“I must get this crack mended”
Dir: Roman Polanski
Compton Films, England, 1965
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, Yvonne Furneaux
Only two films have ever truly instilled a lasting sense of fear in me. The first was Kubrick’s elaborate psychological labyrinth The Shining (1980) with its twisted maximalist visuals and cryptic symbolism, though it was the raw and primitive minimalism of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) that taught me what I feared most. Half a century after its release, Repulsion still morbidly captures the interest of a wide audience and maintains a towering legacy in the annals of the horror genre – able to thoroughly terrify the numerous generations that have established themselves since its unleashing, and adapt to the ever changing palettes of fear.
I am a member of a de-sensitised society, one that has seen death on a large scale broadcast on international television, one that can find gruesome videos of murder, violence and abuse on demand, and one whose media publishes pictures of dead children with little censure – so why does Repulsion still permeate through my mind and affect me in a way that these elements do not? With very little gore, almost no jump scares and more focus placed on the idea of isolation as opposed to more traditional sources of fear, Polanski’s exercise in sparse, skeletal horror resides at the opposite end of the spectrum to much of the genre’s contemporary offerings. Repulsion is a devastating psychological experience that targets the human psyche’s deepest and most exposed sources of dread, forgotten and sensitive fears such as the fear of intimacy and the terror borne from notions such as betrayal and paranoia.
I have seen men sawing their own limbs off throughout the Saw franchise, people sewn anus to mouth in The Human Centipede (2009) and a grotesque extraterrestrial creature burst forth from an astronauts chest cavity in Alien (1979), yet none of these ideas scare me quite so much as the surrealistic and feverish moments of slow burning terror that punctuate Repulsion.
Centred on Catherine Deneuve’s reclusive young Londonite, by the name of Carol, Polanski’s film traces a rapid descent into madness over the space of a weekend alone in her sister’s claustrophobic flat. The terror is unbearably subtle at first, to the point where you question why a lengthy crack in a pavement makes you feel so uneasy, or why the wide eyed gaze of Deneuve’s beauty seems so full of anxiety and dread, but gradually these elements transition into hypnotic images of explicit horror with arms reaching from the walls of a narrow hallway and the caustic silent screams of Carol’s subconscious reverberating through the streets of London.
It is strange that it was these dali-esque hallucinations, rather than outright shock, that proved to be so utterly terrifying to both me and the film’s many audiences over the last fifty years. Hitchcock’s Psycho had pushed the limits of horror five years previous to its release, and still regularly appears in compilations of the genre’s most terrifying moments, but it is Repulsion that, in my opinion, better stands the test of time. Condensing mainstream society’s repressions of sex, lust and the spreading free love movement, into intense and horrific mirages and subsequently subjecting a symbol of innocence to these ideas is a notion that converses deeply with our most intimate fears rather than the momentary adrenaline high generated by jump scares.
I find myself wondering after each viewing why my skin crawls, or why my eyes were drawn intently to this woman’s terror or why I feel so severely exhausted, and perhaps it is because of the canvas that Repulsion paints its twisted visions on. This is a film that presents us with horror manifested in a human body and in its mind. It shows us that anyone can fall victim to this form of terror no matter what their moral status, physicality or class, persuading us that if we have limbs and flesh and consciousness then we can destroy ourselves and our sense of self at any point imaginable. In terms of 20th century cinema Repulsion is a classic, in horror a masterpiece, and it will undoubtedly continue to scare audiences, young and old, as long as we inhabit these bodies.
- Kristofer Thomas