The Whip and the Body (1963) by Brian O’Connell

Why do we enjoy horror stories? There have been a million attempted answers to the question, and almost none of them are satisfying—or entirely satisfying, at any rate. A common view holds that exposing ourselves to our deepest fears in a safe and artificial environment helps us prepare ourselves for and cope with them when they arrive in the real world, but this seems to fall apart with even the merest scrutiny: watching Hereditary would not seem to ease the pain of losing a loved one, for example, nor am I likely to recommend Audition to someone with a fear of needles. Stephen King, who once proposed this view in his 1981 survey of the genre, Danse Macabre, has alternately contended that watching horror movies allows us to satiate our deepest, darkest instincts and thus to keep them at bay, but again, this suggestion fails to account for so much; when I walk out of an especially traumatic or upsetting picture, I don’t feel that anything has been “purged” from me, I feel worse. Ligotti perhaps strikes closer to the mark when he argues that horror is the best genre for reflecting the eternal agony and absurdity of the mortal human consciousness, but I don’t think we can assume this holds true for a huge portion of the audience for horror movies, either. In each case the proposed answer seems either too trite, beholden to fundamentally conservative notions of art as serving some redemptive social or psychological function, or too specific, expressing a highly individual philosophy of life and existence that doesn’t adequately account for the genre’s popular appeal.

Without hazarding a guess of my own, I’d like to examine another response to this perennial question, a response suggested by the great horror auteur Mario Bava in his 1963 Gothic chiller The Whip and the Body. Unlike the above proposed explanations, The Whip and the Body centers a very simple and uncomplicated experience at the locus of the horror genre: that of pleasure. A strange kind of pleasure, to be sure, that derives itself from immersion in negative emotions, from scenes of death and degradation, from abject misery and anguish—but pleasure all the same. In short, the pleasures of masochism, that curious disposition that finds gratification and fulfillment in the darkest of places.

Masochism is, indeed, what this suggestively titled picture has been most remembered for, owing to the numerous cuts demanded upon its release by various censorship boards in multiple nations. Its unsubtle allusions to “degenerations and anomalies of sexual life,” as a Roman court declared in 1963, occasioned the butchering of the 91 minute film into a nearly incomprehensible 77 minute international cut, released in the United States with the fittingly perplexing new title of What!. This furor was mostly due to an early scene in which the female protagonist Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) submits to an erotically charged lashing from her former paramour, the imperious Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee). This brief sequence, in combination with its winking title, accounts for The Whip and the Body’s reputation as a playfully kinky, if otherwise fairly standard and by-the-numbers, Italian Gothic of the early sixties. It’s not received nearly as much discussion as the consensus-held masterpieces of Bava’s oeuvre (Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace, Bay of Blood, and Black Sabbath among them), and when it does, the sexual current of the film is spoken of mostly as if it were a gimmick, teased at in a few superficially titillating scenes but overall subordinate to the director’s stylishly gloomy atmospherics.

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It’s true that the slight scenes of masochism in The Whip and the Body are quite tame by today’s standards, hitting nowhere near the level of explicitness or perversity that would come to be regular fare in exploitation films only a few years later. Indeed, following that initial whipping scene, Nevenka’s sexual proclivities are hardly ever addressed—or at least directly represented—again, outside of a few scant moments and mentions. It’s presumably this reticence, or even potential disinterest, in probing the extremes of its implications that has led many critics to ignore or significantly downplay the sexual tensions of the film, instead preferring to situate it within Bava’s overall oeuvre by addressing its familiar motifs. But to do so is to fail to recognize that masochism is integral to the very texture of the film: that in truth it is the film’s principal subject, in ways far more fundamental and interesting than the mere surface play of its meager erotic scenes.

