One of the first books to take a significant critical look at the horror genre was Ivan Butler's Horror in the Cinema, which was published as part of Paperback Library's "International Film Guide Series" in 1967. Butler was one of a few critics willing to take the genre seriously at that time, arguing that "even the commercial Horror Film itself, abused and degraded though it may often be, is a thriving country in the world of film, and at its best, made with integrity, artistry, enthusiasm and cinematic skill, is worthy of consideration and respect." From that standpoint, it is interesting to note Butler's chapter breakdown, as he divides the book among various subcategories such "The Macabre in the Silent Cinema," "Dracula and Frankenstein," and "British Horror." Several filmmakers get entire chapters dedicated to their work, including Val Lewton, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Roger Corman, but there are only two chapters of the twelve that focus on a single film: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and Roman Polanski's Repulsion, that latter of which Butler describes as "a film of such complexity and subtlety that an entire book could be written about it" (Butler never went that far, but he did write a subsequent book on Polanski).
It is hard to disagree with Butler's assessment of Polanski's sophomore feature, especially for admirers of the horror genre who recognize that so many horror films are cheap and easy, settling for simple scares and lazy gross-out moments. In the history of horror, Repulsion is a landmark, a film that helped to re-establish the primordial power of the genre and its thematic and emotional complexities. After the 1950s had turned horror into something of a joke via teen-cheapie drive-in staples and Abbott and Costello comedies, the 1960s was a decade of reinvention, starting with Psycho and culminating with Repulsion and George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), three psychologically dense, visually inventive, and thematically rich explorations of what scares us most, which always amounts to some drastic collapse of what we consider "normal."
Repulsion is in many ways the most complex and demanding of these films, particularly in the way it denies any kind of explanation for what happens during its taut 105 minutes. Rather, Polanski and his longtime co-screenwriter Gerard Brach drop us at the beginning of a psychological meltdown, which they then follow relentlessly, refusing to allow the audience a moment of respite from the addled perspective of the mentally crumbling heroine, a French-Belgian girl living in London named Carole Ledoux. Carole is played by the Catherine Deneuve, who at the time was a rising star in her native France, but was generally unknown in English-language cinema, which gives her a kind of beautiful anonymity that makes her eventual breakdown all the more shocking and perplexing. Carole, who is almost pathologically shy and reserved (not to mention sexually repressed), lives in a flat with her older sister Hlne (Yvonne Furneaux), a sultry and outgoing brunette who is engaged in an affair with a married man (Ian Hendry). When she and her boyfriend go on holiday in Italy for a week, Carole is left alone, and her mental state quickly begins to deteriorate, which Polanski depicts with riveting intensity, taking us deep inside her experience of hallucinations, paranoia, and dread.
Shot in stark black and white by Gilbert Taylor, an industry veteran who had recently shot Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) and would go on to shoot Hitchock's Frenzy (1972), as well as Star Wars (1977), Repulsion is first and foremost an intensely experiential film, bringing literal physicality to mental and emotional fissures. Polanski draws us in with an escalating cascade of sounds and images, beginning with small strange noises and the odd appearance of cracks in the walls that first-time viewers will easily dismiss. As time moves forward, marked by both growth (a pile of sprouting potatoes on the kitchen counter) and decay (a skinned rabbit slowly rotting on the table), those cracks start getting larger, and the strange sounds develop into a cacophony of what sounds like distorted human screaming. Carole is overwhelmed with images of an unseen assailant attacking her in her bed and dozens of arms materializing from the walls and groping her. When outsiders attempt to come into the apartment, including a lecherous landlord (Patrick Wymark) and a young man (John Fraser) who has been unsuccessfully trying to date Carole, her paranoia turns homicidal.
Yet, throughout the film Polanski refuses to turn Carole into a simple monster, which is why Repulsion is such a progressive horror film, one that cuts through the simple and comforting categories of good and evil. The film is frightening precisely because we are thrown directly into Carole's mindscape, and we see virtually everything through her eyes. Thus, Carole's fears are our fears; we jump as she does when the cracks, increasingly massive, suddenly appear in the walls; we feel disoriented when the living room is inexplicably larger than it was; and we feel the horrors of suffocation when she is attacked in her bed. Polanski was only 32 at the time he made Repulsion, and he had directed only one other film, the Polish thriller Knife in the Water (1962), which had earned him significant international acclaim and opened doors for him to make films in other countries. Not surprisingly, Repulsion, which was made on a low budget for a small British production company known mainly for making soft-core porn, solidified the promise that he was one of the most artistically inventive and thematically daring of young filmmakers. And, while many have attempted to copy his remarkable achievement in Repulsion, no one has done it better.
Copyright 2009 James Kendrick
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All images copyright The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
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