SHRIEK Women of Horror: The Cell

the cellStats on The Cell (2000)

Body Count: 2 people

Nudity: one female body builder, one female corpse

Major protagonists: female and male

Villain/Antagonist: male

Major actors: Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste

Director: Tarsem Singh, a.k.a. Tarsem

Writer: Mark Protosevich

Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: Nope! Two named female characters have a conversation just between them, but they talk about a boy most of the time.

In The Cell, Jennifer Lopez plays Dr. Catherine Deane, a sought-after psychologist who works primarily with children as well as catatonic and comatose patients. She begins the film in career danger: the experimental counseling program and technology with which she works is (as usual for such tropes) in jeopardy. We’re told she was selected to participate in this groundbreaking research, indicating her talents in the field of counseling. It’s a motherly, nurturing role, but she’s no less a scientist and doctor for that. Tarsem Singh’s ultra-stylish flourishes make the film occasionally nonsensical, but that’s high art; do we need everything to make sense, especially in a horror movie, especially one as visually stunning as this one?

It has fallen to Catherine to prove herself and the radical technology she employs. It should be noted that while Catherine is a sought-after counselor, she is not the inventor of the technology itself. Early on, the film sets up the foreshadowing that, while the radical process requires Catherine to get inside the mind of her patient, this process has never been reversed. Catherine will ultimately prove herself as a heroine in both her own mental territory and in the mind of her most dangerous patient.

The relationships among women are immediately visible: the closest person Catherine has to a boss is Dr. Miriam Kent, played by another actress of color (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Dr. Kent is supportive and concerned. Catherine’s patient, Edward, appears to be catatonic, and his father distrusts Catherine’s effectiveness at using this breakthrough technology to communicate with him mind-to-mind. Edward’s mother—Ella—trusts Catherine and convinces her husband to give the experimental process more time. From there, the film ceases to explore women’s relationships to one another. Despite having several named female characters who do talk to one another alone at least once, the film doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace test.

The plot from there is quite similar to The Silence of the Lambs: the professional female protagonist must befriend a serial killer with a highly specialized modus operandi in order to save a captive woman before time runs out. Unlike in Silence, the female protagonist doesn’t rescue the captured girl. It’s a man who does this.

What Dr. Catherine Deane does is defeat, redeem, and release a tortured and deadly subject, all while bravely attempting a radical process: importing the murderer’s psyche into her own. She takes a big risk, and in doing so she demonstrates her resilience and cleverness. Essentially, she becomes a test subject in order to explore and prove a theory. She’s more Marie Curie than Clarice Starling, and that’s not unflattering.

Catherine forms a nurturing relationship with the villain—at least with one of his three mental aspects/avatars. She also kicks his ass. Though skewed as a mother figure throughout the film, she gets her action sequence.

Catherine Deane is not a raced character in this script, at least in the theatrical cut. Her dialogue and backstory reveal no Latina markers. Her name doesn’t sound ethnically Latin (though that’s a problematic statement in itself). We see a few visual cues, but most don’t come up until the end. There’s a Loteria fortune-telling card on her corkboard, but her home contains Hindu and Buddhist iconography as well. There are occasional indications that she’s Catholic, most overtly in her own mind. She idealizes herself as first a Virgin of Guadalupe-style Maria Immaculate, but then as a Joan of Arc supersoldier. It’s quite possible that the character is written as white or unraced (and therefore defaults to white). Much as we saw with Bernadette, Kasi Lemmons’ character in Candyman, the character could easily have been written with a white actress in mind, and the film’s final cut offers no references to race. Perhaps this has much to do with the Indian director’s approach to race in filmmaking.

Lopez is also not particularly sexualized on her own, nor is she asexual. We get the expected J-Lo booty shot early in the film, and while it’s a lovely butt, it’s a brief image, and she’s not framed by the camera as an abject object. She’s in panties, and that’s enough ogling of her body. Later, she becomes an objectified harem slave once she’s captured in the killer’s mind, but even then, her skin-tight outfit covers her from chin to toe. In this way, the horror film does the unexpected: the sexualization of the notoriously sexy lead actress happens mostly in the eye of the villain, who (we are told explicitly) reduces women to dolls. Lopez is not an Oscar-worthy actress here, but she holds her own and gets the job done in an emotionally demanding genre.