The narrative of The Whip and the Body is very simple. Kurt, the eldest son of the Count Menliff (Gustavo de Nardo), has been exiled for his entanglement with the servant girl Tania, a dismal affair that ended in the girl’s suicide. Kurt had been engaged to the beautiful Nevenka; in his absence, she marries his younger brother Christian (Tony Kendall) instead. One dark night Kurt returns, distressing the entire family, most especially the mother of the servant girl (Harriet Medin), who longs for Kurt’s death. He coldly offers his congratulations to Nevenka and Christian, but he obviously wishes to reassert his place in both the nobility and Nevenka’s heart. On a dusky beach, he reinstates their sadomasochistic entanglement, flogging her with a riding crop, reigniting in her a confused disorder of passions she had hoped to leave behind. But that very night, in a highly oblique and mysterious series of events, Kurt is murdered by an unknown culprit. Quite shortly after his death, his ghost begins to stalk the castle, leading Christian to investigate the mysterious circumstances of his murder and ultimately culminating in tragedy for Nevenka.

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On the surface, this reads like a stock Gothic plot, with only the barest hint of sexual sleaze to differentiate it from any other number of lurid Italian productions of the day. And it’s true that the plot is probably the very least interesting thing about The Whip and the Body, the element that feels the most underdeveloped and unrealized. At times, when it focuses on Christian’s quest to determine the murderer, it can even feel laborious, merely a series of ponderously paced generic machinations to provide a flimsy canvas for Bava’s aesthetic sensibility. It’s hard to fault those who take issue with the somnambulant slowness of such predictable and well-worn genre clichés. The inventiveness and enthusiasm of the visual craft does not extend to the details of the screenplay.

But the film finds an emotional and thematic key in the personage of Daliah Lavi. Her performance as Nevenka is so completely absorbing that she even manages to upstage the great Christopher Lee, who by comparison comes off as stodgy and wooden. (In all fairness, the horrendous dubbing endemic to Italian films of the period can’t be helping.) In a production full of cardboard cut-out horror movie stereotypes, the psychological intensity and uneasy ambiguity of Lavi’s role emerges with startling force. It is in her that the film locates its dark core.

For even though it is only overtly addressed in the early scene on the beach, the performance makes it clear that Nevenka’s masochism permeates every aspect of her being. Her reaction to the haunting has a troubling ambivalence unfamiliar to the Gothic heroine of more conventional stories. Lavi intentionally acts in a manner that blurs the distinction between gasps of fright and moans of pleasure; when she shivers, it’s uncertain whether it’s out of fear or exhilaration. Terrified glances become indistinguishable from desirous ones. This is The Whip and the Body’s real surprise: not the shallow tease of skin, but the sense that the horror is not inimical to, and perhaps even willed by, the person who we assumed was its victim.

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Consider the film’s most frightening scene, a nocturnal visitation from Menliff’s ghost to Lavi’s bedchamber. After an extended period of excruciating build-up, during which the doorknob gradually turns at the touch of an unseen hand and Menliff’s silhouette (bearing the same riding crop) looms before the window, we are treated to the terrifying image of his hand slowly extending toward her—toward us—out of the darkness. She screams, but instead of running away, she rolls onto her back, in an attitude of eager submission identical to that from the beach scene. The hand caresses her cruelly, commandingly, before tearing her nightgown open. These are the gestures of sadomasochistic theater as much as they are thrills in a horror set piece. The fact that this sequence acts as a double of the earlier erotic encounter on the beach points to the dissolution of boundaries between death and desire, pain and pleasure, horror and fascination that the film will affect even further in subsequent scenes.

