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Distorted Perceptions: The Avant-garde Silent Landscape of “A Page of Madness”

A Page of Madness (1926), dir. Teinosuke Kinugasa, is a mesmerising Japanese psychological avant-garde masterpiece exploring the oscillation between reality and fantasy through a distinctive, unsettling cinematic approach. The film was part of a broader context of Japanese avant-garde works created during Japan’s interwar period (1918-1941), when Japanese artistic expressions, as exemplified through poetry and other art forms, were influenced by European modernist and avant-garde art, exploring themes such as political repression, technology, and censorship through a mix of erotic, grotesque, and nonsensical depictions.

Set within the confining walls of a mental institution in Japan, the narrative primarily centres on a janitor haunted by the guilt of his past and struggling with acceptance whilst working to care for his institutionalised wife and grappling with his own emerging fantasies. Through a mixture of striking visuals, dream sequences, and silent storytelling, Kinugasa creates an unsettling cinematic experience that delves into themes of guilt, mental illness, and the fragility of human mind.

The film was also closely linked with the modernist literary group, shinkankakuha (New Perception school), as the screenplay was derived from consultations with several members of this group. One of the founders of the group, Riichi Yokomitsu, wrote “The phenomenon of perception for Shinkankakuha is, to put it briefly, the direct, intuitive sensation of a subjectivity that peels away the naturalised exterior aspects and leaps into the thing itself.”

Both Kinugasa’s films and the shinkankakuha focus on the concept of sense perception: A Page of Madness is characterised by its distinctive use of narrative and visual techniques, such as rapid montage sequences, multiple exposures, and lens distortions, as well as eerie painted sets and stylised lighting reminiscent of German Expressionism, to delve into the abnormal sensory experiences and perceptions of inmates in the asylum. The portrayal of mental illness reflects a tendency to transcend traditional, naturalistic depictions, in a way that also raised deep questions about societal perceptions of mental illness during the time.

Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922)

Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen, Häxan / Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) constitutes a mix of documentary style storytelling, essay film aspects, and gothic horror. Blurring the lines between real historical facts and fabricated narratives, Häxan provides an intriguing, partly fictionalised and dramatised depiction of witchcraft through history. Concerned with socio-cultural, ideological, political, medical, and religious frameworks, the film supports the idea that the mass hysteria associated with witch hunts and Satanic possession during the medieval era can be attributed to misconceptions regarding mental disorders. An exploration of myth and religion at the crossroads between the hallucinatory and the real, the film features macabre images of torture, sacrifice, and satanic rituals.  “Chronologically specific and anachronistically out-of-joint” (Doty and Ingham 2014), Häxan provides modernised re-enactments of the medieval phenomenon of witch hunts, whilst conflating different time periods in its unique approach. The witches include “unhinged” nuns, widows, and temptresses. In some cultures, pregnancy and menstruation were associated with witchcraft and magical powers, reinforcing the process of viewing femininity as the ‘other’. These mystical powers were thought to have a dual nature, with the capacity of being both nurturing and destructive. The underlying film commentary regarding religion is compatible with the medical discourses focusing on the reasons why certain individuals are drawn towards mysticism and the occult or experience the presence of unknown forces. The sequences including the figure of the stereotypical broomstick-riding witch and the portrayal of grotesque devils, demonic orgies, and other hellish motifs, reveal a glimpse into the irrational mindset of those influenced by fear-instilling, religious superstitions.

Dead Ringers (1988): The Uncanny Double – Narcissistic Symbiosis

Let’s celebrate David Cronenberg’s birthday by immersing ourselves in the uncanny, gruesome, and occasionally dreamlike psychological horror universe of Dead Ringers (1988). As the master of the Body Horror genre, Cronenberg always intertwines physical collapse with psychological disintegration in a way that unsettles the psyche. All of this is simultaneous with the unfolding of his characteristic fascination with the human body and the ghastly ways in which it can be corrupted for the purpose of symbolically exploring themes of alienation, repressed fears, and the mind-body duality.

