31 (More) Days of Fright: The Old Dark House

“Can I interest any of you in tonight’s specials?”

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film an early classic of the Universal horror cycle, The Old Dark House, directed by James Whale (Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein). I watched it via YouTube, and so can you!

What happens:

Trigger warnings: Suicide.

In rural Wales, an automobile runs aground in the midst of a turbulent storm. The couple in the car, Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey) and his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart) bicker about his driving, and while he complains about the terrible weather and poor visibility, he won’t cede the wheel to his wife. (What is he, some sort of cuck?) Their passenger, a Mr. Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), a foppish sort with a pencil-thin moustache, awakes from his slumber in the backseat and has nothing but witty asides to offer. (It’s kind of like being chauffeur to Frasier Crane.) The car continues on, basically driving through a river, as their road map becomes a damp rag and Penderel joyously sings.

After a close call with a landslide, the trio decide they’d better find shelter. Luckily, they just happen to be driving past a creepy old house. When they ring at the door, a imposing bearded man with a scar across his nose answers, but only mumbles incoherently to Penderel’s inquiry. “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that,” he quips. The manservant beckons them inside, where they’re greeted by Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), a thin, haunted-looking gentleman, who camps up every scene he’s in. Horace explains that his servant, Morgan (Boris Karloff) cannot speak. Then Horace’s sister, Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore), the owner of the mansion, enters to meet the guests. Rebecca is mostly deaf and can’t hear much of what Horace or the three guests say, but she’s certain of one thing: these strangers definitely can’t stay.

Guess who’s coming to dinner? These three!

The Wavertons and Penderel explain the landslides and flooding and Horace becomes so frightened he drops a vase. Rebecca mocks her brother for his fearful nature: both she and Morgan are well aware the house will be safe in any storm. Though Rebecca reluctantly allows the travellers to stay, she shouts, “No beds!” The guests are more than happy by the fire in the living room. The Wavertons and Penderel park their car in the stable outside, and join Horace Femm in a drink of gin. We then learn that Penderel is a man who was damaged by the War (World War I) and has been drifting ever since. (Horace, for his part, looks like he’s stepped in dog shit when he spits out the word “war.”) Once Morgan is out of earshot, Horace warns the guests that the man-mountain Morgan can be dangerous when drunk, and a storm like this is a perfect opportunity to get hammered.

Margaret Waverton asks the lady of the house if she can direct her to a room where she might change out of her wet clothes. Rebecca takes Margaret to her departed sister Rachel’s old room. While Margaret disrobes and changes into a gown, Rebecca tells her about her dead sister, who she says was a promiscuous sort that died after a horse accident in her youth. Though Rebecca told her sister Rachel to turn to the Lord, she never did. Rebecca then reveals their father, who is 102 years old, is still alive. The wicked man (as she calls him) lives on the top floor of the house. While Margaret changes, Rebecca eyes her closely, noting that Margaret looks a wicked sort, too, all long legs and white skin. She paws at her gown and unsettles Mrs. Waverton. Once the old Mrs. Femm leaves, Margaret is relived to be on her own. But she’s spooked by a roaring gust of wind that blows through the bedroom window, and even moreso by her maddening thoughts of Rebecca’s words of sin and wickedness. She returns to the sitting room, just in time for dinner.

Horace announces suppertime, and they all take a seat at the long dining table. Horace wields a machete-like carving knife and barbecue fork and is chided by his sister for not saying grace before serving dinner. The two have a squabble over religion, but eventually progress to a nice meal of roast beef, potatoes, and – of course – vinegar. (Delish!) Horace’s constant entreaties to “have a potato” are interrupted by another bang at the door. The Femms are forced to welcome two new guests stranded in the storm: the seemingly wealthy Brit, William T. Porterhouse (Charles Laughton), and his companion, a chorus girl named Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond). They arrive like a hurricane, clearly drunk and boisterous, and make themselves at home rather quickly. Penderel, clearly enchanted by Gladys’s arrival, offers the young woman his shoes, as hers are soaking wet. She puts on the new shoes and immediately begins to dance. Soon, they join the assembled strangers for dinner.

Two hours pass, after which Porterhouse notes they still know nothing about one another. But Margaret isn’t so sure: her woman’s intuition tells her certain things. “Can you tell if I am wanted by the police?” the nervous Horace asks. But the group moves on to what Gladys’s intuition tells her about Mr. Penderel. She divines that Penderel is a man out of time, uncertain in his place in the world. Penderel admits this assessment is more-or-less correct, and that he wishes he could be more like her companion, William Porterhouse, who seems able to focus on earning money and lives without existential worry. Porterhouse takes umbrage at this simplification and tells an illustrative story from his past. In his youth, he married a Manchester girl named Lucy. But Lucy, having grown up poor and unsophisticated, was snubbed by William’s associates and their wives. So much so, she ended her own life. After that, Porterhouse threw himself into work, focused solely on making money.

