AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 19th March, from ARROW ACADEMY
RUNNING TIME: 104 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Wealthy housewife and children’s author Cathryn receives a series of phone calls in her home in London, the female voice suggesting mockingly that her husband Hugh is having an affair. When Hugh comes home, Cathryn witnesses a different man, ex-boyfriend Rene, behaving as if he were her husband. Hugh attributes her subsequent outburst to stress and her budding pregnancy, so he decides to take a vacation to the countryside at an isolated cottage in Ireland, where Cathryn can work on her book and take photographs for its illustrations. However, once there, Cathryn begins to hear voices invoking her name, and see more visions of Rene. Could she be going insane?….
Robert Altman is not somebody you’d call a horror director, but 3 Women and That Cold Day In The Park, both of which I’ve reviewed for this very website when they were released on Blu-ray by Arrow and Eureka respectively, most definitely have macabre elements and 3 Women is actually an extremely unsettling watch. Images is certainly in the same ballpark as the other two films I’ve mentioned, again dealing with insanity and a female main protagonist. The three movies could almost be considered a loose trilogy, rather like Roman Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy’ which I referred to not that long ago when reviewing the recent Homesick. Images seems in part Altman’s answer to the first of the Polanski trilogy Repulsion, but, seemingly influenced as much by Ingmar Bergman as Polanski, and in some ways almost anticipating some of the work of David Lynch both thematically and stylistically, it’s significantly different in feel, style and – for the most part – story line for it to never once feel like a rip-off. It’s an ambiguous puzzler of a film which never feels the need to provide much in the way of answers, so don’t go watching it expecting to have everything explained by the end – though a few [but only a few] things will [or should I say may] be clarified. It’s rather bit repetitive in places, Altman sometimes tending to stretch his premise rather thinly, but it’s a very creepy and fascinating work that full of odd but important details which make it a very rich, rewarding watch if you enjoy these kinds of stories where the chief protagonist may be going insane and we can’t tell if what we’re seeing is real or not – and if you’ve read enough of my reviews you’ll probably know that I’m certainly one prone to enjoying them – though what that says about me I don’t know!
Altman actually originally wrote the script for this in 1967, and for it to be set in Milan and to star Sophia Loren. That fell through, as did two subsequent attempts to set it up in Vancouver with first Sandy Dennis and then Julie Christie in the lead. When he eventually raised the money himself and got it off the ground starring Susannah York as a UK/ US collaboration between Hemdale and Lions Gate, the film was shot at Ardmore Studios and at a country house in County Wicklow, Ireland. What with quite a bare script, the shoot was loose in form as well as collaborative, the cast meeting up with Altman over dinner each night to discuss the scenes of the upcoming day. During one of these sessions, York mentioned to Altman she was writing a children’s book called In Search of Unicorns. Altman asked to read it and decided to make York’s character in the film a writer of children’s tales and even asked her to quote parts of the fairy-tale in the movie. York received a writing credit for the film as the text was from her book. As such, the film represents actress York’s film debut as a writer. Images was released to little commercial success though some critical success and York won Best Actress at Cannes. Altman lambasted Hemdale in an interview in Variety for what he saw as their failure to properly promote the film, and criticised the company’s head, John Daley. It was long rumored that the film’s original negative was burned by Columbia Pictures who eventually distributed it in the US. This rumor turned out to be false when MGM’s home video wing released a DVD in 2003, apparently from a new print struck from an existing negative.
Our ‘heroine’s’ voice reciting a story or parts of a story or stories [if it’s one than it’s very fragmented] while we see her in various parts of the house is inter-cut with shots of her typewriter and various artifacts while the soundtrack cuts back and back from a pretty but subtly creepy John Williams piano-led piece to odd percussive sounds from Stomu Yamashta, a Japanese prog rock musician whose music you may have heard in The Man Who Fell To Earth. It’s an appropriately mysterious, yet sinister, opening, and many of its motifs will be carried on throughout the film, like the many shots of wind chimes both on house ceilings and a car dashboard, or the frequent voice-overs from Cathryn telling some more of her fairy tales which take place in the land of Umb. These recurring details aren’t always necessary and some may seem to some to just make things even more vague [what’s with the animal symbolism, for example?], but they help to provide a sense of consistency and cohesiveness, that we are definitely seeing things through the eyes of somebody whose mind could be fracturing, as well as showing that this is a film that has been precisely thought through and constructed from beginning to end, right down to every tiny detail. It doesn’t waste any time either, Cathryn hearing and seeing strange things right from the offset. A female voice keeps cutting into other phone conversations to tell Cathryn that husband Hugh is playing away and even gives her the address and phone number of where he is, then Hugh goes to kiss her when she comes home and he’s now become her ex Rene while Hugh enters the room from the other side of the screen. What makes the moment frightening more than anything else is Susannah York’s bloodcurdling, upsetting scream, one of the most intense I’ve ever heard on film.