The uncanny theme of the double is hypnotically crystallised through the dual role of Jeremy Irons, who plays Beverly and Elliot, twins with the same profession and sources of distress, as well as substantial character differences and taste. Irons manages to breathe life into two striking gynaecologists with an unusual bond, offering an impressive, complex portrayal of each character’s dynamic inner and outer self as they eventually spiral down into psychological disintegration and insanity. It is even more impressive taking into account the psychopathology of the twins, who exhibit tendencies compatible with narcissism and covert narcissism. The actor’s brilliance is essential: Whilst to other characters the twins have to sometimes appear indistinguishable from each other (making it possible for them to present themselves as the other in some situations), as a viewer, you have to perceive their separate external traits and mannerisms – and you often do, even if they can be very subtle at times, reflected in slight gestures.

“Pain creates character distortion.” Bev is a tortured, anxious, neurotic, research-obsessed spirit who does all the behind-the-scenes work, whilst Elliot is the sociable, arrogant, emotionally detached twin who takes care of their public image. Elliot has a polished, outwardly narcissistic persona beneath which one can find both pity and fascination for Bev’s raw self, who is consumed by his addictions. At the same time, there are mutual signs of human feelings of jealousy within their transcendental, paradoxically narcissistic love for each other. Their psychological configuration can be linked with trauma-induced hysteria, their underlying motivation being the challenging pursuit of wholeness, of single unity. There is a duality in terms of their desire for symbiosis which clashes with their desire for detachment from the other. Their mutual interest Claire’s body becomes the maternal body, the third uncanny “other” which houses the twins in Beverly’s Siamese nightmare – a scene revealing his anxiety at the haunting thought of separation from his brother, but also from the womb. The ‘abnormal’ nature of the womb, which represents a fascinating and tantalising pull for the gynaecologists, also becomes a source of unease, due to Bev’s displacement of his dread of separation and symbolic castration onto the female body.

Bev’s disturbing uncanny dream reflects the uncanny, intimate connection of the twins – which is sometimes attributed mystical connotations. There is a mutual understanding and undefined fear between them, which reflects the fear of the unknown, of the other. Elliot strangely adds that “Whatever’s in his bloodstream goes directly into mine. […] Beverly and I just have to get synchronised. Once we’re synchronised, it’ll be easy.” Everything feels safe as long as their connection is predictable. In the end, in a way that aligns with tendencies in narcissistic relating, their personality morphs into the other, and inner chaos is unleashed, which leads to annihilation of the Other – as well as a symbolic self-annihilation. Bev seems to have absorbed Elliot’s personality- destroying him can be interpreted as an act of possession and of both self-love and self-loathing. The subtext of the narrative revolves around the integration of the other, as a solution following the rejection of the identification with the reflection of inner parts that have been alienated.

By embracing the grotesque through his characteristic film genre, Cronenberg reaches beyond the flesh towards a corruption of the spirit in a traumatic process of unravelling. Although the cold, clinical approach of the film can be alienating for some viewers, its unsettling subject matter, medical setting, and provocative narrative are effective in producing strong responses, whilst allowing space for fascination.

A glimpse of Annihilation (2018): The Uncanny Within

After the success of his intense directorial debut, Ex Machina, Alex Garland creates a cinematic adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s first book from the Southern Reach TrilogyAnnihilation. The sci-fi thriller turns out to be a visually stunning exploration into the unknown, which in this case borrows the form of the enigmatic ‘Shimmer’, a disquieting yet alluring foreign veil encompassing a part of the Earth, Area X – ceaselessly expanding and threatening to swallow the whole world.

The film opening reveals Lena, the protagonist, a biologist portrayed by the enigmatic, detached Natalie Portman who appears disoriented while being interrogated about the expedition and its survivors. The next scene introduces us for a brief moment to the desolate landscape surrounding the lighthouse, which is mysteriously related to the powerful alien presence the film revolves around. The lighthouse becomes a symbol, the connection with another world, with something uncanny, just like the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

The eerie and toxic beauty of the scenery from Area X echoes the dystopian “Zone” depicted in the well-known sci-fi, Stalker (1979), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Similarly, just as the Zone proves to be a philosophical journey, the Area X expedition also symbolises an exploration inwards, and eventually, a disintegration of identity – an idea poetically alluded to through the words uttered by the psychologist in a crucial intense scene towards the end: “Unfathomable mind: now beacon, now sea.”, quoting Samuel Beckett.