Nothing like a good game of Would You Rather to establish trust among strangers.

Porterhouse then, out of spite, reveals that Gladys is an impostor: her real name isn’t DuCane. It’s Perkins. Penderel jumps up to defend her honour, but Gladys admits it’s a stage name: “These people know a chorus girl when they see one.” She regularly spends her weekends with Porterhouse; they have an arrangement of sorts. That’s when Rebecca interjects to say that she’s spotted their servant Morgan in the kitchen and he’s quite drunk. The report agitates Horace to no end.

Gladys joins Penderel by the window and thanks him for leaping to her defence. He suggests they sneak out to the car in the stable, where he has some whiskey hidden. Penderel leaves for the car first. When Gladys joins a bit later, she sees a woozy Morgan at the window, who growls and smashes the glass with his fist. Gladys runs to find Penderel and tells him about her scare. He helps her calm down and they help themselves to his jug (it’s a jug) of whiskey. Penderel notices Ms. Perkins has got her feet soaked once again, so he removes them and dries her feet with a towel. (This has to be Quentin Tarantino’s favourite classic horror movie.)

Back inside the house, the flickering electric lights go completely out, just as Horace (who is turning into a real doom-and-gloom Eeyore) expected. The remaining guests request a lamp, but Horace offers a bunch of excuses as to why he can’t retrieve it. Rebecca reminds him the lamp is on the top landing, but he’s clearly too afraid to journey there. Mr. Waverton offers to accompany him, and the two men scale the house’s darkened stairs. Outside his own room, Horace stalls and asks to show Philip a few things. Philip suggests they do that later – after they retrieve a lamp. Then Horace is like, “What if we just said we looked for the lamp, but we couldn’t find it?” Mr. Waverton can’t understand Horace’s anxiety, but then he hears a muted cackle and begins to see Horace’s point of view. Still, Philip is made of braver stuff than the gentleman of the house, so he progresses further, while Horace pretends he’s too weak to continue. At the top landing, Philip finds the large gas lamp, but also a heavy door festooned with locks. A table outside the door holds a plate with fresh food scraps.

Rebecca hears rushing wind and rain and is outraged that her guest Margaret left open the window in Rachel’s room. Porterhouse offers to shut it. While Margaret Waverton is left alone, she amuses herself by making shadow puppets until she encounters a phantom shadow, seemingly cast by nobody. Startled, she makes to run outside. From the front door, she calls for Penderel and Gladys, but no one can hear her over the storm. We then see the hairy hand of Morgan pull the door closed. Like a drunken zombie, he lurches toward Margaret with ill intent in his (somewhat glazed) eyes. To get to her, he flips the (large) dinner table and pursues her up the stairs. Margaret, in her escape, runs into Philip, who’s on his way down with the lamp.

Shadow play dramatizing the “Girls Just Wanna’ Have Fun” music video.

Seeing his wife in danger, he tries to stop Morgan, then punches him directly in the face. Morgan doesn’t take kindly to this, and they scrap on the stair landing. Morgan has close to 100 pounds on Philip. He punches Phil in the gut, and it’s not looking good for Mr. Waverton until he smashes the hard-won lamp across Morgan’s face. Morgan topples down the stairs, but when they check his unconscious body, he’s still breathing. Margaret moans about how horrible the house is, and Philip agrees with the greatest understatement in horror history: “It isn’t very nice, is it?” He then tells Margaret about the sounds and locked door upstairs. He wants to investigate the source of the strange laughter, but insists they travel together. (Philip won’t leave his wife alone in this house again.)

In the stable, Gladys and Penderel, continue to chat and smoke. Penderel talks a bit about his war experiences and the girl he left behind. He asks Gladys about William, and she admits she likes him quite a bit. William provides her with money and “doesn’t expect anything” (if you know what we mean). She has no pretensions about who she is, but suggests that William has no interest in her sexually; just that he’s lonely. It’s possible he’s still in love with his dead wife. Over the course of a stormy night, Gladys and Penderel have fallen in love. Gladys gets a crazy idea: that she can move in with Penderel and maybe he’ll get his groove back. (No more existential dread!) They kiss passionately at the thought. Penderel has another idea, but decides to wait until morning to share it. They head back to the others in the house, even though Gladys has an ominous feeling about the house.

Porterhouse has fallen asleep and is awakened by a racket at the front door. He finds the newly formed couple of Gladys and Penderel on the other side and is not pleased by these rapid developments. Gladys tells her weekend companion she’s fallen in love, and while Porterhouse thinks she’s “a lunatic,” he’s not angry at all. Penderel then, in confidence, reveals to William that he plans to propose to Gladys in the morning. Porterhouse is invited to the wedding in a bit of true magnanimity. The gents decide to right the fallen dining table and clean up a bit of the mess that they’re unaware was caused by Morgan’s lusty rage.

