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The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team FANGRRLS comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today, we look at well-made, surrealist '70s horror film Images.
A successful writer rapidly whispering the words of her most recent children’s book to herself is the bizarre beginning of Robert Altman’s Images, a film that starts creepy and quickly escalates to full-out psychological horror in its first few minutes of screentime. The dreamy quality of the opening moments throws the whole film for a loop while offering us the most unreliable of narrators in Susannah York’s Cathryn. Even the establishing facts about her are thrown into suspicion as she struggles with what we are led to believe are the symptoms of extreme mental illness. Unable to regain control of a narrative that was out of hand before the movie even began, she struggles to understand what is happening to her while pulling the audience along for the bumpy ride of her own perspective.
Of all the many excellent surrealist horror stories cinema has given us over the decades, Images is one of the most under-recognized for its strengths and its twists on the theme. As the audience for this film has only grown in recent years, it’s a good time to take a look back at one of the most well-made psychological horror films of the early ‘70s.
Cathryn lives in the city with her husband, Hugh, who is subject to the demands of his work and leaves her alone often as he goes on business trips. She is distraught when a mystery woman, likely a development of her own shaky grasp on reality, calls her and tells her that Hugh is having an affair. When he comes home, she immediately confronts him in a panic, then is mortified as his physical form shifts into another man. He shifts quickly back, but her trust is rattled. Hugh dismisses her troubling emotional instability as “nerves” and insists that they go to their place in the country so that she can write in peace.
Haunted by an apparition of her dead love Rene, who taunts her about her mental state and her previous affairs, Cathryn begins to see a doppelganger of herself near a waterfall close to her house. Her husband’s friend and another former lover of Cathryn’s, Marcel, brings his daughter Susannah to visit. Susannah develops a bond with Cathryn, believing her to be her father’s girlfriend. In truth, Cathryn seems to completely despise Marcel, and when he comes to her as another apparition, she actually murders him by stabbing him in the chest. It is indicated that this is not truly Marcel, but it shows Cathryn’s increasingly casual attitude towards murder. Of course, this all escalates to the point of no return when Cathryn finally snaps and tries to murder her own doppelganger, who is not exactly what she seems and who has been tormenting Cathryn throughout the story.
Director Robert Altman is one of the better-known filmmakers of the late ‘60s to the early aughts, having brought us some of the heaviest satires of his age with critical hits like MASH and Nashville. His themes of dark humor mixed with dreamy, disjointed storytelling hit a chord with audiences, and he worked in the industry for most of his life after getting his start as a screenwriter in the late ‘40s. By the ‘70s, Altman had enough accumulated clout as both a writer and direct that he began directing his own scripts more regularly, beginning with the “anti-western” McCabe and Mrs. Miller in 1971, followed by Images in 1972. This was the movie that would mark a departure that had been developing for some time, which took his focus away from the mainstream. Going forward, he would be regarded as one of Hollywood’s auteurs, unwilling to conform to the standards of blockbuster filmmaking but garnering a great deal of critical praise nonetheless. His later film, 3 Women, is considered his masterpiece, but Images is the underrated precursor.
One of Altman’s more interesting stances as a director is his tendency to not only listen to actors but to focus on their individuality. In contrast to filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, who famously described actors as “cattle,” this individualist and compassionate edge is what makes Altman's films stand out. In works that could easily forego compassion entirely, he emphasizes it, adding paradoxical traits that make it difficult to dismiss even minor characters. In Images, his insistence that his actors bring elements of their own personalities into their roles and use their creativity is shown via Susannah York’s use of a children’s book that she herself wrote as the movie's beginning narration. This book was the haunting and strange In Search of Unicorns, which is now out of print and also impossible to regard as an innocent, ordinary children’s book after you watch this disturbing psychological horror film in which it prominently appears.
Besides that, other indications of utilizing the actors to flesh out what was initially a bare-bones script are displayed in the characters of Susannah and Cathryn, who are meant to resemble one another. Altman went so far as to invert the names of the actors (Cathryn Harrison is Susannah, and Susannah York is Cathryn) to drive the point home. One of the most emotionally off-putting moments of the film occurs when Susannah looks at Cathryn and tells her she wants to grow up to be just like her and Cathryn, with the dark knowledge of things unsaid, realizes that it is indeed very likely that she will eventually be “just like her.”
The soundtrack of Images also features the icy classical tones of composer John Williams, who audiences will know for his quite substantial work providing soundtracks for little cult classics like E.T., Jaws, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars. Williams worked on this movie in collaboration with experimental prog rock percussionist Stomu Yamashta, and the result is a shared masterpiece that perfectly fills in the unwinding, uncomfortable feeling throughout the story.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Images is the emotional distance it gives us from Cathryn. We are intimately acquainted with her psychosis, but we know very little about its development or why she is the way she is. While we watch her struggle and flail, we sympathize with her, but we might not quite empathize. By giving us a highly personal look at a woman on the edge but failing to add depth, we exist with her in the moment, believing what she believes and trying to escape her fate alongside her. In the end, the sinking feeling of watching her sad ending unfold gets under your skin and stays there without ever making an appeal to the heart of the audience, which gives it an intellectual and somewhat disorienting lens that would suit few stories so well as it fits this one.
This theme of the fractured, troubled psyche we see here would be further explored in Altman’s 3 Women, a slightly more perfected take on the complicated inner lives of three strangely interconnected, emotionally complex women. Of all his films, 3 Women is perhaps the most strongly indicative of the nuanced masterpiece he worked all his career to create, but we never would have gotten there if not for Images. While not a sequel, it is a continuation of a theme. Meanwhile, Images is definitely worth a watch for fans of surrealism, followers of Altman’s other work, and anyone compelled towards the strange subsect of horror films that birthed this movie and many more.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.