There are many alluring elements contributing to the immersive nature of the film and its fascinating uncanniness: The alien presence of an ambiguous nature, strange, nightmarish mutations, a symbiotic connection and the fear of being assimilated into something terrifying, blurred lines between self and other, the process of doubling, the tension, the eerie, magnetic atmosphere, gripping narrative, philosophical, introspective discourse, and compelling body horror imagery consisting in familiar elements depicted in a sinister, macabre way.

A geomorphologist, a paramedic, a physicist, a biologist, and a psychologist enter the Shimmer seeking answers and, whilst they encounter biological anomalies, beauty and decay, and a lot of unanswerable questions, we are encouraged to wonder what really lies beyond their (and our) human drive to enter the unknown, as well as how the uncanny encountered outwards echoes the uncanny within each of them.

Here are a few haunting excerpts from the eponymous book by Jeff VanderMeer. Among other thematic concerns, the book is also focused on environmental themes and metaphors for the conflict between nature and culture. VanderMeer alludes to the relationship between human beings and planet Earth, which can also be viewed through a lens of contamination. He emphasises the idea that nature should be treated as a part of us, just as we are part of nature; for if we dismiss it, we become alienated from a part of ourselves, of our humanness.

The following excerpts are amazingly reflective of the concept of the uncanny:

The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonise you.”

“I believed that it might be pulling these different impressions of itself from my mind and projecting them back at me, as a form of camouflage. To thwart the biologist in me, to frustrate the logic left in me.

“A day that had the clarity of dream, of something strange yet familiar – familiar routine but strange calmness.”

“And what had manifested? What do I believe manifested? Think of it as a thorn, perhaps, a long, thick thorn so large it is buried deep in the side of the world. Injecting itself into the world. Emanating from this giant thorn is an endless, perhaps automatic, need to assimilate and to mimic. Assimilator and assimilated interact through the catalyst of a script of words, which powers the engine of transformation. Perhaps it is a creature living in perfect symbiosis with a host of other creatures. Perhaps it is “merely” a machine. But in either instance, if it has intelligence, that intelligence is far different from our own. It creates out of our ecosystem a new world, whose processes and aims are utterly alien—one that works through supreme acts of mirroring, and by remaining hidden in so many other ways, all without surrendering the foundations of its otherness as it becomes what it encounters.”

“[…] Imagine these expeditions, and then recognise that they all still exist in Area X in some form, even the ones that came back, especially the ones that came back: layered over one another, communicating in whatever way is left to them. Imagine that this communication sometimes lends a sense of the uncanny to the landscape because of the narcissism of our human gaze, but that it is just part of the natural world here. I may never know what triggered the creation of the doppelgangers, but it may not matter.”

“The strange quality of the light upon this habitat, the stillness of it all, the sense of waiting, brought me halfway to a kind of ecstasy.”

― Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation”

Nosferatu: subverting the myth of the romanticised vampire and embodying the human desire for the uncanny

There are two cinematic masterpieces depicting Nosferatu: Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), a German expressionist film adaptation of Dracula, and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), dir. by Werner Herzog, a remake of Murnau’s version of the vampire story. Nosferatu is a subversion of the myth of Dracula. Whilst in Bram Stoker’s writing and in most cinematic depictions over time the Count is romanticised and generally portrayed as an elegant, rich, estranged and antisocial aristocratic count, hence an eerily human figure, Murnau’s Count Orlok is anything but elegant: much more animalistic and frightening-looking, he has a cadaverous rat-like appearance, and hands with claws that are usually held up in a bestial threatening way. Despite all this, Orlok is not as evil or cruel as Stoker’s Dracula- he is, instead, depicted as an alienated weakened creature living in a place in ruins. Herzog takes this concept even further, making the repulsive creature become more pitiful than scary. The face of immortality is no longer glamorous and glorified- it’s shown as unappealing and sometimes comically repugnant.