Mr. and Mrs. Waverton, meanwhile, hear human activity from behind an unlocked door. They enter to find a roaring fireplace and an ancient man with a beard and long white hair in the master bed. The man is Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon, in drag), father to Horace and Rebecca, who asks what his children have told them about the house. Roderick reveals that two of his children died at twenty, and the ones that survived were all a bit mad. The eldest son, Saul, was the worst of the lot: he just wants to kill and burn down houses. This the first the Wavertons have heard of a Saul, and they’re alarmed to learn that Saul is apparently still alive. In fact, he’s who is kept behind the bolted door upstairs, and why they keep a brute like Morgan around. So he can keep Saul under control. But if Morgan drinks too much, he’s just as liable to open Saul’s door and let him run free. (Seems like a serious problem with their security system.)

Drink responsibly, everyone.

Philip instructs Margaret to stay with Roderick and heads downstairs to check on Morgan. He doesn’t find Morgan, just Horace, who frets that Morgan went upstairs to Saul’s room. The Wavertons return to the sitting room to warn everyone about Saul and his pyromaniac tendencies. Just as they do, a hand grasps the bannister on the landing. Then Morgan staggers down the stairs and tries to barge past the three male guests to reach the women. Our three dudes restrain Morgan and drag him forcefully to the kitchen, battling his incredible strength every step of the way. Penderel leaves Philip and William Porterhouse to battle the giant servant and returns to the two women. He takes them to a cupboard and hides them within, while he returns to the stairs to confront the newly arrived Saul (Brember Wills).

An older bearded man, Saul tells Penderel his family only locked him up because he witnessed Horace and Rebecca murdering their sister Rachel. He wants to tell Penderel a story, but can’t help noticing someone is in the cupboard. He demands to know who. Penderel attempts to calm the clearly troubled old man, and they both take a seat at the dinner table. While brandishing the prodigious carving knife, Saul tells Penderel that he’s become an expert in fire: did you know that fire is like a blade, cold and sharp? Penderel feigns interest while looking around for a way to subdue this Femm brother, but Saul catches on. Waxing poetic about the Biblical Saul, he begins to threaten Penderel with the knife. When Penderel makes a break for it, Saul hurls the knife at him, and it embeds in the nearby chair. Failing to impale his victim, Saul picks up another chair (he’s very strong for his age) and smashes it against the visitor.

With Penderel incapacitated, Saul grabs a firebrand from the hearth and runs up to the landing, immediately setting the curtains aflame, cackling all the while. Penderel comes to and tries to knock the torch from his hands, but Saul is vicious, even biting the other man’s neck. In their struggle, they break through the railing and fall to the ground.

One of our heroes narrowly avoids becoming a Pendrel-kebab.

Margaret and Gladys, trapped in the cupboard, try to free themselves. Unfortunately, Morgan has somehow extricated himself from the other two men and ends up opening the cupboard for them. The hulking man stands between the two women and the unconscious bodies of Penderel and Saul, but Gladys won’t be intimidated. She tries to shove past, but Morgan twists her arm and she falls to the ground in pain. Margaret pleads with the angry servant, pointing out that both Penderel and Saul have been seriously harmed. The mention of Saul somehow gets through to Morgan and he checks on the eldest Femm brother. Morgan sees that Saul is dead, and cradles his body as if he were his newlywed bride, and carries him upstairs.

Philip and Porterhouse show up, a day late and a dollar short. Gladys recovers from her arm injury and runs to Penderel’s side. Philip attempts to stop her, as he fears Penderel, too, has expired. But Gladys swears he’s alive and sobs uncontrollably. In the morning, Horace comes downstairs to see his guests, the Wavertons, in a hurry to get to their cars. Rebecca doesn’t give them as cordial a goodbye – more a “feh” – and Penderel, it turns out, is alive. As Gladys cradles his bandaged head, he asks for her hand in marriage. Our five guests have survived a wild night, and only one Femm sibling lost his life.

But will Margaret Waverton’s heart go on?

Takeaway points:

  • As many film historians have noted, James Whale, who is often touted as the finest director of the Universal horror stable, somehow simultaneously invented the old haunted house shtick and satirized it in the same film. There weren’t many spooky house movies before The Old Dark House. (This was 1932, after all.) The plot is familiar: some city squares stumble upon a kooky, yet deadly family of weirdos. The Femms are half-menace, half-quirk. One could make an argument that the film almost single-handedly invented the comedic macabre: you can see the DNA of this movie in everything from The Munsters to Texas Chain Saw Massacre to The Burbs.
  • An unanswered – and, to be perfectly honest, possibly unimportant – question lies at the heart of The Old Dark House: did Rebecca and Horace kill their sister Rachel? Rebecca, at least, seems to despise the long-dead Rachel for her “wanton” ways, and Saul claims that’s why he’s been locked away. (Though Saul has other problems.) The question is: do Horace and Rebecca just present well – are they the sociopaths able to hide their homicidal tendencies beneath a veneer of respectability and manners in a way that Saul and Morgan cannot? Are they just as “savage” as those other two, but clean up nice to blend in with everyone else? Though we viewers align more strongly with these more comic residents of the house, they may be just as (if not more) sinister.
  • Religion comes into play in The Old Dark House – after all Rebecca blames all types of misfortunes on sin – but it’s a religion against female flesh. Rebecca attributes Rachel’s death to her wickedness (and by “wickedness,” she means sex). She suggests that Margaret, too, is wicked, if only because of what she wears. Rebecca shouts “no beds!” like an anthem, in hopes of preventing any rutting under her roof. “You shouldn’t have come here,” Rebecca warns. Misfortune befalls Margaret simply for existing as a young woman in the same house as Morgan. Rebecca, like so many men’s rights activists, suggests that a brute like Morgan (i.e. your average man) can’t control himself when drunk and in the presence of a beautiful woman. The Old Dark House presents religion as a crutch for men’s bad behaviour. But despite the oppressive atmosphere, the old dark house and its occupants are unable to repress the women of the film: no one is going to tell Margaret what sort of evening gown she should wear during a monsoon! The film even features a positive portrayal of a sex worker – for that’s what it’s implied Gladys more or less is – who is not a tragic figure of pity.
  • As director James Whale was one of the first openly gay men in Hollywood, his films – particularly horror films – are often read through the lens of queer criticism. I don’t need to tell you that horror is a goldmine for queer criticism. (There’s even a “Queer Fear” film series at Toronto’s Royal Cinema.) And The Old Dark House certainly features a number of gay subtexts. There’s Ernest Thesiger, playing Horace Femm as the highest camp this side of Jonathan Harris’s Dr. Smith on Lost in Space, who wrinkles his nose at the barest hint of traditional masculinity. (This may explain his aversion to his sister’s Puritanical religious beliefs) There’s the patriarch of the family played by a woman (Elspeth Dudgeon) in an early filmic drag performance. And if so inclined, we can read into the tender manner by which Morgan carries Saul away (in a mirrored reflection of the bridal night), or the fact that Porterhouse pays for Gladys to keep him company, but has no interest in her, sexually. Keep in mind that the strange family’s surname is Femm (or “Femme”). Leave it to James Whale to somehow queer a film in which youthful lust is punished the ultimate sin.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: If nothing else, this horror movie marathon is reigniting my interest in classic film. The Old Dark House likely isn’t going to give anyone nightmares, though – to give Whale and company credit – there are a few genuinely creepy moments and jump scares (mainly regarding Karloff’s Morgan). But it’s an engaging and at times, downright funny film. Like a really dark episode of The Addams Family.

Chorus girl Gladys DuCane has the look that men of all nations and sexual orientations go for.

Best outfit: I realize we are supposed to fall in love with Margaret Waverton’s gown, and it’s very nice, but my heart belongs to Gladys DuCane’s collared shirt and floral-print dress.

Best line: When Gladys and Penderel return from the stable, Porterhouse notes she’s lost her shoes. “So ya’ got your feet wet,” he says. “And that wasn’t all,” Gladys answers, in some of the finest pre-Code innuendo ever written.

Best kill: Only one person dies during the course of The Old Dark House, so – by default – when Saul plummets to his death from a second story landing is the winner.

Unexpected cameo: Though children of the 1980s and 1990s might not readily recognize Gloria Stuart, the fantastic female lead of The Old Dark House, they would most certainly recognize the elderly version of her who portrayed Rose in James Cameron’s romantic blockbuster, Titanic. And Torontonians will recognize Raymond Massey as part of the family that once owned most of the city.

Unexpected lesson learned: Who could have guessed it would be a mistake to put the burly man who likes to get drunk and wreak havoc in charge of keeping the murderous pyromaniac behind locked doors?

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Roderick Femm.

Next up: Hell House, LLC (2015).

31 (More) Days of Fright: Inside

One of the few stills from Inside that’s somewhat safe for work.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. (Especially this one!) Today’s film is perhaps the one that came with the most notoriety attached to it: Inside (2007), directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Among the Living). The extreme French horror film, titled A l’intérieur in its native tongue, was demanded by friend, apparent sadist, and Kids Can Press Digital Project Manager, Brendan Ouellette. It’s available to stream on the Shudder horror service, but make sure you have a strong stomach and are not expecting a child.

What happens:

Trigger warnings: Miscarriage, anything pregnancy-related, cat violence.

