Images (UK/USA, 1972)
Mental illness is a subject that has been poorly served by horror cinema. When mentally ill characters appear, they are normally used as boogeymen, or at least as presented as creepy, volatile and invariably homicidal. The popularity of this template owes a lot of Psycho, the influence of which still lies heavily on the genre.
It is rare to see mental illness portrayed sympathetically in a horror film. Roman Polanski’s exceptional Repulsion comes close, largely because we experience the breakdown of Carol’s reality from her perspective. Even when this leads to violence, we understand why — she is not a monster, but a disturbed human being acting out of fear and desperation. Repulsion never quite gets away from the association of mental illness with murder, but it wouldn’t be a horror film without some unpleasantness.
There are many similarities in this respect between Repulsion and Images, another film with a psychotic female protagonist, Cathryn (Susannah York) living in terror of her own delusions. As an aside, “psychotic” has to be one of the most misused words in cinema — in this case it genuinely refers to the fact that Cathryn suffers from a psychotic illness, possibly schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder.
Cathryn, a writer of children’s stories (the excerpts in the film come from a children’s book authored by Susannah York herself) is on holiday with her photographer husband, Hugh, in the English countryside (although filmed on location in Ireland), staying at her old, isolated family home. During their stay there, she is haunted by hallucinations of her dead French lover and the intrusive attentions of her living Irish one. The identities of these lovers and her husband keep shifting, sometimes in horrifying and disorientating ways, which is further underlined by the fact that each character has the first name of an actor portraying one of the other roles.
In some ways, Images can be seen as a ghost story, but one where there is never any doubt that the ghosts are hallucinations. They still serve the same purpose as supernatural spectres in a more traditional ghost story, tormenting Cathryn with guilt and driving her to acts of madness and self-destruction. We see reality through her eyes throughout the film, and her shifting perspectives and unreliable grasp of identity make this experience unsettling in the extreme.
This unsettling effect is augmented by the bleakness and remoteness of the country house setting, and by the creative use of sound to bring foreshadowing and to make mundane events seem sinister. The mercurial nature of Cathryn’s moods and reactions make the already disturbing events all the more horrific.
For all this talk of its horror and unsettling atmosphere, many viewers may dispute the classification of Images as a horror film. It is primarily a psychological drama, and owes more to Ingmar Bergman than any horror film that came before it, with the possible exception of Repulsion. It does not follow the build and release of tension and bursts of terror common to most horror films, but relies more on a sustained sense of dread and the continuous assault on the viewer’s sense of reality. Probably the best acid test of whether you will consider Images to your taste is whether you find the films of David Lynch horrific and compelling.
Images was written and directed by Robert Altman during the more experimental phase of his career, before he settled into the sprawling ensemble pieces that would become synonymous with his name. Instead, this is a small, almost claustrophobic film, packed with symbolism and portents. It may not bring the visceral reaction that you would associate with horror films, but it is unnervingly close to being a true nightmare trapped on celluloid.