31 Days of Fright

Nightmares of the Subconscious in The Cell

What thoughts pass through the mind of a killer? This question, posed by many horror films, is explored throughout The Cell. Perhaps a more apt question raised while viewing the film is: what the hell goes on the mind of Tarsem Singh? The Punjabi director’s debut feature, one of only five in a career lasting over 30 years consisting mostly of television ads and music videos, is a feast of nightmarish visuals unfolding in the perverse dreamspace of a murderer. The film’s style could be summarized as a cross between the psychological surrealism of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the gratuitous madness of the Saw franchise. Singh’s debut blends genres seamlessly with a simple narrative that achieves surprising emotional depth in spite of its unhinged visual aesthetics. 

While I will defend The Cell as a horror film for the purpose of this column, the film also incorporates thriller, fantasy, and science fiction components into its style. Perhaps early critics failed to buy into this versatility, which paints a preposterous scenario involving a breakthrough technology that allows people to enter each other’s subconscious, akin to Inception or Paprika. In the same sense that the emotional heights of one’s dreams exceed those of reality, the wild imagination of Singh’s film holds potential to elicit strong emotions for viewers willing to disregard conventional logic. The inner world of the film antagonist’s mind oozes with tones of suspense and malice, where the film conveys its horror in the style of a surrealist haunted house. (The film even pays specific homage to surrealist film tradition where one scene features a clip from the animated classic Fantastic Planet.)

The casting of the film is equally peculiar to its outlandish dream sequences. Jennifer Lopez stars as Catherine, a child psychologist who treats patients by meeting with them in the confines of their minds. The film opens with an appointment between Catherine and her patient Henry, a comatose boy, occurring in an imagined desert world of Henry’s dreams. Simultaneously, local police enlist the help of an FBI agent, played by straight man Vince Vaughn, to help catch the schizophrenic serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) before he murders his eighth victim. Once police capture Stargher and hold him in custody, Catherine must penetrate his psyche in order to uncover the location of his torture chamber and save the final victim. D’Onofrio carries the film in a physically demanding role as Stargher, though his performance achieves greater heights on account of the other-worldly depiction of his character’s mind.

Beyond simply staging certain sequences within subconscious worlds, the script, by Mark Protosevich (I am Legend), explores individual psychologies by addressing lingering effects of physical and sexual childhood abuse. Singh’s film leans into exploring the psycho-sexual emotions undergone by a homicidal man, with a particular focus on the fetish of sadomasochism experienced by a once abused child. The duality of a sick adult, who was once a child victim, transforms Stargher into a surprisingly sympathetic man, as the narrative peels back the layers of his character. While the disease ailing Stargher is fictitious, the positioning of the narrative as taking place inside of his mind opens a curious window. The dream world portrays perverse amalgamations of childhood memories poisoned by intrusive, violent tendencies which offer some insight into homicidal thought processes. The Cell overcomes many of the trappings of the sexually-frustrated murderer antagonist trope in the earnestness of its portrayal and reliance on tainted memory sequences to display the root of Stargher’s motivations. The film then achieves a point where, in straying far enough away from reality, it comes full circle in its absurdity to convey aspects of human thought which are difficult to articulate and are better understood on a primal, subconscious level. 

Cycles of abuse play a key role in the thematic messaging of the film, where characters question the nature of violence and struggle to maintain optimism that such cycles can be overcome. Certain elements undercut these relatively heavy and profound themes. For one, Vaughn’s character and performance underwhelm and lack the same level of development as the visceral setpieces. On the whole, the depth of style and imagination Singh offers in worldbuilding would be nearly impossible to parallel in character development. The film world elevates the audience’s understanding of the characters; for instance, Stargher’s twisted mindscape effortlessly demonstrates his conflicts without the aid of dialogue. Similarly, Lopez’ performance succeeds for me not in terms of writing or acting, but more so due to how she is presented. The role of Catherine serves as a monument of passion and care to foil Stargher’s confusion and guilt; she serves the film’s theme that people of all ages continue to carry pieces of their former, child selves. The sincerity of this message brings a tender melodrama which some viewers may find trite, and ultimately uncanny in its contrast to the brutality of the bulk of the film.

As a horror film, the characters fall secondary to the visual aesthetics and effects. Luscious shot composition and scenery contribute to several unforgettable sequences. At the same time, several dated computer effects provide novel reminders of the era during which the film was produced. The subconscious setting of certain sequences often serves as adequate excuse for the inclusion of strange visuals such as a particular scene with a female bodybuilder and another with a dismembered horse. Yet overall, the film’s world brims with color, iconic set design, make-up, hairstyle, and delightfully ludicrous costuming. 

The diverse visuals coupled with an intensely intimate psychological study cause the film to oscillate between captivating and alienating audiences. Scenes of grotesque BDSM setpieces, replete with body mutilation horror, unfold outside of the character’s mind, while internally they face an Alice in Wonderland collection of oddities and horrors. The Cell so effectively portrays dualities using pathos over logos to communicate and justify both love and trauma-led hatred, beautiful dreams and sick nightmares. Few horror films, in my opinion, penetrate to such a psychological depth as The Cell, where, in posing questions regarding motivations for human behavior, the film’s only answers are further questions. The Cell stimulates viewers’ imaginations and asks audiences to embrace childhood pleasures. In capturing and identifying the unfamiliarity which humans have with their own psyches, The Cell presents the mind as a foreign and unpredictable world full of terror.

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