Inside begins, as most people’s stories do, inside a uterus. We see a fetus in its amniotic fluid and hear a woman’s voice announce, “No one will take him from me.” Then there’s a screech of tires and the soon-to-be-baby bangs its head against the camera. We then see what happened: two compact cars have had a head-on collision in the rain. We see the occupants of one vehicle, a pregnant woman whose face drips blood and gore, and a man, slumped over and looking just as bad. The woman awakes and calls her husband, Matthieu (Jean-Baptiste Tabourin), but he doesn’t answer. The woman cradles her belly and the opening credits begin. (Opening credits, I’ll note, that are gorier than most of the other films have been in their entirety.)

Four months later, photojournalist Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is having her final ultrasound appointment. The baby is doing just fine (car accident aside) and the doctor goes over the plan to have her admitted to the hospital tomorrow morning – Christmas Day – when they’ll induce labour. “Enjoy your last night of peace and quiet,” he jokes, which is what we in the biz call dramatic irony. In the waiting area, a grizzled nurse sits beside Sarah and lights a cigarette (!), advising Sarah that the first kid is the worst one. The nurse says her first child put her through so much pain, but was stillborn. That’s when the doctor reminds her she can’t smoke in a hospital.

Sarah’s mother, Louise (Nathalie Roussel) picks her up from the waiting room. On the way to her car, Louise suggests meeting up for Christmas dinner, but Sarah wants to be left alone. Later, in a park, Sarah watches a young couple with their toddler and winces in disappointment. She takes some photos of the couple and their baby. Her editor, Jean-Pierre (François-Régis Marchasson), sits beside her on the park bench. He’s interrupted by a phone call – riots in the Paris suburbs mean the paper is all-hands-on-deck – but soon offers to drive Sarah back to her house. Sarah hands Jean-Pierre the keys; he’ll be responsible for picking her up and driving her to the hospital in the morning. When he asks Sarah’s Christmas Eve plans, Sarah says she wants to spend some time alone. “You won’t say that next year, I guarantee,” he says.

Sarah, back when her biggest worry was a breech birth.

Sarah sits in her house and works on her knitting. Her mother calls again to try to invite herself over, but Sarah forbids a visit. She then goes to her dark room and broods over photographs of her and her dead husband, Matthieu. But, Patrick-Swayze-style, Matthieu appears in her fantasy, wrapping his strong arms around her and cradling their unborn child. This dream is ended by the rude interruption of a grim memory: Matthieu’s head colliding with the windshield. Sarah returns to her rocking chair and drifts off to sleep.

She wakes when her black cat begins to meow. Suddenly, Sarah can’t breathe. She begins to hyperventilate, then pukes up about a gallon of a milk-like substance. She rolls over on her back; her cat begins to hiss wildly. Then Sarah’s baby is born violently through her open mouth. (Yikes!) But – it’s just a nightmare. Sarah awakes relieved, but that relief won’t last long. Because a ring a door ruins everything.

Though Sarah can’t make out the woman’s face, there’s a silhouette at the door asking for help. Her car broke down and her cell phone’s battery died; she needs to call for assistance. Sarah, very non-Wenceslas-like, refuses: she lies that her husband is sleeping and she can’t let her in. The woman on the other side of the door then says, “Your husband’s not sleeping. He’s dead, Sarah.” Somehow this woman knows her! The woman, who we’ll call the (spoiler alert) Intruder (Béatrice Dalle) asks Sarah to let her in and she’ll reveal how she knows her. But Sarah’s not having it.

She checks all the doors and entry points into the house to make sure they’re locked. But when she goes to her sliding glass door, the woman is standing outside, waiting. Sarah calls the police. The woman calmly lights a cigarette, then punches the window, causing it to spider-web out. Sarah takes her camera and shoots a bunch of photos of the strange woman, and she soon disappears. Immediately, Sarah goes to her dark room to develop the photos. The ones taken at the door are too dark and grainy for her to get a good look at her face, but when she studies the photos she took earlier in the park, she sees the woman was watching her from afar! Spooky!

Just one of the many tributes to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The police ring her doorbell and Sarah lets two of the officers inside, while a third checks the perimeter of her house. The policewoman notes that the intruder could have known her name just by looking at her letterbox, but she’s not sure how she could know about her dead husband. The police look at the photos but also have a hard time identifying anyone. The cop who was outdoors says there’s no sign of anyone, but it’s certainly quiet in her neighbourhood on Christmas Eve. The police make sure the doors are secure and then depart, promising to check in on her later in the evening. They have to get back to the suburbs: with the riots, the Paris police are busier than usual.

Sarah falls back to sleep on the couch, but is soon awakened by her cat. (The joys of cat ownership.) We viewers see, though Sarah does not, the intruder has somehow entered the house and looms in the darkened doorway behind her. Sarah calls Jean-Pierre and leaves a message on his answering machine: that she has some photos that worry her, and is wondering if he can enhance them. She then heads upstairs and goes to sleep, dreaming of the fetus inside her. Once she’s asleep, we see the intruder has entered. She’s dressed all in black, complete with leather gloves, a black corset, and a black dress with wizard sleeves. She departs, investigates Sarah’s closet, inhales deeply of her wedding dress, then returns to the washroom, where much of our story will take place.