The truth is that Nevenka does not seem to feel fear at all in response to Kurt’s return from the grave—or more accurately that her fear is indissoluble from, indeed synonymous with, her happiness. For her the haunting is not a curse or a nightmare, but a state of sexual fulfillment; the horror movie villain is not an antagonist, but the enforcer of her repressed desires. Over time, we come to see Kurt as servicing Nevenka rather than terrorizing her. Certainly, he seems to at least understand her more than the supposedly virtuous Christian, who Nevenka witnesses engaging in an adulterous rendezvous with another woman. Heartbroken as much by his hypocrisy as by his betrayal, she flees to a private room, where Menliff’s specter appears next to her in a mirror. She cowers and falls on the bed, where he whips her once more, more brutally than ever, but despite her theatrical protestations, she is quite discernibly and unequivocally moaning in sexual ecstasy, even smiling. “I’ve come for you,” Menliff tells her, in another telling double entendre. Quite contrary to the menacing threat we might typically interpret in such a statement, the implication is almost poignantly romantic. He has come for her, for her benefit, to serve her, because he knows this will make her happy, happier than she could ever be with the dull and proper Christian. For her, dread and pain are inseparable from joy and eroticism. Kurt’s aggressive resurrection, by which he can exert total terror and dominance over her, thus presents the most complete realization of the masochistic scenario possible. And it is my contention that this masochism implicitly doubles and illuminates the pleasure we as audiences often take in horror as a genre: we are drawn to these macabre scenes and ghastly experiences for themselves, not in spite of their negative emotions but because of them, because we find in them a pure and indefinable gratification loosely analogous to the sexual titillation the masochist takes in pain.

For clarity’s sake, it might be worth briefly contrasting this with a diametrically opposed but curiously complimentary philosophy explored in Michael Haneke’s infamous home invasion experiment Funny Games (1997). The young torturers in Funny Games have also come “for us,” the audience: the horrific violence they enact upon an unsuspecting bourgeois family is for our entertainment as viewers, an awareness rendered chillingly clear through a number of Brechtian fourth wall breaks. In this way Haneke aims to expose, explore, and critique what he understands as the audience’s sadistic voyeurism, evidently the underlying fantasy not only of many a horror film but of numerous forms of media consumption relating to images of violence. But what we find in The Whip and the Body seems to suggest that this claim is limited, at least when it comes to the horror genre. Bava instead proposes a masochistic understanding of spectatorship, predicated on identification with the victim rather than with the killer. We come not to terrorize, but to be terrorized; our pleasure is not derived from the thought of inflicting violence on others, but from experiencing the fear and agony of being subjected to violence at a physical remove. We do not align ourselves with the hollow coldness of the sadistic Menliff, who doesn’t even have enough personality to securely latch onto, but with Nevenka’s dark and heated passions, her inexplicable lust for pain. The terror she experiences is a crucial part of the thrill, the central and consensual term both of her unspoken contract with Menliff and our contract as viewers with a filmmaker: she wants this, and so do we.

Viewed through this lens, the whole of Bava’s filmic style takes on an almost subversive new meaning. The creaky trappings of old dark house pictures are reframed as the fetishistic signifiers of a totalized perverse fantasy: the fluttering curtains that bind and strangle Menliff before his death; the sinuous hanging branches that grope and choke the shadowy mise-en-scène of the ancestral vault; the darkened passageways, sliced by slats of icy light, that come to resemble the internal passageways of the human body. The more her madness progresses, the more Nevenka herself seems to merge with this environment, which comes to feel closer to a fearsome emanation of her ghastly desires than anything else. When Christian discovers her swooning in Menliff’s crypt late in the film, the panting sighs she emits as she languishes on the stone floor are more suggestive of necrophiliac euphoria than the shock of a kidnapping victim. The men are baffled, try to impose explanations, but she remains steadfast in her solitary quest. And Bava recognizes that, at least in art, this obscene pursuit has an inevitably suicidal terminus. The ending, which goes so far as to suggest that the ghost may have been a hallucinatory manifestation of Nevenka’s desires the entire time, finds her plunging a dagger into her breast, to Christian’s great horror. But this penetration is also a consummation, and she expires with the stamp of contentment on her face. “Let’s hope she’s free of him forever,” Christian mournfully remarks, but the final shot of hellish flames blazing over the smouldering remains of the riding crop suggests that her violent delights may not be extinguished even in death.