A break away to the country only seems to make things worse. Hugh seems to either be in two places at once or is able to teleport. Rene keeps on appearing, yet he’s supposed to have died in a plane crash three years before. Sometimes he and Hugh seem to merge. We learn that Kathryn had been having an affair with him, along with another secret that you can take as fact or not, it doesn’t really matter. Another guy and possible ex-boyfriend named Marcel begins to turn up, along with his daughter Susannah who looks just like a very young Kathryn. Both men seem to want her sexually, Marcel constantly trying it on with her but of course this is a problem when her husband’s often around. Is this guilt on Kathryn’s part? Kathryn seems to bond with Susannah. These apparitions often seem like ghosts, yet they bleed. I had a sense around the middle of the film that things were beginning to degenerate into a strange version of a bedroom farce, what with the way real and imaginary characters come on and off screen and swap places, but matters soon pick up when Kathryn decides to take drastic measures – or does she? Her viewpoint is not a reliable one, and quite often she sees or does something which is then proved to not have been seen or have happened – though not all the time. Her and two other characters sometimes play a jigsaw puzzle which is clearly intended to relate to the film as a whole, but if you try to put all the pieces together from the visions and often vague suggestions of whole plot lines we’re left mostly in the dark about, they won’t make much sense. But then that’s what you should probably expect considering that this is a film in which the characters are all named after different actors but not themselves.
Some of the most puzzling moments are when Kathryn actually sees herself, something which leads to a virtually science-fictional interpretation of events if you’re not convinced that Kathryn arrived at the house in the first place. Even time travel could be being suggested ever so slightly. I love it when films can have so many different explanations, yet still have a sort of dream logic and possess overriding themes that give the sense that – yes – the writers and/or directors did think about what they were presenting, even if we may not understand it. Sex, as with so many things, seems to be at least partly central. The French Rene and the rather ‘rough’ Marcel may be haunting Kathryn as excitement which she doesn’t really have with the frequently patronising Hugh, or maybe they’re just embodying fantasies that she may have. Susannah York is simply astounding, refusing to do some of the things that many performers portraying similar characters are inclined to do. Except for those horrendous screams, she tends to keep it low key, un-mannered, but is able to flick from being ‘cold’ to sexually excited within the space of a second and make it seem believable. She even sells a potentially daft moment where, after being scared, she begs Hugh to make love to her. And Altman even gets away with having her smile happily [but not evilly] directly at the camera, and manages to make it really rather scary.
Altman, who doesn’t provide any overlapping dialogue this time, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond are able to infuse scenes with a certain strangeness without seeming showy, though they can’t resist a mirror shot where Kathryn is reflected in not one but three mirrors, while a sex scene is shot with a ripple effect so we’re often just watching pools of light and shadow. There are also some of the most gorgeous nocturnl dashboard shots you will ever see. Frequent cuts to the lush Irish countryside and the expansiveness of the largely white interiors mean that the claustrophobia that’s usually part and parcel of films like this isn’t present very much, but that’s a nice change. The Williams/Yamashta score is sparse, Altman often preferring near silence, but also seems to do battle in places, sometimes appearing together. As I mentioned at the beginning, some mysteries are solved as the film closes, but only some. We’re certainly still at a loss as to put Kathryn’s psychosis together, despite the myriad of hints that we have been given. But after watching Images I still felt like I’d been given a real glimpse into a damaged inner world.
This was the first time I’d seen Images, but Arrow’s Blu-ray looks simply magnificent and I can’t fault it. There’s plenty of grain so that it looks like film rather than digital, but it’s almost always evenly balanced, colours are perfectly separated and skin tones especially look great. Dynamic range is very strong too – watch out for those screams!
Arrow have included a fine selection of special features, including the two from the 2003 DVD release. First up is a new audio commentary from film historians Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger. It’s nice to hear two women talk about a film for a change, and the two go through the film with a toothcomb and discuss a great deal of stuff, from Altman’s playing with genre tropes to set details to giallo influences. They don’t talk much about production, which disappointed me, but then they have so much else to say anyway. Very illuminating, and they never ‘lost’ me either by getting too ‘heavy’. Next up is the DVD director’s commentary, though Altman only chats over certain moments, around I’d say a third of the film. He’s rather disappointing, tending to just say what’s taking place on screen, and don’t expect much in the way of explanations either, though a few bits of information do emerge. Far better is the 25 minute ‘making of’ where he, along with a brief appearance from Zsigmond, immediately states that Images is about psychology rather than ghosts, goes into the project’s origins and a bit of production history, and fascinatingly talks about the way he directs. It could have been more detailed, but I imagine fans of this obscure film were surprised even to get this on the DVD release.
A six minute interview with Cathryn Harrison [Susannah] follows where she reminisces about how she first met Altman at a party where he immediately asked her to be in his film, how nice people were, and how she later displeased some directors because she assumed Altman’s very collaborative style of filmmaking was normal! Then we have a 32 minute chat from Stephen Thrower who always has interesting things to say, providing some more background details, insight into the film, favourite scenes, and rightfully lamenting how many critics don’t like to call horror movies made by respected filmmakers horror movies, showing how the genre tends to be looked down upon by many, though this seems to be changing a bit at the moment thank goodness.
Highly recommended if you fancy a horror movie on the arty side and actually enjoy being confused at times!
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*Brand new restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, produced by Arrow Films exclusively for this release
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
*Original English mono audio (uncompressed LPCM) soundtracks
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
*Audio commentary by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger
*Scene-select commentary by writer/director Robert Altman
*Imagining Images, an archive featurette with Altman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond
*Brand new interview with actor Cathryn Harrison
*An appreciation by musician and author Stephen Thrower
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Carmen Gray and an extract from Altman on Altman