The Cell (2000)
Released: 15th September 2000
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
The Cell, to be fair, was released with quite a reputation as being one sick, twisted and nasty little nightmare and gained quite a cult following. I guess it’s the fact it is bordering on mainstream due to its stars that makes it a film that possibly horror fans shouldn’t like, but do? Dunno, either way, The Cell became one of those films it was OK to like in the comfort of your own home, but admit it to anyone who wasn’t a horror fan and they would look at you funny and say something like “you got problems”. Tell a true horror fan you like it, and there’s a good chance they’ll laugh at you. Well, I don’t see the problem, the main issue is it had two of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time, Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Lopez, starring in what has a horrific serial killer flick that achieved something a lot of mainstream horrors didn’t, it was actually scary, and unsettling and deeply disturbing. The film has a vicious artistic edge, courtesy of Singh and his truly breathtaking use of visuals and set designs. The Cell was a film like no other, nothing before it, or indeed since, has looked quite like this film so proudly did. Here, Singh introduced himself and made one hell of an impression on this critic.
Opening with a truly stunning scene that very powerfully sets the tone for the rest of the film; we see a Desert landscape with a string emphasis on colour, especially the golden sand and the clear blue, almost painted like sky. Jennifer Lopez is there, as social worker Catherine Deane, all dressed in perfect white, trying to help an unfortunate child under her care. On horseback, Catherine gets off the horse and heads up a sand dune, pan back to the horse and it has become a perfect black statue. Strange, otherworldly music is playing that is enough to put even the hardest horror fan on edge with its loud slap in the face sound and soon Catherine finds her subject. Edward, hiding from his own personal demons, a child struggling with life and reality, he doesn’t want Catherine’s help right now and after a discussion about a boat Catherine turns to him, only for his face to turn demonic, ugly and actually rather scary!
Welcome, dear readers, to the Cell, a film where anything goes and the unbelievable becomes believable. This is one hell of a head trip that will seriously get under our skin and more than likely give you the odd nightmare. Lopez was clearly the big draw here to get the audience, and a scene near the beginning showing Lopez as Catherine, relaxing at home after a hard day’s work, in her pants and vest show that the studios wanted to waste no time on getting the male viewers on board. However, for me, gorgeous as she is, Lopez in her pants is NOT the reason I love The Cell, oh no, my love for this film comes from something much darker, and we will get to that in due course. As I said, Lopez plays Catherine, a social worker using a revolutionary way to help troubled kids. A miraculous piece of kit allows Catherine to enter the minds of her subjects and help them in their dreams and thoughts; it allows her to get right to the centre of their problems. A great idea: and one which will be used to striking effect later on. However, proof that these experiments are taking their toll happens when Catherine has a nightmare about Edward, and up he pops again with his demonic face and fish hands. In the space of less than twenty minutes, director Singh has delivered two shocking and vicious scares that you in no way saw coming. Already you are on the edge, worried at just when and how the next scare will be sprung. It is a great feeling, watching a film with absolutely no idea what will happen next!
A killer is on the loose, and this is one of the most messed up and deranged killers you will ever see. Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a serial prowler who suffers from serious headaches. If he is not doing horrific sexual things to women, then he is downing a bottle of aspirin. Carl is the perfect horror films killer, scary and difficult to watch, sickening and very very strange. He kidnaps girls, holds them in a glass box and then lets water into the box so to drown them slowly. He films the whole event, collects their dead body, washes it in some white stuff that needs rubber gloves to handle, and then casually uses the hooks pieced into his body to chain himself to a machine which will lift him above the dead girl’s body to allow him to masturbate while looking at his victim both in person, and drowning on video. All this happens under the watchful eye of his Albino dog. Carl has honestly got to be one of the strangest serial killers ever put to film, and his actions are nothing short of insane and highly disturbing. Singh handles the introduction well, and delivers the perfect bad guy. Carl has taken another local girl, and the FBI must find her before time runs out! Enter Vince Vaughn as FBI agent Peter Novak. Now, I’ll never understand why Vaughn is such a highly paid actor, but here he does his pay check justice. Delivering a mighty performance of a man desperate to catch a killer before time runs out, it is a believable and honest portrayal and one of Vaughn’s finest moments. Turns out the killer has ‘Walen’s Syndrome’, a schizophrenic disease which, thankfully, knocks the poor guy out cold one day. The FBI have already traced him, find his house and enter to witness a naked Carl passed out on the floor because he had run out of pills. In his basement is sick stuff, toys and dolls set up in sexual positions, dolls the birds heads, dildo’s, naked women photos and an ironic sentence graffitied on the wall ‘are you sick?’ it says, your damn fucking right you are pal.
