Can we talk about The Cell? Can we talk about how beautiful, imaginative and bat-shit crazy this obscure movie from 2000 is?
Can we talk about how this psychological horror-thriller opens with a desert scene, with Jennifer Lopez dressed like the Swan Princess, riding on the back of a black stallion which then turns into a chess piece? Can we talk about the mind-bending, nightmarish visuals that follow as the story about a disturb serial killer unfolds?
And can we talk about how Vincent D’Onofrio gives a terrifying performance which remains etched into the mind, long after the closing credits roll? Can we talk about how it is one of his best performances?
Seriously, can we talk about The Cell?
Directed by Tarsem Singh, and written by Mark Protosevich, The Cell is a freakishly odd little curio, which some have seen, but few ever talk about. The movie stars Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Vince Vaughn, and tells the story of a child psychologist who enters the mind of a serial killer.
In the movie, D’Onofrio plays Carl Rudolph Stargher – a hulking loner, who kidnaps and murders women. The FBI are on his trail, but when they finally close in on him, Stargher suffers from a brain-related illness and slips into a coma that he will never wake from.
Although his reign of terror is abruptly brought to an end, the FBI still have one very pressing problem – locating Stargher’s last victim. Prior to his apprehension, Stargher kidnapped a young woman who is now in mortal danger, because only he knows her whereabouts.
Desperate to locate the young woman, FBI agent Peter Novak (Vaughn) approaches child psychologist Catherine Deane (Lopez) for assistance. Deane is experienced in using experimental technology to enter the human mind, and Novak believes that if Deane can get into Stargher’s psyche, she can help save a life.
What follows is an exploration of Stargher’s mind, as Deane and Novak are mentally transported into his subconscious. They experience the dark thoughts and desires of a horrifying killer, which are conveyed to the audience through the use of striking and often unsettling imagery.
The Cell is peculiar, but incredibly interesting. It is a movie which more often than not does not get the recognition it deserves, but really should.
The first time I watched The Cell was in 2001, months after it’s theatrical release, when the movie arrived on VHS & DVD. I was working in a video rental store at the time, and The Cell was a new horror-thriller hitting our shelves.
Prior to watching the movie, I had read a couple of reviews, but neither were all that favourable. In fact, this wasn’t a particularly well-received movie, and as many critics weren’t fans of the picture, The Cell slipped out onto our rental shelves with little to no fanfare.
I had a different reaction to The Cell. I found it to be truly captivating.
For me, this film served up a mesmerising wonderland. It was a frightening picture, sure, but it was filled to the brim with neat ideas and an almost overwhelming sense of creativity.
Back then, the best way to describe The Cell was to call it a “weird Silence of the Lambs.” All these years on and while that description is still somewhat valid, I would now say it is more of an “avant-garde Silence of the Lambs.”
No, scratch that; it’s more like Hannibal – the 2013 TV series about Hannibal Lecter. All the weird and mind-bending visuals that are presented in Hannibal are reminiscent of what is served up in The Cell.
It’s fair to say The Cell shares DNA with The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Hannibal, as well as other works by author Thomas Harris; and it certainly feels as if this movie is cut from similar cloth. But The Cell isn’t just a carbon copy of Harris’ portfolio, this is a film which is stitched together from multiple components.
There are visual references to artists such as H. R. Giger, Damien Hirst and Odd Nerdrum; and nods to the French animated movie, La Planète Sauvage (1973) (aka Fantastic Planet). Costumes previously used in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) are reused, thanks to the two movies sharing the same costume designer (Eiko Ishioka); and there’s also a bit of What Dreams May Come (1998) in the movie too – although this is possibly a coincidence, based on the release dates of the films.
If you are familiar with The Cell you might also notice a certain similarity to the 1991 music video, Losing My Religion by R.E.M. This isn’t a coincidence – The Cell’s director, Tarsem Singh directed the R.E.M. video. Singh also directed En Vogue’s 1990 music video, Hold On, and there are stylistic touches present in that video which also crop up in The Cell.
The Cell is a movie which takes its influences from various sources, and weaves them together to a create a weird and wonderful picture. It is a rich melting pot of ideas, with a lavish design aesthetic.
Back in 2000, many reviewers agreed about the aesthetic strengths of the film, but called it style over substance. While I agree the picture is strongest in the visual department, this is something to be championed, rather than used to downplay the remainder of the movie.
And as mentioned above, this film boasts a superb performance from Vincent D’Onofrio, which is outstanding. It’s creepy, disturbing, and amazing, and needs to be discussed at every opportunity.
This performance is forever overlooked because D’Onofrio gets very little dialogue in The Cell – he doesn’t get to verbally spar with the heroes of the picture. But what he doesn’t say in the movie speaks volumes, and instead he delivers something truly sinister through his physical performance. It’s there in his breathing, his movements, and the looks he delivers.
Jennifer Lopez is also impressive in The Cell. There’s a certain confidence and likeability in her performance which would have made her character perfectly suitable for sequels and spin-offs.
I should add that The Cell did receive a sequel in 2009, in the shape of The Cell 2, but the movie did not feature Lopez or her character, Catherine Deane. This was a missed opportunity for further character development/exploration, and could have been a way to set up a franchise star.
What is great about Lopez is how committed she is to the movie and her character. As noted at the top of this post, The Cell’s opening scene involves the actress decked out in a bizarre swan-like outfit, after riding a horse that turns into a chess piece. Lopez never looks out of place or concerned that this is all a bit weird, but it is a bit weird – and I love it.
I wanted to highlight The Cell today because I recently re-watched the movie and I simply wanted to talk about it. I want fans of The Cell to know that I am a fan too, and I want those who have never watched The Cell, or who have never even heard of it, to know that it exists.
I also want the studio behind this picture to show it more love. The Cell needs a re-master so that the colours pop as intended and so fans get to see it sparkle on screen.
Some films get lost to time, or simply get misplaced. Don’t let The Cell be one of these movies. It is bonkers, but brilliant too.
Thank you for stopping by It’s A Stampede! to read this post about The Cell. If you’re a fan of the movie, be sure to drop some love in the comments section below.
And for more horror/thriller-related content, be sure to check out the recommended reads below.