An exemplary early sequence, just as the haunting is beginning, shows Nevenka wandering the midnight corridors of the castle, drawn by an unusual sound to a heavy wooden door at the end of the hall. Bava intercuts between shots of the door and ever-intensifying close-ups of Lavi’s face as she approaches. Light and shadow play so delicately across her features that we’re unable to clearly identify her expression. We hear her quick, short pants of agitation, but it is impossible to tell if her mouth is curling in a grimace or a smile, if her widened eyes suggest building anxiety or yearning anticipation. By the time she is turning the handle the tension has reached an almost unbearable pitch, but, as any horror fan knows, the sickening frisson of suspense is also a source of ardent excitement. What lies beyond that door? Her worst nightmare? Or her darkest desire? The singular pleasure of The Whip and the Body is to suggest that there is no difference.

by Brian O’Connell

Brian O’Connell is a writer living in New York. He has been published by Plutonian PressMuzzleland Press, and Planet X Publications. He regularly cohosts the podcast Celluloid Citizens with Sean M. Thompson.

Thelma (2017) by Brian O’Connell

Cinematic adolescence has had a psychic tinge since at least 1976, when Carrie White first unleashed her pent-up rage upon her peers to the terror and delight of viewers across the world. From de Palma’s early box office smash to modern television variations in shows like Stranger Things and I Am Not Okay With This, filmmakers and audiences alike have proven to be enduringly fascinated with teenage narratives that take detours into telekinetic madness. The link makes sense: what better way to represent the baffling discoveries, physical and mental transformations, and dizzying shifts in selfhood of youth than through the unearthly, uncontrollable manifestations associated with paranormal phenomena?

Thelma, the eponymous protagonist of Joachim Trier’s 2017 supernatural drama, is technically exiting her adolescence—the main action of the film finds her as a first-year university student at Oslo—but in most ways retains the paralyzing angst, emotional disorientation, and restricted agency of a teenager. Trier introduces her to us with an ominous overhead shot of the college campus, ever so slowly zooming in to single out Thelma among the wandering groups and couples of fellow students: a skillful conjuring of the gnawing social anxiety that underlies every moment of the film. A closer view doesn’t help us know her much better. As embodied by actress Eili Harboe, Thelma is a bit of a riddle, her unassuming face ambiguously evoking something that alternately registers as acute vulnerability or stone-faced opacity. (Critic Sheila O’Malley’s comparison to a young Isabelle Huppert is not unwarranted.) The only thing that is immediately clear is her agitation; before she’s even said a word, her physical bearing alone—somewhere between the rigidity of the devoutly religious and the gawkiness of a nervous middle schooler—communicates her inner unease.

Whatever is going on, it surely can’t be helped by her parents, who call her every night to check up on what she’s doing. Oh, they’re impeccably polite, quiet people, a far cry from the fanatical Christian histrionics of Margaret White in Carrie. Still, there’s something subtly sinister in the way they probe her, gently but insistently, with questions about her daily doings. And later on, we sense a simmering tension at a dinner table conversation between the three, during which Thelma’s father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) sternly chides her for looking down on creationists. The viewer is already well aware that this man specifically knows more than he’s letting on: that much has been clear from the film’s chilling prologue, an expertly crafted piece of menace that casts a hanging dread over even the most innocuous subsequent scenes.

Helpfully, Trier doesn’t take too long to let us in on the exact nature of the game we’re playing here, though he certainly takes his sweet time moving the pieces into place. From the moment a bird flies into Thelma’s classroom window and triggers what appears to be an epileptic seizure, most viewers will have at least a moderately good idea of the territory the film is operating within. Trier and co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt know that this is part of the fun. Their script quite self-consciously toys with the typical tropes we’ve come to expect from this subgenre, and despite the solemn pacing, they never really try to hide what they’re up to from the viewer. The pleasure is in seeing how the chips will fall, and in experiencing the deeper emotional trajectory of the narrative beneath all the supernatural shenanigans.

