Under the Radar: Genre Movies You May Have Missed — The Cell

I love the mainstream, popular, and critically acclaimed films as much as the next person. The last thing I’d consider myself is a cinematic snob. But there are times when a truly amazing movie slips into—and out of—theaters without much buzz before fading into obscurity. So I’d like to bring a few of those gems back into the light and remind you that sometimes the blockbusters aren’t the only films that can give you plenty of bang for your buck.

There are plenty of horror films that strive to be nightmarish and disturbing, but few will ever achieve it in quite the way The Cell does.

Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is a child psychiatrist pioneering a new technology that allows her to enter the minds of comatose patients. When serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) suffers a seizure that sends him into an irreversible coma just as the authorities close in, FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) turns to Catherine for help.

Stargher has killed seven women through an elaborate process of drowning them in a hidden watertight tank and an eighth victim—Julia Hickson—has only hours to live. If Catherine can’t find her location in Stargher’s twisted dream world, or connect with the frightened child hiding beneath the monster, the young woman is doomed.

The words “starring Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn” don’t exactly inspire confidence, I know. They certainly gave me pause. But they say that even mediocre actors can have one great film in them, and this is easily the best performance Lopez or Vaughn have given to date.

Lopez’s Catherine is frequently raw and vulnerable, but still has a tough-as-nails determination that allows her to face off against the sadistic Stargher, who truly is twisted and unsettling. D’Onofrio is an actor who has long had a reputation for fully embodying his characters, and his Stargher is easily one of the most disturbing villains in film. A malevolent monster king on a bloody, psychotropic throne. And Vaughn’s Novak is driven by his own demons, committed to stopping Stargher and saving Julia Hickson whatever the personal cost.

Though, truly, it’s not the performances that make this such a compelling movie. The Cell is a film that totally depends upon its visuals to make a lasting impression. And boy, what an impression it leaves.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen another movie that is quite so successfully nightmarish. Things happen abruptly and without apparent logic. Cuts are jarring. Action frequently slows down just when the tension hits its peak, giving the audience the sensation that they are trapped in the characters’ horror. We’ve all had dreams where we’ve tried to run from something terrifying only to feel as though we were stuck in molasses, and this movie recreates that sensation perfectly.

The humans that populate Stargher’s dream world—his victims, his father, and his idealized version of himself—are monstrous and misshapen. Hair is styled into devil horns. Skin is textured like snake scales. Limbs are stitched together. Viscera and blood are on ample display.

Vincent D’Onofrio sporting devil horns.

Gravity ceases to apply. Water, a focal theme in the story, is everywhere and the sound of it dripping is a constant refrain. Many scenes are directly stylized after surreal art by the likes of Odd Nerdrum, H.R. Giger, and Damien Hirst. Horses are sliced into bits and yet are still alive. Elaborate torture instruments are glittery and golden, somehow enticing despite their inherent threat.

Nursery rhymes have never been so creepy and the music—provided by Howard Shore, who is perhaps best known for his work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy—mixes classical themes with Indian inspiration to create an evocative atmosphere that perfectly pairs with the imagery.

I hesitate to use the term “visionary” when it comes to directors, because I think it’s applied far too liberally. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a director more visionary than Tarsem Singh. Singh got his start as a music video director and his films certainly have a similar aesthetic, with their rapid cuts, saturated colors, and artistic imagery. The Cell was his first feature length film and it set the standard audiences can expect in the rest of his oeuvre, which includes The Fall (a true masterpiece) and the sumptuous if somewhat zany Mirror Mirror.

The sets are incredibly beautiful or incredibly off-putting—and sometimes they’re both. The cinematography is in keeping with the fantasy-heavy aspect of the story and the costumes… I can think of maybe three cinematic costume designers off the top of my head and the very first one that comes to mind will forever be Eiko Ishioka, who sadly passed away in 2012.

Ishioka gave us the sumptuous Victorian and Gothic vampire fashions in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and collaborated on all of director Tarsem Singh’s films—clearly they had similar sensibilities. Her work on The Cell is really memorable, from Catherine’s swan dress, Mother Superior robes, and psychotherapy suit, which resembles raw muscle (a style that she also used for Dracula’s armor in the prologue of Bram Stoker’s Dracula), to Stargher’s many elaborate outfits, which call to mind deviant clowns and despotic kings.

When the film was released in 2000, I was thirteen and absolutely forbidden to watch anything so obviously depraved or vulgar. (Although, to be honest, I was also not yet the gorehound I am today and rather squeamish, so I didn’t really need to be forbidden to watch it.) But I can vividly recall seeing commercials and trailers—and even that was enough to give me uncomfortable dreams.

Half a lifetime later, I finally watched this in full and was glad I waited until the middle of a brightly lit day. In my years of watching horror, I’ve become pretty inured to most of the frights and shock tactics directors pull. Slashers, rampaging monsters, aliens that absolutely did not come in peace: I can handle all of that with nary a nightmare. I’ve developed a healthy capability for detachment from the media I consume; besides, when you see ten or twenty beheadings, you’ve really seen them all.

But The Cell? It's a film that defies expectations. You really can’t prepare for it because it’s so staggeringly different and unique. Sure, the story at its core is one that’s been handled before, and the dialogue and characters are nothing new. But as soon as Catherine slips into Stargher’s mind you have no idea what the camera’s about to throw at you. Even if you’re heavily spoiled beforehand, the visuals are still breathtaking and disturbing.

For me, the scariest films are the ones that are surreal and unpredictable. They put you on a razor’s edge with tension because you’re not all that sure if you really want to see what’s coming next. Plus, the idea of being trapped in someone else’s mind—and a sick, perverted mind at that—is plenty terrifying in and of itself. Few things scare me more than loss of autonomy and control. You’re meant to empathize with Catherine, which makes her plight yours by proxy. It’s properly shiver-inducing stuff.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Cell because it’s a beautiful, compelling bit of horror. It’s easily one of the most stunning films I’ve ever found and recreates nightmares in a way I’ve never seen another movie come close to. Tarsem Singh should really try his hand at directing more horror—particularly horror adaptations, because I think if anyone could successfully translate creeps from the page and imagination to the screen, it would be Singh.

So don’t let the fact that the movie stars J-Lo and “forever frat-boy” Vaughn deter you from giving it a chance.


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”

Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.