It's not very often a film comes across my review table that competently mixes arthouse and horror to create a truly gruelling, yet visually astounding and otherworldly experience. Spanish director Augusti Villaronga's 1986 masterpiece Tras El Cristal (commonly known by its English title, In A Glass Cage) is undoubtedly one of these films. And after viewing this magnum opus of a film, I'm ashamed to admit that I was unfamiliar with Villaronga's work for so many years of my life. Thus, I'd like to thank Nico at Cult Epics for presenting me with the opportunity to check this one out.
Villaronga holds nothing back right from the start, as the film opens in a crumbling, abandoned building where an ex-Nazi sadistic named Klaus (Gunter Meisner) tortures a naked boy and takes pictures of his wounded body before killing him. After taking his final pleasure from the boy, Klaus begins to feel the overwhelming guilt his actions have caused and attempts suicide by hurling himself from the roof. Unfortunately for him, he fails. Fast forward a few months later, Klaus is now paralyzed from the neck down and confined to an iron lung as a result of his fall. He is ministered to by his increasingly unhappy wife, Griselda (Marisa Paredes), and their daughter Rena (Gisèle Echevarría).
One day, their routine is disrupted by the sudden arrival of Angelo (David Sust), a strange, handsome young man who's intent on becoming a caregiver for Klaus, and for reasons unknown to Griselda and Rena, Klaus insists should be hired. It's worth noting that Griselda has no idea that Klaus is a former Nazi doctor who killed hundreds of innocent boys while experimenting on them during his time in a concentration camp. A perverse relationship develops between Angelo and Klaus, becoming ever more macabre as Angelo reveals he has found diaries detailing his employer's war-time activities. Words turn to deeds, Klaus's shame turns once again to desire, and a new spate of killings begin.
In A Glass Cage is commonly mentioned in the same company as films like Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo, or 120 Days Of Sodom and Gasper Noe’s Irreversible, and with good reason, as all of these films share a similar sensibility. Difficult and punishing to watch? You bet. But there’s no denying that these confrontational films are expertly made despite their legitimately disturbing content. Although, as someone who's seen both Salo and Irreversible, I can say In A Glass Cage packs much more of an emotional punch that'll leave many viewers reeling long after witnessing it, myself included. The final act in particular reaches levels of unbearable tension.
In A Glass Cage is an uneasy watch because of its deadly serious subject matter and all too realistic look at the darkest and most vile corners of the human heart. It's also an extremely impressive film aesthetically speaking, as Villaronga shows impeccable ability to make full use of setting, light and shadow, creating an uneasy and dark atmosphere that rivals Dario Argento's best work. The film's performances deserve much of the same praise. Meisner is phenomenal as the paralyzed ex-Nazi who is slowly dying in his "glass cage". Paredes and Echevarría also deliver memorable performances as the depressed wife on the edge of a mental breakdown and as the daughter caught in between respectively. The film as a whole, however, belongs to Sust, whose character is unequivocally the embodiment of pure evil. In fact, the performances are so strong you'll question just who you should have sympathy for, as everyone is guilty of something, yet they're all victims to the cycle of abuse passed on throughout the film. The mesmerizing and utterly convincing performances from In A Glass Cage's entire cast also really help give the film maximum staying power.
Harrowing and often very sad, In A Glass Cage is almost completely devoid of any graphic content, but it's far more damaging to the psyche than any "torture porn" or gore film out there. There isn't a drop of sensationalism in it and Villaronga makes no attempt whatsoever to downplay the shocking content, Of course, this is why the film works, it crosses into dangerously controversial territory as its story progresses, but it does so in such a mature and professional way that it's as captivating as it is horrifying. In A Glass Cage is a true psychological terror of a film about the malevolence that can live within real people and a superb example of extreme cinema done right.
Cult Epics Blu-ray release features a stunning new HD restoration with a generous amount of extra content to help contextualize this tragically, hypnotizing film. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080p transfer, the new restoration looks absolutely magnificent with black and contrast levels looking consistently great, details are crisp, and there are no problems with compression. If you've ever seen In A Glass Cage in the past, trust me, you've never seen it look this good!
There are two audio tracks on this Blu-ray disc: Spanish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Spanish DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Both tracks are in great shape, as dialog is clear throughout, everything sounds balanced and there are no recognizable sync issues or distortions. Also, Cult Epics have provided optional English subtitles for the main feature, which also appear to be error-free.
Extra features include a featurette entitled "Exorcism Of Agusti Villaronga" in which the director discusses the main inspirations behind In A Glass Cage being Gilles de Rais and the concentration camps of World War II. He also talks about how the deliberate visual look of the film was inspired by Belgian paintings and the film's message, among other topics. Spanish actor Lluís Homar, who dubbed Günter Meisner, also recalls his contribution to the film and what it was like working with Villaronga. Actress Marina Gatell, who worked with Villaronga on his latest film, Black Bread, also shares her thoughts on the film and its message.
Next up is a Q & A session with Villaronga filmed at Lincoln Center, New York City, on December 11th, 2010. The director speaks in Spanish with an interpreter at his side to translate his answers into English. Villaronga answers various questions about the film's disturbing narrative, the controversy that followed its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, and many of the same topics covered in the previous featurette. Rounding out the extras are a trailer for the feature and three early short films from Villaronga. All three shorts are sourced from VHS tapes, they're very avant garde in nature and deal heavily with religion. You can Villaronga's style evolving through these early works before In A Glass Cage, his debut feature film.
Overall, this release is incredible! Cult Epics offer up Villaronga’s acclaimed film with impressive audio and video quality and a handful of new, informative features. The film itself is an experience like no other, a beautifully lensed but unyieldingly savage film that really gets under your skin. If you think you've got the stomach for it, I can't recommend In A Glass Cage enough! Stay tuned for my review of Augusti Villaronga's 1989 adult fantasy Moon Child.