The key element in Thelma turns out to be a girl called Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a fellow student on the college campus who begins to befriend Thelma. Friendly, outgoing, and sunny, she is everything that our dour protagonist is not, and sighting her inspires in Thelma the first anguished pangs of a confused, inarticulable desire. After a stifling upbringing in a conservative home and a period of intense loneliness at college, Thelma seizes on her new friendship with the desperation of a starving man sighting food. It’s quickly clear that her longing has more intimate connotations than mere friendliness, as when, to cope with a seizure, Anja sleeps chastely next to Thelma in bed, Thelma stroking her companion’s dark locks of hair with an almost childlike fascination. This sudden woozy rush of love coincides with, or more probably triggers, the other strange awakening gradually manifesting in her life. Shortly following her initial encounters with Anja, the uncanny hallucinations and disturbances in her surroundings start to intensify, perhaps most viscerally and memorably embodied by the nightmarish appearance of a black snake in her bed at night, which slithers up her thighs and later toward her lips.

The obvious symbolism of the snake—sin, eroticism, danger, desire, penetration—is possibly the least subtle one could come up with for an allegory of this type, but it works, both because of its sheer imagistic force and because of its real resonance with the emotional experience of queerness in a homophobic society. For most queer people, even those of us who weren’t raised in a repressive religious household and who grew up in a comparatively tolerant time and place, sexual awakening will at least briefly pass through this phase of terror, peril, and bewilderment. The snake, with its clear satanic connotations and mingled associations of both pleasure and death, is a particularly potent and effective representation of those initial troubled, overwhelming sensations of love and lust. When, during an all too short-lived experience of ecstasy and pleasure, Thelma finally allows the snake to enter her mouth, it stands for that beautiful and terrifying moment in almost every queer person’s life when a desire, heretofore regarded with fear, doubt, and loathing, is at last accepted and integrated into one’s sense of identity and autonomy.

At this point we might easily assume that Trier is sketching out a simple allegorical narrative about religious guilt and queer coming-of-age. In this formulation, Thelma’s burgeoning telekinetic powers stand for her repressed sexual desires, both of which had been subdued and suppressed by her bigoted, dogmatic parents. She struggles with this awakening in all its terror and wonder, but eventually comes to accept both her powers and her feelings, liberating herself from the strictures of her parents once and for all and achieving self-actualization and happiness in her relationship with Anja.

Not so fast. This basic trajectory, which has been applied in similar forms to several contemporary horror films (The Witch, Midsommar, and Suspiria perhaps being the most obvious), is certainly a valid and arguable framework to read the film by. But I think it’s an overly simplistic one, especially when we’re dealing with the horror genre, in which the process of becoming is always loaded with violence, control, and death. “Empowerment” is assuredly part of the way these films function, and there’s no shame in taking pleasure in that fantasy, especially for populations like women and queer people who have been historically denied many empowering representations onscreen. But given that empowerment in these films (as it often is, unfortunately, in life), is typically predicated on the assertion of violent (usually murderous) dominance, we should be wary about applying such clear-cut interpretations to films that are often operating in much richer and murkier thematic spaces.

Thelma is especially problematic when viewed through the reductive “empowerment” lens, because, again like Carrie, it goes out of its way many times to show that the protagonist herself is, in fact, incredibly dangerous. And these dangers cannot be disentangled from her desires: the danger is the desire. Across the first half of the film, Trier drops increasingly explicit hints that Thelma’s powers have more troubling potential than a couple of dead birds or trembling inanimate objects. When the full extent of these powers is revealed—first in a white-knuckle suspense sequence, the first time the film fully veers into horror, and later in a hauntingly grief-wracked flashback—the effect is genuinely awful and upsetting. Thelma, the young woman we have been invited to empathize and identify with, proves to be capable of (if unwittingly so) the most astonishingly terrifying deeds. Her parents, meanwhile, experience a converse arc; those cold and menacing authority figures regarded with suspicion and doubt from the very first scene become increasingly sympathetic and even tragic, to the point where, by the final act of the film, we are no longer dealing with a relatively clear binary between liberation and repression but with a handful of deeply wounded and emotionally anguished human beings. This proves to be Thelma’s cruelest and most heart-wrenching “twist.”