The animalistic features of Nosferatu are supposed to establish an association with the Natural rather than the Supernatural. Despite his unearthly powers, emphasised through special effects including superimposition, negative shots, and sped-up images, he should not be completely separated from the natural, rational world. He is less calculated and not as consciously sadistic as Dracula, who manifests a wicked pleasure in torturing Harker. An illustrative instance is when he tells him he is free to leave the castle if he wants- yet when he tries to do so, he is surrounded by wolves whilst Dracula’s cruel satisfaction is shown. According to Jonathan’s description in the book, Dracula is a cruel-looking old man (gradually rejuvenating), emanating the elegance of an elderly person. There is no blatant sexuality in his character, as he is not the lascivious gallant of other cinematic interpretations of vampires; yet there is a more subtle deadly sensuality in the passivity he induces in women. Since he is not constant in appearance, his sexual character is weakened, while his deathly nature is emphasised: when he feeds upon his preys, his body rejuvenates, reminding us of the theme of human mortality. Count Orlok’s image, on the other hand, is completely removed from any idea of sensuality and regeneration, being closer to a beast than the romanticised figure of the vampire.

As far as other characters are concerned, their numbers and roles are generally reduced in Nosferatu: Throughout the cinematic story, the male characters are either unimportant or completely eliminated from the plot. Whereas in the novel the men play an important role in defending womanhood and removing the threat, the film transfers the agency to the woman, who ultimately dies. This distinction between the literary and the cinematic work stems from the different outlooks of their creators. Thematically, Bram Stoker wanted to depict a fight between two human systems, between science and myth, good and evil, symbolised by the normal middle class (the band of virtuous, equal men and chaste women with their domestic, civilised ideals) versus the world of Dracula (the arrogant estranged and antisocial aristocratic count who controls the dark creatures and the alluring women). Order is inevitably re-established through the happy Victorian ending showing the triumph of the bourgeois family. As opposed to that, Herzog reflects Murnau’s version of the story which was influenced by his German expressionist pessimism and lack of faith in the social scheme of the bourgeoisie, reflected by the tragic ending.

The theme of Nosferatu is psychological rather than social: it is more about the dualistic nature of humans, about the good and evil inside all of us. In Murnau’s work, this idea is reinforced by replacing female sexual dichotomy with female sexual ambivalence. From a Kracaueresque perspective, it reflects the German obsession with the dark forces integrated in our rational world. The contrast between chastity and sexuality is present in the book through female vampirism, whereas, in Nosferatu, this ambivalence is accomplished in the representation of Ellen as being both repulsed and subconsciously attracted to Nosferatu. A scene which reflects Ellen’s ambivalent character is when she awakens during the night, calling out and making Nosferatu withdraw from Hutter’s body. Beside the process of identification between her and the Count, the viewer also gets the ironic impression that Ellen reaches out for Nosferatu, not for Hutter, due to the cross-cutting showing the reactions of the two of them consecutively.

The elimination of female vampirism in Murnau’s adaptation is part of a purposeful process of displacement, just as Van Helsing’s simplified role is. Unlike the active patriarchal figure who uses hypnosis to help Mina remembers and interpret what she sees, Nosferatu’s Van Helsing or Prof. Bulwer, is only present in order to lecture on natural vampirism (the study of the Venus flytrap). This reinforces the idea that the phenomenon of Nosferatu should be seen, metaphorically, as a part of (human) nature. This is also relevant because it forces the woman to act, subverting gender roles. The main female character, Lucy, who is often found in a state of agony induced by night terrors, displays agency. She realises that the source of death is not the plague, and after vain attempts to convince the others, she sacrifices herself to lure and destroy evil. Ellen’s actions, however, are impulsive and based on superstition rather than science. Science has a merely theoretical role in the film; it is not enough in the process of understanding and explaining human nature. Initially, the Wisborg inhabitants do not question the occurrence of the plague- they are unaware of the undead and treat the event as a natural one. As a result, the horror of the vampire is replaced by isolation and acceptance of the threat.

There are some binary oppositions that remain present in Nosferatu, namely the contrast between the West and the East, between the familiar and the uncanny, between science and mysticism, between self and the ‘other’. At the beginning of Nosferatu, we see Hutter and Ellen revelling in the domestic bliss of their him, smiling and playing with kittens; by contrast, later on, Nosferatu’s dwelling proves to be very inhuman and barbaric. Whilst the classical binary oppositions are frequent in western culture, what is special about these stories, and about the horror genre in general, is the importance of the supposed area in between- the twilight zone. Due to his corporeal insubstantiality and the appearance he maintains, Dracula is not easy to categorise. The vampire is a phantom, a figure of inconstant substance, as opposed to a recognised monster (such as Shelley’s monster). Nosferatu is also given a ghostly appearance and presence by means of superimpositions and the magnified shadows on the walls. Nosferatu’s spectral nature may be a sign of self-reflexivity employed by Murnau: Actors also become ghost-like when they are projected on screen. The technique of self-reflexivity is a characteristic of German Expressionism.

