When true film auteurs wander outside of their staid and classical lines and in to the horror genre there’s always the potential for some serious magic. Kubrick with the Shining, Freidkin with the Exorcist, Spielberg with Jaws, and even Danny Boyle with 28 Days Later. All these major film think-o-logists had a crack at horror and walked away proud at what they had accomplished, or so ashamed at the terror they had brought to the cineplex, they never came back to the genre. One of the greatest film auteurs of all time, Robert Altman, wandered in to horror with aplomb, but sadly his seminal effort has been forgotten in the sands of time.
In 1972, Robert Altman released one of the most terrifying depictions of schizophrenia that’s ever been laid down on celluloid, Images. Equal to, if not better than, Repulsion, Psycho, and Rosemary’s Baby. But, sadly, almost never appears on “best of” lists, nor is it mentioned in the same breath as these horror stalwarts.
Images is a freaky depiction of the mental state that jettisons the audience in to the psychological chaos from the jump. The film follows hyper-wealthy children’s author Cathryn (Susannah York — Superman) as she’s struggling to pen her next book. She’s narrating segments of the book, having conversations with herself, and when her phone rings she’s having simultaneous conversations with one, two, or possible three people. It’s a jarring state of affairs that’s not played with wild swings and tense caterwauling, but a sly grin and a blank stare in to space.
Caught in the very real possibility that her husband Hugh (René Auberjonois — M.A.S.H and King Kong) has a side-piece, or numerous side-pieces, he suggests that they get away from the struggles of the city and head for the confines of their remote lakeside Irish estate. Upon arrival the couple is fluidly transported back and forth to the apartment, rooms begin to change and revert, and Cathryn begins to have interchangeable conversations with not one, but two of her deceased paramours.
It’s not just cliched voices telling her to “kill”, or frames with filled with blurry apparitions, but there’s a quiet sense that lulls over her as she’s trying to weave through a pile of competing timelines. As she deals with the mounting sense that her life is cracking she begins to see a doppelgänger. In the distance. By the lake. On a mountain top. It’s everywhere but seldom is it within arm’s reach. Cathryn takes it mostly in stride. She doesn’t panic and she puts on a decidedly non-manic facade. All the while the cryptic and off-putting narration of her latest novel continues on in the background like a well-worn road map to insanity. Cathryn’s the only one with the map and she deftly follows the course to a grizzly and graphic conclusion.
The baffling and frightening soundtrack, courtesy of one of the all-time greats, John Williams, is haunting but never oppressive. Much like Cathryn and her coping mechanisms for schizophrenia, Williams’ score is disturbing, but it’s a likely and plaintive approach to her slide in to madness. Images is not Nashville, nor is it Short Cuts or Gosford Park. It’s not a wild ensemble cast too numerous follow. You won’t see Altman’s flourishes all over the screen or even surreptitiously tucked away in a dark corner. While at this point in his career he’d been in the game for 20+ years, it was clear that he was unafraid and undeterred to tackle the horror genre. Today’s writers and directors would be wise to study this film as a liberating exercise in the possibilities that film holds. Don’t be afraid. It’s OK to wander out of your lane ever once in a while, and sometimes wandering over to the scary side of the street can be rather rewarding.
Images is Rated R and currently streaming on Shudder.