With the killer being completely shut off from reality, the FBI ask Catherine if she can use her ideas and go into the killers mind to try and find out where exactly he has this girl locked up in a glass box. Catherine, says yes, and this is where the Cell really kicks off and gives it the cult status it deserves, and this is where I get VERY excited indeed. The scenes in the killers mind are SO good that the rest of what happens on screen becomes a bit obsolete and boring. The scenes in the killers mind are created, crafted and delivered with absolute perfection and are some of the most unsettling, nightmarish visuals you will ever see! The minute Catherine enters it is clear we are in for a horrific journey as blood drips in slow motion, landing in puddles and on leaves, knocking ladybirds sideways. Slow motion bugs fly and jump around, a dog shakes itself dry whilst covered in blood. This is not a nice place, and Catherine is here, in the killers mind to do a job and so cannot use her escape route just yet. See, there is a failsafe to the mind experiments where the person entering the mind can rub a button implanted on their hand, and this will allow the Doctor’s monitoring to pull her out. She comes close to rubbing this button a number of times, and I promise you, if you were in this nightmare, so would you! Singh has crafted the ultimate head trip, and nothing is pleasant. We witness Carl use a genius device to chop up a horse at a young age, it is a device that is just so damned horrific and fantastic you cannot help but be in awe. The colouring in his mind is unnerving too, with strong outlines giving way to an almost cartoon like look at times, which give off a feeling of anything could happen. The camera is jittery and sudden bursts of fast movement accompanied by freaky sounds only add to the level of dread.
We witness a horrific room that has a number of compartments which open once Catherine gets inside. Each room has a woman in some sort of torture outfit and looking like they’re in complete ecstasy but total pain at the same time. Things turn truly horrific as a bodybuilding woman slowly steps out of one of the rooms, a thudding, sinister music plays and Catherine is smashed against a wall. Carried to a huge cave like room, Carl appears as a Demon, screaming at Catherine “where have you come from???!!!” Time to rub that bloody button on your hand Catherine, I need to get out!!
Scared? Yes, you’re damn right. The Cell has a strong, manipulative way of really getting under your skin and into your nightmares. Singh polishes up his nightmarish visions inch perfect, and after a moment of clarity between a clearly shaken Catherine and a desperate Novak, it’s time to head back into Carl’s mind. However, this time things get really dark as Catherine learns a little of Carl’s history. She uses Carl’s dog to ease her way in, and in a bizarre moment, she realise she is ‘already in’ whilst in the sleep chamber. Now weather this was a mistake or intentional I don’t know, but how the hell does Carl know what the room looks like if he’s been in a deep sleep since the FBI caught him? A minor question, as now we have to deal with Carl’s brutal childhood and Catherine, after a strange entrance, ends up in Carl’s kitchen where, as a kid, he is drying dishes. He drops one, smashing it, and shoves Catherine into a closet. All Catherine can now do is watch and hope the beating from Carl’s vicious Dad stops. After mental abuse in front of his step mum, Carl is beaten with a belt and finally burnt with an iron. The screams are some of the hardest things you will ever have to endure in any movie. It is upsetting and horrific and not a nice place to be.
Eventually Carl appears to Catherine as a vicious Demon, his alter ego, the person who came to save him after he had a seizure as a kid whilst being baptised. This Demon rules Carl’s life, and suddenly Catherine is in deep trouble. Novak, watching closely in the hope of finding the whereabouts of the kidnapped girl, is asked to go in and help. His entrance is less than normal, and now he too must face this nightmare as he tries to save Catherine. Thankfully, the entire second half of the film is mostly made up of being in the killers mind, as this is where the films really shines. The visuals are breathtaking, the sets imaginative and brilliant and the horror is strong and perverse. Witness Catherine brainwashed and chained to a bed in a beautiful lace outfit with strong coloured makeup and hair, see Novak quite literally have his intestines ripped out and hung up on a machine that intends to pull them all out, see the Demon become ever more menacing and psychotic and journey deeper and deeper into a place you would rather not be. The Cell keeps your attention like no other film simply because you just do not know what Singh will throw at you next. The director has incredible visionary skill that is rarely seen in movies, and he has the courage of his convictions to really deliver perfect looking effects that don’t look fake or staged.
The ending does feel a tad forced, with Catherine becoming a sort of Virgin Mary and a rushed race against time to save the kidnapped girl. Blimey, Catherine even comes close to cringe worthy at times, but you have to remember the brilliance of what you have witnessed before, the nightmares and the truly original and stunning ideas of a masterful director who has taken you on a journey to the depths of the mind of a serial killer. It is not a nice place to visit, and somewhere you would not want to rush back to. For all its flaws as a bordering on mainstream serial killer movie, the Cell has a monumentous array if ideas that leave you wanting more. Singh cleverly delivers just the right amount of horrific visuals that don’t water the effect down, but leave you wanting to see just that little bit more. And maybe that’s where the Cell’s appeal lies, in that you will never quite see anything like this again, but you feel there is so much more that could have happened, and I mean that in a good way!