In the last analysis, it is difficult to read the film as a mere allegory for awakening queer sexuality, in the same way that The Witch, for example, is often talked about as a direct feminist emancipation narrative. Those narratives are obviously in there, but they’re embedded within a more complex series of overlapping systems and thematic contexts. There’s too much going on in Thelma to cover in the space of this single article, but it’s plausible to suggest that, rather than being solely about unjustly stigmatized desire, the film conducts a deeper inquiry into the uncontrollable nature of desire itself. Thelma’s powers don’t arise from conscious exertion, but from the anarchic, selfish underworld of her subconscious, where morality doesn’t apply. She creates and destroys with the impetuous rashness of a child, every single whim spontaneously manifesting in reality to devastating effect. Love, hate, want, rejection: all her most basic impulses and longings are staged on a frightening scale. Her heart is an abyss.

A little around the midpoint of the film, when Thelma is researching the psychogenic seizures she’s been violently afflicted with, Trier shows us a montage of historical illustrations. They are all images of women, and they are linked by their connection to the spiritual, the otherworldly, the transcendent. Joan of Arc, witches, saints, visionaries, mystics—all pass before our eyes in flickering succession. These are women to whom both great holiness and great evil were ascribed. They are, to borrow the blasphemous phrase Thelma comes up with in an early conversation with Anja, “Jesus-Satans”: they contain both heaven and hell within them. It’s coming to this realization near the end of the film that seems to allow Thelma to attain some sense of control over her own life. Not peace, not comfort, not even happiness: hers, it is heavily implied, will always be a fundamentally lonely and solipsistic existence. But in the final scene it at least appears a certain equilibrium has been attained—for the time being, anyway. The viewer might recall the eels swimming beneath the ice in the first sequence, both a beckoning toward and warning against the seductive, dangerous forces that lurk beneath a seemingly stable surface. If there’s any “message” in Thelma, it must be—as in the best horror—that ordinary appearances conceal fearsome depths.

by Brian O’Connell

Brian O’Connell is a writer living in New York. He has been published by Plutonian PressMuzzleland Press, and Planet X Publications. He regularly cohosts the podcast Celluloid Citizens with Sean M. Thompson.

Cure (1997) by Brian O’Connell

The characters in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films seem dominated by their environments. They loom, awkward and ill-suited, in their drab, underfurnished apartments, dim and flatly lit; otherwise, they wander the dreary winding streets of the nameless cities where they live, labyrinthine mazes of concrete and glass that blur every face into anonymity. We seldom see them head on and close up but instead through doorways, smeared windows, down corridors or through narrow apertures. A predominance of icy wide shots emphasize the empty space in any given location, and the camera movement—generally scroll-like lateral shots that lend an oddly theatrical, distant atmosphere to these scenes—merely brings us up against the limits of whatever area we happen to find ourselves in. Even with multiple characters in a single scene and location, there are numerous fracturing devices that section the actors off from each other, stranding them, solitary, in the frame. Whatever the visual strategy, wherever the location, the message is clear: these people are alone.

Such is the bleak landscape traversed by the filmmaker in his 1997 international splash, Cure, a deeply unsettling detective procedural-cum-occult thriller that uses its vacant rooms to reflect equally abandoned souls and minds. Like Kairo, Kurosawa’s famous 2001 ghost story, Cure is an uncommonly nihilistic and despairing horror movie, using the generic tools of its established cinematic tradition to express deeper anxieties relating to loneliness, contagion, and the human condition. Where Kairo pivots, however, on the dual poles of both the eerily modern dread of Internet-augmented isolation and the elemental fear of death, Cure takes as its central subject an altogether more complex and possibly more human terror: the great abyss of meaning that lies beneath our daily lives.