The intruder, we see, is wielding a very large pair of scissors, and goes to the medicine cabinet to find some rubbing alcohol. She returns to the bed and uncovers Sarah’s baby bump. The intruder dips the scissors into the alcohol and stabs into Sarah’s belly button. From inside the uterus, we see the baby in distress. Sarah awakes with a start and the woman slashes her face with the scissor blade. Sarah reacts by smashing a bedside lamp against her head and rushing to the washroom. The scissors whizz by her head on the way and embed in the bedroom door, but Sarah locks herself in with the toilet. The intruder pounds frantically on the locked door.

Most household accidents happen in the washroom.

In the brightly lit bathroom, Sarah looks at herself in the mirror to assess the damage: her face has a nasty diagonal cut across her mouth and cheek and she’s bleeding heavily. At that moment, her water breaks. When Sarah checks her belly, she sees her navel is weeping blood. As Sarah begins to weep herself, the intruder retreats to the kitchen and makes a makeshift ice pack for her throbbing skull. That’s when she hears keys jingle at the door. Jean-Pierre has arrived to check on Sarah and, making a few assumptions, decides this intruder must be Sarah’s mother (even though she must be eight years older than Sarah, max). Sarah’s fake mother says Sarah went to bed about an hour ago, but, sadistically, asks Jean-Pierre to stick around for a drink.

Somehow, the intruder convinces Jean-Pierre she’s still Sarah’s mom for the next several minutes. He only begins to suspect something’s up when he finds the grainy photo of the “mother” on the couch, and wonders if this is one of the photos Sarah called about. The broken sliding glass door doesn’t allay his suspicions. But the real clincher is when Louise barges in and asks to see her daughter. Jean-Pierre realizes this gap-toothed woman in black is not Sarah’s mom; she’s someone else entirely.

Louise marches up the stairs to the bathroom and Sarah – totally unaware of the drama that’s been unfolding downstairs – lies in wait with a knitting needle. When her mother comes to the washroom room, Sarah strikes, stabbing her mother through her throat. The puncture wound sprays blood all over the walls and Sarah screams at her mistake: “Mommy!” Jean-Pierre heads upstairs and stumbles across the unfolding horror show. He stops midway and the intruder stabs him with the scissors in the back of his knee. He rolls over and the intruder stabs him again in the crotch and rotates the scissors like she’s loosening a bolt. The woman stabs Jean-Pierre a couple times in the face for good measure and then slashes his throat. It’s a Grand Guignol sequence that gets the adrenaline pumping.

Sarah has wisely locked herself in the washroom again. The intruder, meanwhile, drags Jean-Pierre’s body down the stairs and into the living room. He begins to stir, so the intruder smothers him with a pillow then stabs the scissors through the cushion into his face, twists it around a little. Upstairs, Sarah has started to creep out of the bathroom, but the woman spots her and gives chase. Sarah hops back into the washroom, but the intruder grabs her by the hair and pulls. (The unborn baby doesn’t like any of this.) In the struggle, Sarah manages to stab the woman in her wrist with a metal hair barrette, which she breaks off in her arm. The intruder screams and retreats. Sarah has drawn blood.

The intruder smokes so frequently, it’s almost like she has no self-control.

While Sarah demands to know who the intruder is, on the other side of the door the woman begins to get twitchy and has to smoke a cigarette to calm down. She pets the traitorous cat for a bit, then crushes its head and throws the cat corpse away. As Sarah begins to feel painful contractions, she hobbles over the sink to cool herself down with water. The intruder digs a hole into the wooden door with the scissors so the two can now see each other. Sarah smashes the (quite large) washroom mirror and arms herself with a large shard. “Why me?” Sarah pleads. “I want one,” the intruder answers. She’s here to take the baby.

From outside, a police siren can be heard. We see three police officers have arrived in a cruiser, and accompanying them is a man they’ve arrested, Abdel (Aymen Saïdi). In what is clearly a case of racial profiling, Abdel has been arrested for fitting the description – Middle-Eastern young man – of some of the rioters. While the driver of the police cruiser (Nicolas Duvauchelle) calls his lover to explain his lateness, the other two cops (Emmanuel Lanzi and Ludic Berthillot) go to check on Sarah. The intruder barricades the washroom door with a heavy dresser to trap Sarah, then goes downstairs – sliding a knitting needle into her sleeve first – to see her guests from Parisian law enforcement.