The killer, Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), is a curiously gendered character. He appears to be heterosexual—at least, his violent and necrophilic sexuality seems to only target women. Unlike the “big reveal” of Buffalo Bill’s genderqueerness in The Silence of the Lambs, we see Stargher’s androgyny early and then throughout the film. He has a lifelong fascination with dolls, part of his m. o. in mutilating his victims. In fact, his lack of manliness is given as one of the motives for his father’s extreme physical and psychological abuse.

Stargher’s body is also feminized: he has many piercings, illustrating penetrability and softness. His nipples are particularly accessorized in the climactic battle scene.

He wears an androgynous haircut in his daily life, and his despot regalia in his mental universe is, for lack of a better term, fabulous. There’s something very gay, or at least gender nonbinary, about Stargher’s idealized self. There are hints that if Stargher had grown up in a loving and healthy household, he (or she) might be a self-acknowledged gay man or transgender woman. His inability to relate to women without killing and transforming them, essentially desexualizing them, certainly indicates a sexuality outside of “straight.”

His internal dreamscape, compared in some film reviews to Alice’s Wonderland, has much more in common with Freddy Krueger’s nightmare realm where he’s the boss. You might notice other visual echoes of Labyrinth, Marilyn Manson videos such as “The Beautiful People” (directed by Floria Sigismondi), and a bit of Argento. Tarsem Singh borrows from many sources, even including one of celebrity mega-artist Damien Hirst’s most controversial installations. Nonetheless, Singh brings these elements together in gorgeously ghastly cohesion.

The dialog is poorly written and overt. Subtext isn’t a big part of this script, and it beats the audience with verbal exposition rather than letting us figure things out. Nonetheless, Lopez does a strong job with the character. Most of her emoting involves fear and restrained concern, but that seems to be what the script calls for. She’s not the kind of superstar singer who makes for a tone-deaf actress. We’ve seen those performances. Lopez is able to do something relatively unusual: she transitions from singer/dancer to lead actress in a genre that often sets a low bar for acting, while simultaneously demanding highly emotional performances from its actresses. Lopez clears that bar and then some.

Attention must be brought to the costumes of Eiko Ishioka. A frequent collaborator with Tarsem Singh, Ishioka leaves her indelible mark on the film and must be acknowledged for her contributions. Ishioka was a highly successful and respected art director, graphic designer, set designer, and costumer before her death from pancreatic cancer in 2012 at age 73. Her costumes have been featured in other Singh films such as Mirror, Mirror and The Fall. Many viewers will notice that she repurposed her muscle-suit design from Bram Stoker’s Dracula for use in The Cell. Without Ishioka’s costume designs, Stargher wouldn’t be the same regal, operatic, genderqueer despot, and Catherine wouldn’t be the same superhero. Look up Ishioka’s enormously diverse body of work, which includes costuming for opera, Broadway, Cirque du Soleil, Olympic competitors, Grace Jones, and Bjork. This woman deserves her own biopic, perhaps directed by Singh.

Vince Vaughn delivers an unremarkable performance as pseudo-noir FBI profiler Peter Novak (the name really says it all). He’s hardboiled, I guess? He’s the man who’s seen some terrible things. What’s remarkable is not his character, but the way he acts as a foil for Dr. Catherine. Once Catherine becomes Stargher’s captive, Peter goes in to rescue her, and Peter is captured quickly. We can decide during the film discussion whether Peter rescues Catherine, vice versa, or both. I think both. Does she need to be a Final Girl? I like it better that she works on a team.

The film unfortunately perpetuates the horror trope of murderers being schizophrenic, and schizophrenics being murderers. Stargher is described as broken from reality. As several SHRIEK attendees have expressed in past discussions, most people who have a psychotic break don’t kill or even hurt anyone. It’s difficult to find films in the horror genre that work against this trope, and I’m optimistic that the horror film creators will catch up to this knowledge as it is discussed more and more. The trope of the mentally ill murderer is an old one that could stand to be buried finally, as was done with the trope of the trans killer.

The film does try to balance this out with yet another expository monologue from Peter, in which he tells Catherine that even though he’s seen the unthinkable, he believes that profoundly abused children aren’t doomed to grow up to be monstrous—that abuse is no excuse. Does this make things worse or better as far as stereotyping? Stargher is broken from reality, but is that the reason he kills? He’s also the survivor of extreme abuse, which seems (at least through the dialogue) to be the reason he kills women. His schizophrenia is the reason the FBI asks Dr. Catherine Deane to travel into his psyche to question him. I’m interested to hear the audience unpack and discuss this on Tuesday.

Evan J Peterson is a journalist, professor, 2015 Clarion West writer, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and author of Skin Job and The Midnight Channel.

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