Upon theatrical release on August 18, 2000, The Cell proved deeply divisive despite its strong showing at the box office. While most agreed that the visual style was nothing short of impressive, there seemed to be no middle ground when it came to critical appraisal. For some, the film offered all style and no substance. Some critics took issue with being made to empathize with a serial killer. Yet others fell hard for the visual spectacle; Roger Ebert awarded the psychological fantasy horror film four out of four stars.
Like many genre films, negative opinion has tempered a bit over time. Twenty years later, The Cell holds up as one impressive debut feature thanks to insane production and costume design, a powerhouse performance by Vincent D’Onofrio, and a breathtaking peek into a tortured mind.
The debut screenplay by Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend) opens with an immersive introduction to protagonist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) and her work as a child therapist working for an advanced tech company that allows her to enter the mind of her patients. It’s a sort of virtual reality therapy for the comatose; Catherine traverses the subconscious of her patients to help them with what they can’t voice in waking reality. Her latest is a young boy, Edward Baines (Colton James), who has developed schizophrenia caused by a viral infection. In his mind, he’s haunted by a monstrous manifestation of himself amidst a sprawling desert oasis. This short scene masterfully sets up everything before diving into the meat of the narrative, which sees Catherine enlisted by the FBI agents Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) and Gordon Ramsey (Jake Weber) to enter the mind of comatose serial killer Carl Stargher (D’Onofrio) to obtain the location of his final kidnap victim before it’s too late.
Navigating an innocent soul is one thing, but the adult mind of Stargher is treacherous.
Also making his debut, director Tarsem Singh (The Fall, Self/less) bides his time building the parallels between Catherine’s world of empathy and Stargher’s troubled mind driving his need to kill. Through D’Onofrio’s empathetic yet terrifying performance and Stargher’s unique modus operandi, the more interesting character of the two by far is the film’s villain. His impulse is to kidnap women using his dog as bait then he locks them in a large tank that slowly fills with water. His cameras capture their slow demise by drowning, rendered more disturbing by the way he bleaches and preps their body after. Throw in that he visibly recoils at a victim’s final death spasms and relieves himself sexually while suspended from the ceiling through large hooks in his skin, and you’ve got a unique cinematic serial killer that stands out. That’s before D’Onofrio humanizes him and concurrently makes him more Other within the dark recesses of his mind.
The not-so-secret weapons of the film belong to production designer Tom Foden (The Village) and extravagant costumes by legendary designer Eiko Ishioka (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), both of whom would frequent Singh’s work. Their production and costume design provides the most visually striking element of the film, hands down. There’s no shortage of impressive set pieces and costumes on display, efficiently transporting the audience into nightmarish dreamscapes. Exploring the psychology behind a serial killer has been done many times before, but never quite like this. Michèle Burke (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and Edouard F. Henriques (1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Make-Up, both further contributing to the distinct aesthetic of the film. Every single element of the film’s design left an indelible mark on the enduring quality, but it also visually relayed the story and character elements. It set the mood, to say the least.
And Singh knew precisely what he was doing here; The Cell is one confident debut. The carefully selected crew aside, Singh wove artistic influences throughout his dreamscapes. The dreamworld constitutes a patchwork of influences and inspirations from notable artists like Odd Nerdrum and Damien Hirst and borrows imagery from Fantastic Planet and musicians like Marilyn Manson. All of which are indicative that Singh meant for this to be a visual story. The style here is the substance.
The Cell makes for a bizarre melding of serial killer psychological horror, science fiction, and fantasy wrapped up in a dazzling bow of lush special effects and haunting production design. It’s a straightforward story rendered more complex visually. That makes it easy to see why it tends to polarize. Singh essentially created a horror opera, a tragedy by way of surreal and dramatic theatricality. It’s the precise type of risky spectacle that comes along only very rarely, which is to say that you’d be hard-pressed to find much, if at all, like The Cell.