Initially, the film takes place along something of a  dual-narrative track. On the one hand we have the story of Kenichi Takabe (played quite compellingly by Kōji Yakusho), a detective fruitlessly investigating a series of gruesome murders  committed over the preceding two months. The murders are carried out in a strikingly similar fashion—most notably, a gory X was carved into each of the victims’ faces—but have nothing in common otherwise, including a perpetrator. The different killers are easily caught and willingly confess, but can never provide Takabe with a motive, and have no clear connection to each other. The frustratingly futile progress of Takabe’s investigation is intercut with enigmatic scenes following the visits of an affectless young man we come to know as Mamiya (a chilling Masato Hagiwara) to several disparate individuals, each one of whom leaves a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Further complicating matters, we’re occasionally ushered away from the main action to observe puzzling vignettes of a woman with amnesia or some other psychological disorder either being treated in a hospital or wandering the streets of the city. We later come to learn that this woman is Takabe’s wife (the late Anna Nakagawa), and that their marriage is strained from her progressively worsening mental illness. Just what are we to make of this tangle?

Well, these threads eventually begin to coalesce, approaching a strange logic that never fully resolves, but Kurosawa keeps his hand hidden a long while. That first hour is a memorably opaque one. The audience is placed in the position of the detectives, blindly groping for some sort of structure or even a hint as to the nature of what is going on. The film steadfastly refuses consolations, preferring instead to immerse us in an icy atmosphere of slow, gnawing dread and uncertainty. Cure’s narrative itself becomes a crime scene, a fractured, incomprehensible set of incongruous misconfigurations and mystifying suggestions suffused with an air of impenetrable terror and melancholy. Only with time and close attention can the patterns become clear.

One thing is never in doubt: it is Mamiya who lies at the nexus of this mystery. His presence in the film is like that of a black hole, an absolute emptiness toward which the characters and the audience alike are drawn by inexorable degrees. We first see him wandering a lonely beach in Shirasato, encountering a seated stranger and asking him for their location. A few moments pass and he asks the same question again. Shortly later, he is wondering what the date is, then for the location again (for he has already forgotten), and finally, with a disquieting casualness, he asks the other man if he knows who he is.

Throughout the film, Mamiya is defined by such queries; indeed, most of his dialogue is nothing more than an endless stream of questions, exhibiting no interiority or even a clear sense of personhood. His strange interactions are characterized by an incessant questioning that inevitably assumes an almost aggressive, interrogatory quality; his words become an assault. His eternal refrain, “Tell me more about yourself,” comes to sound like the lure of a predator, and the hypnotic manner with which he draws these individuals’ words from their reluctant lips holds more than a hint of vampirism. When paired with the darkly evocative symbolism of the lighter he pulls from his pocket (it both illuminates and destroys), or the nightmarishly amplified dripping of a tap in the low, humming sound mix, things become more sinister still.

It comes as no surprise that Mamiya is the driving force behind the killings, nor is the reveal of the “device” being employed—a mystically-inflected version of mesmerism—a particularly shocking one, for the film gradually and delicately leads us to this conclusion after a long buildup of subtle indications. What is a surprise, at least in a film of this type, is Mamiya himself: his complete lack of personality, of motive, of any individually distinguishing features at all. What we might initially take for opacity or mystery on his part—a riddle concealing his hidden depths—ultimately reveals itself to be mere blankness, a total void. The revelations of his past and of the method in which he influences other human beings hardly tell us anything; they show us how he does things, but they don’t serve to explain why he does them, because, it finally seems, there is no explanation. Mamiya has nothing to hide, nothing of consequence at all, and it is this that shocks us more than anything else: more than the occult nature of his uncanny powers, more even than the murders themselves. The film slowly brings us closer and closer to the center of its crimes before revealing that there is no center at all—just an empty cavity.