While Dracula portrays a struggle between types and an external conflict between good and evil, ending with the triumph of the civilised over the alienated and the visceral, Nosferatu’s story remains carved in ambiguity. Nosferatu is trapped between the land of reason and the land of the supernatural; his figure symbolises the duality of human nature. The film speaks about the world within us, the world of repressed fears of mortality and desires for the uncanny. Count Orlok stands for “haunting dreams that will climb forth from your heart and feed on your blood”, as mentioned in the first tiles of the film.

Marie-poupée (1976): life-like dolls and fetishism

Marie-poupée (1976), dir. by Joël Séria, is a problematic, subversive French psychosexual drama with horror undertones, tackling the lurid, uncomfortable subject of fetishism and sexual repression. A seemingly ordinary mundane situation takes an uncanny, subtly disturbing turn as the naive, delusional young woman with a doll-like appearance falls pray to dark impulses associated with male fantasies. The archetype of the virginal ingénue is taken to sinister extremes in this gripping depiction of an emotionally stunted lifelike doll with a limited view of sexuality, who is only just starting to feel physical cravings.

The two male figures in Marie’s life are the cold, passionless, eccentric doll collector, who deprives her of actual intimacy and a predatory man driven by his carnal desires, who ends up raping her. The doll shop owner’s odd obsession with dolls and his treatment of the girl as a fragile porcelain doll is a condemnation of objectification and its ‘othering’ process. Marie is overly sweet, but with a dose of unhealthy submissiveness, a simplistic discourse, and a weirdness in her psychological make-up that goes beyond quirkiness. Without implying absolution for the fetishistic freakiness of the main male character or guilt for the mental state of the young woman who has the psychological configuration of a child, the story seems to promote the law of attraction- the protagonist presents herself like a doll (this extends well beyond fashion style as there’s nothing wrong with kawaii style)- and is in a relationship with a man who is obsessed with dolls and is fascinated with her solely due to her resemblance with an inanimate toy.

Their outlandish marital situation starts off as a fairy tale from her point of view: she is surrounded by beautiful things and dollhouse decor, she is spoilt and offered attention. Too unaware to perceive the peculiarity of their relationship dynamic, it all seems fine to her until it doesn’t, as she starts feeling something is off, without being able to tell what that is. The couple plays games, which would sound endearing if they weren’t creepy and one-sided, with her being an object of affection admired and taken care of in a state of detachment, thus being denied sensual touch. Whether it’s due to seeing her as pure and innocent and thus being influenced by the Madonna-whore complex or due to the particular nature of his paraphilic fantasy, her husband wants to possess her like an object, a doll, without indulging his sexual desires; there is no consummation. His physical touch during bathing scenes is clinical and cold. Naturally, her sexuality is awakened and she starts having physical cravings, inevitably seeking warmth and satisfaction in another man’s presence.

Ultimately, we can ponder about the message behind this artsy, cinematic exaggeration and the strange core dynamic: perhaps the young woman’s odd behaviour alludes to the idea of female self-objectification, the feminist take on the dangers of female passivity and lack of agency, which can lead one to turn into a pretty, calcified shell without a voice, trapped in the confines of a claustrophobic, dysfunctional marital situation. On a similar note, perhaps it’s an accusation of the idealisation of childish behaviour, of the appeal of virginity, the fetishisation of sexual innocence, of the docile, pristine girl archetype, of inexperience, and the idea of “purity”. Marie doesn’t seem to assume the embodiment of a doll and mimicry of overly sweet, childish behaviour in order to please. Her childish demeanour, emotional impairment, and little depth of character are a product of a tragic event from her past, therefore a feminist reading of her behaviour as a warning for women performing for the male gaze might be reaching beyond the scope of the film. Perhaps it is indirectly more judgmental of the concern with establishing an image of perfection or latching onto innocence – one’s identity, rather than persona.

