CRITERION AFTER DARK
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: ELDER GODS WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT THEM
By Garrett Cook
It’s been forever since I’ve written one of these columns. People and cities and ideas and lives change and mine did in several big ways in the last year. I missed writing for Cinema Knife Fight, and now I’m gonna do it again. I thought maybe I would start by finding a weird, shocking, filthy, perverse Criterion film. Something that would blow your mind and take you to the very edge of perception. And I did. Did I ever.
Cronenberg? Bunuel? Malle? Nope. Asian horror? Nope. Some kind of Swedish erotic art film? A little warmer. Imagine if Tennessee Williams and H.P. Lovecraft collaborated on a family drama set on an isolated island, a place tinged with madness, with the stench of malevolent cosmology hanging in the air. And there’s sin and sexual dysfunction and a sinister play with a dark truth at its core. So let’s add a little Robert “The King in Yellow” Chambers to the mix. Moody black and white cosmic horror. Yeah, that’s the stuff. So, who pray tell is the twisted mind behind this?
The man whose work inspired Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and who had a knight in plague-stricken medieval Europe confront the grim reaper himself. A true master of the horror genre. Who knows terror like…Ingmar Bergman? That can’t be right. But it is. Bergman is the genius behind THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960), which was later remade (reimagined?) as THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and pitted a knight in a chess game against death in THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957). His film THE MAGICIAN (1958) had all of the elements of one of Val Lewton’s classics of psychological horror: from a man terrorized by doubts in his psyche to a murder that may or may not have been in the province of the supernatural. THE MAGICIAN is, as well as being a period piece and an excellent story about the power of art, a masterpiece of quiet horror.
And so is THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961).
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY is one of those movies that defines in people’s mind what an art film is, or what a drama is. It looks on the surface to just be a story about a disintegrating family. The setup is not particularly horrific: a novelist takes his son, his daughter and her husband on vacation. His daughter is schizophrenic. She finds out his novel is about her and gets upset. Why is this of interest to a column on horror culture and filth in the Criterion Collection?
Because as I said, there are traces of cosmic horror and weird fiction here that are hard to ignore, but enjoyable to savor, as they seem to be in the wrong place. Near the beginning of the film, the son puts on a play starring the daughter, involving a knight’s strange relationship with a ghost. It’s cool that it calls back to the questing knight facing death in THE SEVENTH SEAL, but fans of vintage weird fiction might see another connection, another great “Death and the Maiden” play, embedded in a narrative: Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow centers around an ominous play where the heroine’s sad song freezes the heart of the viewer. This play hints at love and death interweaving on a cosmic level, and at there being something deeply wrong in this family and on this island. The King in Yellow terrorizes you with evil in the walls of a metanarrative, and THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY does the same. Something is wrong with this play. Something is wrong with reality. Something is loose in the theater.
Although her father feels Karin is incurable, Karin’s husband is trying to remain optimistic. He does not believe her condition will have to eat away her life. And it doesn’t seem to, until Karin finds her father’s manuscript. In her father’s manuscript, the heroine is an incurable schizophrenic, in her father’s manuscript, Karin his hopeless. When Karin reads this, she is naturally upset, but it seems to go beyond that and once again into the realm of weird fiction and magic. The fictional Karin is sick, so the real Karin becomes sick. The fictional Karin is too crazy to heal, so the real one must be as well. It works like a voodoo doll and warps the world like the sinister play in Chambers’ story. It has even, in some ways, turned into a grimoire like the Necronomicon from Lovecraft’s books.
Karin begins describing her hallucinations about people behind the walls watching her, judging her. She seems to have a strange sixth sense that she’s not just the protagonist of a novel, but that of a movie as well. She seems to see the framework and that there’s no difference between life and art and reality and fantasy. She faces the realization of the protagonist of Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model, who discovers that the hideous paintings of his friend Pickman were modeled after a photograph from life. So the movie returns to the Pickman’s Model/King in Yellow delusion, the stuff that Lucio Fulci’s A CAT IN THE BRAIN (1990) and John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994) deal with, along with Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF (made into a film by George Romero in 1993). The reality-warping power of madness shines in Karin’s dialogue, because Bergman has isolated the movie from the rest of reality. On this little island, all we have are people’s opinions on Karin’s madness, and Karin’s madness itself. Like Shakespeare’s power to conjure images, Karin’s makes things happen in your head, turning words into imagery, and therefore turning her words into reality.
Karin succumbs not just to insanity, but to her worst urges, performing an act of incest. Her behavior has gone from simply crazy to truly aberrant, committing on of the worst sins imaginable. This is a pretty sordid world Bergman has created, one without hope or moral high ground or a chance to gain rectitude, a world ruled over by a force that is less than benevolent. Without a single tentacle, we have the feelings Lovecraft sought to convey of smallness, depravity, insanity and isolation. And the feeling that Karin’s visions are right. There are people outside the screen watching and judging her and waiting for her to fall apart on both sides of these realities. And she is under the power of a man behind a camera who is frankly not going to be very nice to her.
As Karin finally cracks, she does so in fine Lovecraftian form, terrified by confronting the image of God. Creatures like Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu appear before the eyes of Lovecraft’s heroes to shatter their minds or prove that the minds of the hero have been shattered.
“God is a spider,” Karin says.
And while Bergman does not show the spider, we have now gotten the idea in our imagination that Karin has seen some dark god. Does it matter that she is crazy? Has this god driven her crazy? We can’t say definitively that Lovecraft’s protagonists have seen the Elder Gods, and we can’t say with any certainty that Karin doesn’t know something in this Swedish art-house gothic that shows no monster at all, THROUGH THE GLASS DARKLY has as much in common with Val Lewton’s deep psychological thrillers for RKO in the 40s, in fact sharing a lot of themes with CAT PEOPLE (1942), THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943),. and other films of their ilk. And all leave you with the same horrendous impression that something is out there and that mad and malformed as the human mind can get, there is a grain of truth to all of the hallucinations and all of the cosmic horror.
The discriminating viewer is not just one who finds meaning in the depraved and the weird and the horrific, but also one who finds the depraved, the weird and the horrific in the things that academics and squares and stuffed shirts say are meaningful and THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY has that stuff in spades. So, if you like Lovecraft, Hitchcock or Lewton—or just an uncomfortable chill and a lump in your throat—Ingmar Bergman might be the scare you need.
© Copyright 2013 by Garrett Cook