While the intruder is occupied, Sarah uses the mirror shard to painfully dig a larger hole into the door. The police officers, being different from the ones who visited earlier, mistake the intruder for Sarah, and are pleased to find out everything’s great. When they inquire about the banging from upstairs, the intruder explains it away as an old dishwasher. Sarah manages to bore a hole in the door large enough to fit her arm, and reaches out to reach the knob. But the intruder has already returned to the washroom. She takes Sarah’s hand and gruesomely pins it to the wall with her scissors.

“Evening, officers. Oh, the screaming? I’m watching a French horror film.”

The doorbell rings again: the police are back, as they’ve remembered the woman in the house is supposed to be pregnant. The one cop, hearing muffled cries, heads upstairs and tells the other cop to watch the intruder like a hawk. When the police officer sees the charnel house that’s developed around the washroom, he screams to his partner to arrest the woman, then moves the dresser and helps Sarah remove the scissors from her palm.

Of course, the intruder has a hidden knitting needle and she’s definitely going to use it. She stabs her arresting officer right in the eye, then again in his neck. (That’s resisting arrest, on top of her other offences.) Just as the other police officer opens the washroom door to rescue Sarah, his face is blown apart. The intruder takes the other cop’s gun and blows his brains, very literally, out. Sarah scurries into the corner with her mirror shard.

The police officer outside is no dummy. He takes a non-lethal riot gun and binds Abdel to him via handcuffs. (Yet, he does not radio for backup – a decision he may regret later.) Abdel protests police brutality, but the cop drags him into the house of horror where they find gruesomely murdered people. Upstairs, they discover Sarah and try to help her, but Sarah can’t stop confessing, “I killed my mother.” The power is cut. The cop then arms both Sarah and Abdel while he attempts to bandage the cuts on Sarah’s hands. It’s a tense scene, framed so that you expect the intruder to leap into the room at any moment. (She even walks past at one point, unbeknownst to them.)

The officer instructs Sarah to wait in her bedroom. He and his prisoner are heading to the circuit breaker to turn the lights back on. The two of them use a flashlight to work on the power box while Sarah rests on her bed, absolutely drenched in blood (only some of which is her own). It’s so dark that the police officer doesn’t notice when the intruder picks up the riot gun, which they set aside to work on the breaker, and shoots him point blank in the face with the rubber bullets. He drops to the floor and Abdel screams to warn Sarah that the intruder is still there. However, Sarah has seemingly fallen asleep. (How can she sleep at a time like this?!) The woman restrains Abdel and stabs the scissors directly into his forehead. Stunned and bleeding profusely, he slowly removes the scissors from his head and stabs at the intruder in a daze, but then falls forward, dead. The intruder lights another cigarette and smiles.

As morning light begins to break, the intruder finds Sarah asleep in bed and, so, slowly mounts her, kissing her belly, rubbing against her body, and kissing her face.That’s when Sarah bites the woman’s lower lip, removing part of it with her teeth, and spitting the bloody mess onto the floor. Sarah staggers downstairs as the intruder recoils in pain. Sarah retrieves her knitting needle and heads back to finish the job, but the intruder gets the drop on her. She kicks Sarah several times in the face, then drags her into the kitchen.

Sarah gets to her feet and holds the knitting needle to her belly: she threatens the one thing the intruder wants. No slouch herself, the intruder smacks Sarah across the face with a toaster, putting her down for the count. As Sarah writhes on the floor, the intruder lights yet another cigarette, so Sarah sprays her with some Pam and brutally sets her face on fire. (Cigarettes are hazardous to your health.) The intruder runs away screaming, and Sarah, gasping for air, gives herself a homemade tracheotomy, puncturing her windpipe with the knitting needle. The move helps her breathe better, but now her neck is spurting blood everywhere. She remedies the situation with some duct tape (Red Green would be proud), then makes some sort of impromptu spear using a glass shard and table leg and heads off in search for the intruder.

And thus, the Ghost Rider was born.

Sarah snaps photos with her camera to draw the intruder out of hiding, but also manages to highlight the gruesome carnage of the evening (so far). She finds her attacker crouched in the closet, her face half-melted off. “You can kill me again, Sarah,” she gasps. “You already did once.” That’s when Sarah realizes who the woman is: she was the other driver in the accident that killed her husband. And she was pregnant, too. Only she lost her unborn child in the accident. Sarah is stunned: “They told me there were no survivors.”

The lights return, and it appears the third policeman is back on his feet and operating the breaker. When he turns to reveal his face, his forehead is badly wounded and his eyes seem ruined. Worse, he seems confused as to who is who, and he attacks Sarah with his nightstick, wailing on her pregnant belly. Sarah begins to eject blood from between her legs, but she’s rescued from this assault by an unlikely saviour: the intruder. She’s on her feet again and stabs the cop mercilessly with the makeshift spear until he drops.