Male sexual repression is another theme in the story, but the form it takes in the main relationship dynamic and the way it plays out doesn’t seem to be compatible with reality in the sense of making a statement on a wider issue, as this type of paraphilia is not often encountered and the sexual elements don’t seep through in an obvious way. Perhaps the point is using this mental disorder to illustrate the effects of and condemn the tendency for objectification. And yet, separating this aspect from the context of sexual acts makes it less relatable and subversive, and more of a case study of particularly mentally damaged people. To paint a different picture, we also have another male character who briefly exemplifies a more common side to the dangers of objectification and dehumanisation, this time overtly sexual, in the image of a man who ends up physically abusing her. On another note, the film also makes reference to female sexual awakening and the necessity to explore sexuality, to harness and access its power, drifting away from innocence, towards a full life. Perhaps this is less obvious, as it wasn’t done in a cliché way by blessing the protagonist with a transcendental sexual experience that elevates her consciousness, but it was a motivating factor leading her to escape her limiting domestic condition, her half life, despite her tragic demise. This extends beyond sexuality, as Marie didn’t experience other real types of intimacy and connection either: her conversations with her husband and the people around her lack depth. The end was not a punishment. As echoed through the words at the end, “she died from being a doll”. The message could be one encouraging action: it’s better to be truly alive or die trying rather than being dead whilst alive.

Whilst the film’s subject matter might seem sinister, the way in which it’s depicted on screen is quite subtle, and the pleasant, soft, diaphanous aesthetic contributes to its pretty disguise, as it all looks like a beautiful silky pastel dream. If this film was a Tumblr blog, it would be your typical soft angelcore / pastel princess dollhouse aesthetic blog. It matches the vibe with its pretty interior design, soft pastel lace & silk fashion, and subtle strangeness with a touch of horror.


Psychological horror films set in the fashion world: The Neon Demon (2016) and Helter Skelter (2012)

The Neon Demon (2016), directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is a surreal hyper-stylised psychological horror film unveiling a dark satire of the fashion industry. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, who epitomises the trope of the pure, genuine, angelic character entering a wicked world filled with artificial, soulless, manufactured characters, and becoming tainted by her surroundings. Meanwhile, everything spirals out of control and eventually down into the macabre and the gruesome.

The hallucinatory and grotesque spectacle is shown through a slick fashion commercial aesthetic, accompanied by fitting synth sounds and little dialogue, as the film relies on its bewitching atmosphere. Many parallels can be drawn between Refn’s film and the stylish Japanese psychological horror film, Helter Skelter (2012), which was potentially a source of inspiration: they are both bloody, visually stunning, surreal, satirical reflections on the artificiality of the fashion world. They even share torn out eyeballs – the difference being The Neon Demon goes all the way when one character eats a regurgitated eyeball, in one of the many scenes alluding to the theme of women devouring each other and destroying themselves in pursuit of beauty-based fame. The shock value of The Neon Demon is continuously impactful, with elements ranging from self-mutilation and absurd knife fights to cannibalism and necrophilia.

The ghastly, sickening acts and soft gore visuals are mixed with beautiful, compelling imagery and a glamorous style in such a harmonious way, as if purposely trying to make it hard for viewers to be grossed out; instead, the viewer is under a spell, watching the unfolding of a disturbingly strange dream.

The majority of criticism the film has been subjected to revolves around it being shallow, reductive, objectifying, offensive, form over content. However, the film is clearly self-reflective in the sense that it’s a critique of the things it depicts and the things it exaggerates to an absurd degree. Sometimes the subtext eludes viewers because the film might appear to revel in its own madness and in the culture it condemns, but, in the end, every viewer perceives it differently. The Neon Demon is hypnotic and compelling with its gripping atmosphere, its dual aesthetic- incorporating both the glamorously exquisite and the macabre, and its bewildering dream sequences.

Based on the Japanese exploitative psychological horror manga by Kyoko Okazaki, Helter Skelter (2012), directed by Mika Ninagawa, is a disturbing hyperstylised surreal drama depicting the chaotic life of manufactured superstar Lilico, who navigates the dark side of the fashion world. What lurks beyond the glamorous facade is portrayed as not only sad, but grim, and merging with the macabre. Whilst Lilico gradually delves into psychotic delusions, the film touches upon notions of transience, artificiality, the impact of stardom and its correlation with mental state deterioration, the identification of the self purely with the image and the (fluctuating and inevitably fading) success of the image, and the consequent predictable corruption of the soul.

