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One of the highlights of the Walter Reade’s Catalan series, Agustí Villaronga’s sensational shocker has not been seen on the big screen in these parts for nearly 20 years. The young Majorcan’s 1987 breakthrough feature was made during the flagrantly permissive post-Franco Socialist period when all censorship was suspended. Although date and locale are left unspecified, his disturbing tour de force is set in the Franco era—apparently in the ’50s. A pedophile Nazi doctor (G Meisner) who had used his post in a concentration camp to torture and abuse boys has taken refuge with his wife and daughter in an isolated house in the Spanish countryside. An accident puts him in an iron lung. One day, Angelo (David Sust), a strange youth, arrives out of nowhere, claiming to be a trained nurse sent to take care of the invalid. He wins over the daughter, who becomes his doting ally, and soon takes over as master of the house. During scenes of feverish erotic ritual and contagious madness, it becomes clear that the young Angelo had been molested by the doctor as a child, and has returned in search of something more complex than revenge.
It’s tricky territory, but Villaronga doesn’t take a false step. In a Glass Cage contains some of the most bizarre love scenes ever conceived (anyone for iron lung sex?) and the best classical suspense-murder sequence since the demise of Hitchcock. The film is tinged with grisly humor, deceptive gentleness, and moments of entertaining Grand Guignol; as the cycle of abuse and murder comes full circle, the tone becomes one of stately sadness.
During the big cat-and-mouse set piece, Jaume Peracaula (a shepherd in the Pyrenees before he became one of Barcelona’s most accomplished cinematographers) makes the most of the delirious gewgaws and shadowed nooks of the Gaudiesque mansion where most of the picture was shot. As the handsome young angel of death, Sust is remarkable in his first screen role, while veteran German actor Meisner (Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg) is superb as the demented doctor. Villaronga’s unsettling lyrical nightmare hasn’t aged a bit; it stays in the mind long after more bloodthirsty recent horror flicks have faded away.