In the melee, Sarah has fled and begins to crawl crab-wise up the stairs. The baby is coming soon. Not long now. The intruder follows her. Sarah panics; she thinks the baby is stuck. The intruder tries to calm and reassure her, but that’s hard to do when half your face is molten slag and you’re carrying a giant pair of shears. The burned woman in black begins to cut away Sarah’s dress with agonizing deliberateness, then – you knew this was probably going to happen – shears open her belly, in a gruesome perversion of a Cesarian section. Blood slowly runs in a river down the steps. The film mercifully fades to black as the intruder starts to reach inside Sarah.

Next we see the burned woman cradling a healthy baby in the dark. She walks over to the rocking chair. The camera pans over Sarah’s horrifying corpse, cut open like a post-dissection frog, and our killer gently rocks the baby to sleep.

Inside is brutal, and that’s no *lip* service. (Get it?)

Takeaway points:

  • Rather than focus on the obvious – that this film is a bit of an ordeal in its intensity and relentless gore – let’s try to figure out what Inside means. After all, this is a film, above all, about childbirth. More specifically, about fear of miscarriage. The film opens with a near-fatal car accident (well, it’s fatal for Matthieu). When she comes to, Sarah is obviously concerned about harm to the baby. Immediately after the credits, she’s having an ultrasound (a regular check on the health of the fetus). The broad (and maybe too-obvious) metaphor is a film that makes concrete Sarah’s (and any expectant mother’s) fear of miscarriage. In this reading, the intruder isn’t so much an actual person as fate/God/circumstance that rips her baby away from her. And because it’s symbolism in a horror movie, this person is going to take the baby away in the most terrible, unthinkable way possible.
  • As much as Inside is a nightmare funhouse mirror look at childbirth, it’s also a reverent look at motherhood. Who gets to be mothers and who does not. As Sarah is about to become a mother herself, she pushes away her own mother – she refuses to see her over Christmas, she hands responsibility of the hospital drive to her editor. But when she inadvertently kills her own mother, it’s a unforgivable transgression. She can’t stop thinking about it, frantically confessing to the police when more urgent things are happening. And during the climax, an agonized Sarah cries for her dead “Mommy.” When Jean-Pierre arrives, the intruder seems to indulge his belief that she is Sarah’s mother because she so badly wants to be a mother herself. Though, on paper, the film would appear to be very anti-mother, there is nothing in the film venerated or desired more than motherhood and mothers in general. Even the grim ending is framed, in some way, as a happy one. The maternal act of our killer with her newly stolen baby is one that results in an odd peace and calm.
  • Another curious aspect of Inside is how it plays against a backdrop of Parisian riots – ones that pitted the largely immigrant suburbs against police and the white Parisian elite. As it plays out in the narrative, one (alleged) rioter is dragged kicking and screaming into danger by the police. Abdel sagely notes that bringing him into the murder house is just a very elaborate and unusual form of police brutality. But more than that, is this sequence of events not just another act of colonialism? Police press-ganging a Middle-Eastern youth into the site of a brutal yet entirely domestic conflict? It’s like World War II all over again.
  • While watching the film, I couldn’t help wonder how different a film it would be, were the intruder a man. As it is, the film leaves you in near-total despair. You want to crawl into a hole and die, because the world is a terrible place. But if a man were the intruder, the film would add a horrible and – frankly – unwatchable layer of misogynist fervour that Inside, as repellant as it sometimes is, manages to avoid.
  • Also, where would a modern horror film be without a photograph or audio or video clip needs to be enhanced? (It comes up a lot.) All horror post-1998 is the horror of bad resolution.
  • No one ever suggests Inside as their favourite Christmas film. Could Inside become the new Die Hard?

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Some films are gruesome and some films are scary, and Inside manages to be a lot of both. Not only is it stomach-turning in its brutality, it’s unsettling in its intensity. The moment the intruder arrives at the door, my heart started pounding and didn’t slow down until well after the credits. Even when there’s a lull in the proceedings, you can’t relax because you know it won’t last long.

A soon-to-be grandmother has to look her most stylish during a visit to the hospital in Paris.

Best outfit: Sarah’s mother, Louise, has a really nice trench coat that features closely paired buttons all the way down.

Best line: “I don’t observe it, so fuck Christmas.” – Abdel, with one of the few comic lines of the movie.

Best kill: How to choose? Sarah spearing her own mother was the one that wrecked me, but seeing that police officer’s face blow to pieces is not an image I’ll soon forget.

Unexpected cameo: One of the first police officers who visits Sarah is played by Tahar Rahim, the star of French indie darling, A Prophet. And you might know the intruder, Béatrice Dalle, and the last cop to be killed, Nicolas Duvauchelle, from Claire Denis’s own entry to the New French Extreme, Trouble Every Day.

Unexpected lesson learned: If you call the Paris police about a prowler, it will take them roughly the time it takes to develop a full roll of film to arrive. (Remember, one-hour photo shops were fast.)

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Scarangelo. (Sarah’s last name.)

Next up: The Old Dark House (1932).