Lilico, played by suitably controversial Erika Sawajiri, is an influential and highly appreciated Japanese supermodel whose beautiful appearance permeates the news, magazines, and minds of Japanese teenage girls who look up to and aspire to be her – or the idea of her. Behind the scenes and the smiles, she embodies a clear case of narcissistic personality disorder, her existence solely dictated by an insatiable ego which is fed by fame and dependent on the recognition of her physical beauty and success. In some ways, her life seems to be a heavenly dream that she just grows tired of: she is always found either revelling or agonising in aesthetic, lurid, and shiny surroundings, around people who satisfy her every whim. She lives in an alluring, luxurious, decadent place, where the colour palette is dominated by red, the vividness of the decor being reminiscent of Argento’s classic, Suspiria (1977).

Jaded, tragically cynical, shallow, and malicious, Lilico ends up being a toxic presence in the lives of the few people in her proximity, constantly undermining and treating her assistant harshly despite her blind devotion, and trying to sabotage others’ happiness. Her self-centred, vitriolic demeanour is counteracted by moments of vulnerability in which she drowns in her own dramatic sadness, as depicted in explicit shots finding her collapsed and lying motionless on the floor. Lilico is unhinged, oscillating between feeling on top of the world, completely apathetic, in total agony, and at times terrifyingly psychotic. The psychotic episodes unfold like visually stunning, distorted psychedelic nightmares, featuring blood rain, optical illusions, and ominous butterflies.

When another model enters the picture and seems to steal the spotlight, threatening her goddess status with her presence, Lilico is faced with the acute awareness of the flimsy quality of the fashion industry. Consumed by feelings of helplessness and resentment, she wants to destroy the new star, Kozue Yoshikawa, despite acknowledging the inherent ephemeral nature of modelling careers and the hunt for newness. However, since her numerous cosmetic surgeries are taking their toll as the clinic she went to is accused of suspicious conduct in their treatments, Lilico’s physical health diminishes and she ends up destroying herself and performing a shocking act in front of a myriad of cameras pointed at her- an act which, of course, involves the eyes.

Aesthetically, Helter Skelter is a hypnotic feast for the senses, which is unsurprising considering the director of the film is Mika Ninagawa, who has a background in commercial photography and a lurid, vividly-coloured signature photographic style. The message is transparent in this twisted, grotesque, yet highly aesthetic spectacle, namely a poignant and compelling critique of the fashion world, its objectifying nature, and the concept of stardom which encourages the cultivation of appearance over essence. The protagonist displays a perfect, glamourous, appealing image out into the world, whilst being rotten on the inside- both mentally and physically. Lilico is unequivocally damned, however not entirely responsible for her own damnation.

Melancholia (2011) – the visually striking overture, an eerie dreamscape & an exquisite cinematic symphony of death

The opening sequence of Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier), a collection of gloomy, surreal, painting-resembling, slow-motion shots, is an insidious introduction to the themes of this compelling cinematic symphony of death and destruction. What completes the eerie dreamscape is the exquisite, haunting piece of music by Wagner – the Prelude to the tragic opera Tristan und Isolde, which magnifies the sorrow depicted in the shots and throughout the whole film. The film and the opera both exhibit the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, revolving around unhappiness, death, and painful, unfulfilled human yearning. The nocturnal landscape, the Realm of the Night from Wagner’s opera, symbolically stands for the realm of hidden truth; and the only escape or redemption from a world perceived as evil and relentlessly suffering, is spiritual release, death, hence Justine’s morbid Ophelia moment and the early appearance of the destructive planet, “Melancholia”. The deadly planet, with its suggestive name, is a metaphor most beautifully conveyed visually when Justine, the perpetually despondent and apathetic bride, bathes naked in its light and is shown yearning for its life-threatening touch, on the same musical notes from the Prelude. Death appears in other forms in von Trier’s haunting cinematic overture as well, such as the striking nightmarish image of the dead birds falling from the sky in the background whilst Justine’s cold blank face is shown in a close-up shot; or the horse collapsing backwards in bleak surroundings. Another memorable surreal image is that of a fascinated Justine staring at her fingertips as they seem to be connected to the bolts of lightning.

