nearly lost forever, considered unobtainable for nearly four decades before a salvageable (and significantly shortened) print was re-discovered.

A Page of Madness opens with a flood of, well, madness: storm water pours; train engines roar; a woman dances in a ceremonial gown on a set that is simultaneously ethereal & industrial. The film pulls back here to reveal its hand. The woman dances for no particular audience. She’s wearing a hospital gown, not a fine piece of luxurious fabric. She is a patient in a mental ward, not entirely sure of what place or time she occupies. The audience isn’t sure either. We’re introduced to her husband, who poses as a janitor at the hospital in hopes of setting her free. His attempts to make himself or their former life together recognizable to her are in vain. His attempts to stage a prison break ultimately end in ultraviolent futility. Everything else in between is up for interpretation as a tornado of screaming babies, wild dogs, creepy masks, and crosshatched jail cell bars tear across the screen. From beginning to end A Page of Madness is smeared, stretched, mirrored, sped-up, and doubled over. The result is downright maddening, like Häxan by way of Hausu.

This film is way more expressionistic & chaotic than what I’m used to from cinema’s silent era. It takes a very one-note, stubborn view of mental illness that lacks any semblance of modern nuance in the subject, but the play it gets out of interpreting its mental patients’ hallucinations in a visual language is awe-inspiring even by today’s standards. The overall aesthetic feels akin to turning on a flashlight in pitch black darkness only to be startled by the haunted house terrors lurking within. Very early on the film intentionally relates itself to jazz by throwing images of the then-young art’s instruments in with the rest of its kinetic collage, a very apt act of self-awareness. Its great feat is in the way it consistently disrupts your sense of location and temporal setting. Jail cells & external spaces bleed together, as do the past & present. It’s all delightfully, horrifyingly dizzying.

A lot of A Page of Madness‘s obfuscation is a likely result of its modernized form. When screened in Japan in the 1920s, the film was accompanied by live storytellers who would clarify characters’ inner dialogue & general intent in a way that’s missing when watching the film in your living room. Without that embellishment, the film’s total lack of intercut dialogue cards leaves the audience to drown without a lifeline. Its hypnotic soundtrack recalls a particularly noisy Xiu Xiu experiment stretched thin & hammered out of shape, which is not likely what original audiences experienced either. Also, the film’s missing footage might’ve softened its abstraction to a degree (although some historians suspect director Teinosuke Kinugasa himself might’ve shortened & sped up the film to enhance this effect once he re-discovered his lost print).

All of this speculation is ultimately meaningless, however. The version of A Page of Madness we do have today is immaculately abrasive & I wouldn’t change one confusing frame of it. I doubt any other silent horror I’ll watch will match its sheer memorability, but I’ll gladly welcome the challenge of any film that’s willing to try.

-Brandon Ledet