Which, I’d wager, is precisely the point of the film. Cure is about the absence of meaning, our clumsy and incompetent attempts to process a world that constantly refutes and baffles us. It’s a sneaky trick of Kurosawa’s to encase such a nihilistic statement within the narrative structure of the detective film. After all, we expect tidy resolutions and satisfactory explanations in the detective genre more than anywhere else. But Cure mocks this anticipation on every level. Mamiya isn’t the psychopathic or opportunistic antagonist we might expect from a serial killer film, and he constantly frustrates any explanatory framework we might impose on him. The law, so ineffectual and helpless in the face of the killings, is also subject to ridicule. Mamiya doesn’t recognize the police as an authority; “Who?” is his only response when Takabe announces himself during his arrest. When Takabe, in a particularly intense and extended scene, explains the roots of his inability to express his emotions, Mamiya offers little more than sarcastic dismissals: “Oh, so society’s to blame.” Society as a whole seems something utterly alien to Mamiya’s understanding of the world. As he’s uselessly interrogated, he gets up and walks around his cell aimlessly, beating his fists on the walls of the room, as if confused by the spatial restrictions his fellow humans have placed on him.

Mamiya is simply someone who has found a way, through mesmerism, to dissolve his personality completely into the incoherent texture of the universe; his hollowness is a form of enlightenment. His victims temporarily experience the same thing, although they ultimately prove too weak to attain the powers Mamiya wields with such terrifying clarity. When they tell their life stories to him—pedestrian, inconsequential, drearily ordinary lives—it is as if they are rambling gibberish into a vast abyss. And it is the dawning awareness of this meaninglessness, as embodied by Mamiya, that overwhelms them more than his hypnotism. They’re like the caged monkeys we see outside of Mamiya’s apartment around the midpoint of the film, ignorant animals that have suddenly become aware of their limitations. And once their illusions are stripped away, all they can do is murder, completely without motive, entirely arbitrarily, for a pointless murder is the ultimate expression of purposelessness that can be enacted by human beings. An X is a symbol of absolute negation. The bleeding crosses carved into the victims’ skin stare us dumbly in the face like a rejection of every social institution, of psychology, of reason itself. The X serves as a cruel wall human endeavor inescapably comes up against.

Why Takabe should prove stronger of will than the other victims is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it is because he is more intimately aware of life’s haphazard disasters than the contented schoolteacher or the simple policeman or bored hospital nurse that commit the murders. He has, as he tells Mamiya, always repressed his emotions, and this problem has been aggravated by the exhausting condition of his wife, for whom he experiences mingled feelings of tenderness and resentment. He certainly loves her: that much is clear following an exceptionally harrowing hallucination he experiences after returning from Mamiya’s apartment, during which his face collapses into a haunting mask of grief. And yet the many years of caretaking, minor aggressions, and constant stress have obviously taken their toll. “We’ll take that trip,” he reassures her after one of her episodes, alluding to the vacation they’ve been meaning to take. “Definitely.” But he doesn’t sound convinced, and his composure only weakens from there. The tension between his duties as a social creature—a husband, a detective, an inhabitant of the world—and the nihilistic abandon represented by Mamiya begins to grow intolerable. In Mamiya he sees a freer, less constrained version of himself, as Mamiya himself points out on multiple occasions (note too how their hairstyles are subtly paralleled), and this vision both horrifies and enrages him. “Lunatics like you have it easy while citizens like me have to go through hell,” he wails at one point, revealing just how much of his contempt for Mamiya is rooted in an envy of his freedom from obligations, from even the burdens of selfhood. But his struggle is ultimately a short-lived one: he is too angry, too intelligent, and finally too hopeless to resist the tug of the void.

By the time the film reaches its climactic scene—not only anti-psychological, but almost anti-narrative—Takabe has had his wish granted. In a room dripping with water and cold morning light, he undergoes the metamorphosis that finally frees him from the shackles of meaning and human order. It is an unbearably horrific transformation, but also a liberating one. In becoming like Mamiya, “happy, empty,” he attains the grim enlightenment that will allow him to wander selfless and untroubled through the chaotic atrocities of the world. This is why the first murder in the film is set to such curiously jaunty music, and why there is the slightest hint of a strange smile on Takabe’s face in his powerfully chilling final appearance. Contentment, this remarkable film suggests, might be the most terrifying thing of all.

by Brian O’Connell

Brian O’Connell is a writer living in New York. He has been published by Plutonian Press, Muzzleland Press, and Planet X Publications. He regularly cohosts the podcast Celluloid Citizens with Sean M. Thompson.