Within the themes and the atmosphere of Melancholia, we can also find echoes of Wagner’s own beautifully dark poetic words about Tristan und Isolde, once again resonating with Schopenhauer’s philosophy. He describes the tragic story as “a tale of endless yearning, longing, the bliss and wretchedness of love; world, power, fame, honour, chivalry, loyalty, and friendship all blown away like an insubstantial dream; one thing left living – longing, longing unquenchable, a yearning, a hunger, a languishing forever renewing itself; one sole redemption – death, finality, a sleep without awakening…”

Lurid Cult Horror Films – Fascination, The Beyond, and Videodrome

Fascination (1979), dir. by Jean Rollin, is an artful, aesthetically-pleasing erotic Gothic horror film situated between arthouse and grindhouse. Rollin tends to be associated with the sexploitation genre, whilst being recognised for the surreal dark fantasy style of his lyrical, tantalising, elegant, and atmospheric films which merge sensuality with visual poetry.
Fascination’s opening scene takes place in 1905 in an abattoir where seemingly ordinary French women drink ox blood, considered a cure for anaemia at the time. Despite this bizarre moment and the fact that, as one of the ethereal vampire girls picks up a scythe, the film appears to progress into the slasher realm, Fascination is soft compared to other gore films, and not as surreal or bewildering as other Rollin films. The little gore that appears in the film is almost elegantly depicted.
Fascination is shot in a ghostly sinister castle surrounded by mist and emptiness. A thief ends up hiding in the chateau, where he finds two enigmatic nymph-like angelic-looking young women all alone, Eva and Elizabeth. They initially seem to be easy prey, but there is something unsettling about them, and it turns out they are actually part of a cult of aristocratic vampires.

The Beyond (1981) is a surreal cult horror film with Southern Gothic echoes, directed by Lucio Fulci, who is known as “The Godfather of Gore”. When Liza decides to renovate her newly-inherited dilapidated hotel, the activity triggers a series of mysterious deaths. It is revealed that the hotel is built over one of the seven portals to Hell, which was activated by the renovation. The violent darkness of the film unfolds in an unsettling combination of supernatural events, visceral graphic scenes featuring tarantulas and ghastly rotten zombie flesh, and uncanny silhouettes haunting empty houses. Towards the end, the afterlife is painted as an eerie wasteland filled with corpses. The film exhibits a chaotic dreamlike atmosphere mixed with gruesome visuals and otherworldly sounds.

The Uncanny appears in many shapes and forms. Lurid, erotic, provocative, disturbing, hallucinatory, and grotesque are a few words you can use to describe David Cronenberg’s famous body horror film, Videodrome (1983), a sinister commentary on the sadomasochistic consumerist nature of our society & the pervasiveness and intrusiveness of technology. Cronenberg approached this theme in the 80s, yet it becomes increasingly relevant in time. Videodrome is a TV show featuring violent acts of punishment with sexual undertones tailored to an audience belonging to the age of over-stimulation. Marked by his girlfriend’s disappearance after auditioning for the show, Max explores the Videodrome phenomenon, finding out that the line between reality and simulation is blurred. The film ends on a tragic note, including the famous cult line “Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!” uttered repetitively throughout the film like an incantation.

I Am Mother (2019): a gripping post-apocalyptic sci-fi film

I Am Mother (2019), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film directed by Grant Sputore, starts off at a slow pace, revealing the eerie routine and mother-daughter bond between an android and a human inside an enclosed, clinical ‘repopulation facility’ resembling a spaceship. Besides them, from the first shots we find out that the site contains thousands of human embryos, as Mother promises the family will extend when she is ready to raise more children. Whilst Daughter receives advanced education in various fields ranging from medicine to philosophy, everything is surrounded by an aura of mystery as the film offers little explanation for the circumstances of the “extinction event” and whatever is happening outside the facility beyond the warnings of Mother about the toxicity of the external environment. When a visitor is surreptitiously granted access to their sanctuary thanks to the rebellious and inquisitive nature of Daughter, the pace and atmosphere of the film change, and we are oscillating between the clashing words, convictions, and insidious influences of Mother and of the newcomer. The evocative performances, touching cinematography, beautiful intimacy, and the maternal bonding established in the first part of the film are powerful elements facilitating the process of empathising with the robot and being invested in their connection, which gets saddening and complicated when conflicts arise between them, when reality outside the protective bubble that Daughter has been raised in is gradually unveiled.