Videodrome :: Lady In A Cage (1964)

(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)

Lady In A Cage (1964) belongs to a collection of low-budget, black-and-white films released during the early sixties that sought to capitalize on the budding “hagsplotation” genre set into motion by the success of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962). Also known as “psycho-biddy” films, hagsplotation films fall under the larger umbrella of horror, primarily featuring women who have grown mentally unbalanced or violent in their older age. Lady In A Cage is just one of many such offerings released in 1964, vying for audiences’ attention alongside likeminded films with bigger budgets and more prominent names such as Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) and Strait-Jacket (1964). Of these titles, Lady In A Cage is one of the least remembered, most often cited for the acting debut of James Caan rather than a pillar of hagsplotation cinema.

The plot is simple enough: after an electrical power outage occurs, Cornelia Hilyard (Olivia de Havilland), a poet and wealthy widow, becomes trapped between floors in an elevator installed in her home to help her get from one floor to the next while she recuperates from a broken hip. With her son, Malcolm (William Swan), away for the weekend, Cornelia finds herself stuck in the cage-like elevator as low-level criminals break into her home, seeking to pillage and terrorize.

The film plays out as a chamber piece, confined to Cornelia’s opulent home over the course of a hot summer day. Despite its narrative limitations, Lady In A Cage never feels stagnated. Walter Grauman’s direction is efficacious; evocative of the cinematic literacy of Hitchcock during the fifties into the early sixties. Besides sharing Edith Head as a costume designer (Hitchcock’s regular go-to) and a heavily stylized, Saul Bass-esque opening credit sequence indebted to Psycho (1960), Grauman covers action similarly to Hitchcock. When coverage would typically be economized to a simple wide or establishing shot, Grauman utilizes a quick succession of inserts and POV shots to convey time and place, cutting back and forth between the mechanics of machinery and the emotive expressions of characters. Set to Paul Glass’s percussive score (which also has a Hitchcockian flair reminiscent of Bernard Hermann, recalling the avant-garde quirkiness of The Twilight Zone), Grauman keeps the pacing in fifth gear, putting the audience into the increasing paranoia of Cornelia while simultaneously ramping up the claustrophobia. The small ensemble cast falls right into Grauman’s stride, gradually heightening their character’s lunacy until reaching a fever pitch in a graphic final act that finds eyes gouged out and heads crushed.

Shot on a shoestring budget in just under fourteen days, Lady In A Cage was profitable for Paramount. But it was met with venomous reviews from critics who panned it due to its vulgarity. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times went out of his way to write a special column on the film, criticizing it as being socially and morally reprehensible: “What is irresponsible about it—what is downright dangerous, indeed—is that it tends to become a sheer projection of sadism and violence for violence’s sake. Luther Davis, who wrote the original screenplay, and Walter Grauman, who directed it, have let the nerve-shattering impact of brutality take over the authority of the theme and become the major stimulation and the emotional cathartic of the film.” Other reviews weren’t as eloquent as Crowther’s condemnation, such as Hedda Hopper’s review for The Los Angeles Times, where she simply wrote, “The picture should be burned.”

While fighting against the studio censorship guidelines of The Hays Code, international markets banned Lady In A Cage. In the U.K., The BBFC refused to give the film a classification rating, thus prohibiting it from a theatrical release on the grounds that it would “invite and stimulate juvenile violence and anti-social behavior from young people.” As a result, the film wasn’t available in many countries until a DVD release in 2000. In the countries where it was released, the film largely fell out of circulation after its theatrical run.

From today’s vantage point, Lady In A Cage doesn’t play nearly as shocking as it did in 1964. But to understand the uproar surrounding the film’s release, it’s important to consider the context of the time. The prior year saw the assassination of JFK and civil rights activist, Medgar Evers. While beatings and arrests continued during civil rights protests throughout the south, Martin Luther King led two-hundred thousand people in the March on Washington in D.C. The urbanization of cities began to encroach on the developing suburbs, and economic lines started to blur as crime previously reserved for metropolises slowly bled into small towns. Coupled with this was a youth culture defiant against the values of its elders, resulting in an unprecedented generational gap. The advent of shaggy-haired rock’ n roll groups such as The Beatles and splatter-slasher films such as Blood Feast (1963) only served to exasperate the divide between old and young. The country’s societal fabric was changing, and amidst all the upheaval, it was difficult for many to tell if it was changing for better or worse. There was an intangible sense that the starch moral compass of the 1950s was spinning out of control. The American dream was fading as its dark underbelly exposed itself, and the security enjoyed by the upper-middle-class of post-WWII had been invaded. Neighbors began locking their doors for the first time, small towns with little to no crime suddenly faced quadruple murders, and even the president could be gunned down on the street. Fear and terror were coming home, and nobody was safe.

This changing American landscape was met with opposition. But even worse, it was met with apathy. As the public became increasingly aware of the uprising of political corruption and social violence, they concurrently became desensitized to it. In his book about the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in the farming community of Holcomb, Kansas, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote wrote, “The Garden City Telegram, on the eve of the trial’s start, printed the following editorial: “Some may think the eyes of the entire nation are on Garden City during this sensational murder
trial. But they are not. Even a hundred miles west of here in Colorado, few persons are even acquainted with the case – other than just remembering some members of a prominent family were slain. This is a sad commentary on the state of crime in our nation. Since the four members of the Clutter family were killed last fall, several other such multiple murders have occurred in various parts of the country. Just during the few days leading up to this trial at least three mass murder cases broke into the headlines. As a result, this crime and trial are just one of many such cases people have read about and forgotten.”

Lady In A Cage is packed with ringing alarms and bells, but no one ever pays attention. The horror taking place is an emergency that the rest of the world would instead choose to ignore so long as it doesn’t upset their life. If Lady In A Cage presents a worldview, it’s decidedly misanthropic. Footage of baseball games and fighter jets are juxtaposed with heinous news reports and acts of savagery. This is America in decline, blissfully aware of its ignorance but unwilling to confront the nightmares its pacification has spawned. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and it’s no surprise that one of the first images in Lady In A Cage is a dead dog lying on the side of the road, overlooked by passing cars driving by without a care.

“Have we an anti-satan missile?” a disc jockey asks over the radio while a teenage couple make- out in a parked car, oblivious to the honking horns and screaming drivers around them. “While we’ve been conquering polio and space, what have we done about the devil?” We hear the radio again a few minutes later while Cornelia is flipping through stations in the safety of her stately home. The news report this time concerns Russian missiles and an uptick in deaths from highway accidents. Cornelia changes the station, commenting to her son, “All this war talk in the papers – maybe we should go into armament stocks again? It seems such a terrible way to make money
though, don’t you think?” Her callous response to the news report isn’t just indicative of her character but also of the majority of upper-middle-class Americans who weren’t publicly protesting the Vietnam war or speaking out about civil rights, instead carrying on in their day-to-day schedule and engaging with the world at large so long as it didn’t disrupt their plans. The problems of the world weren’t their problems, just as much as they’re not Cornelia’s problems. She has a doting son, a beautiful home, and a lucrative writing career. “How many times have I passed bells ringing and just walked on?” Cecila later asks herself after being stuck in the elevator, ringing an alarm that no one answers. “Oh, well. I never will again…at least not for several days.”

It’s not until the societal problems surrounding Cornelia show up at her doorstep in the form of three young criminals that she’s forced to reckon with the brutality of the world outside her privileged bubble. One of the main criticisms given to Lady In A Cage was its crude treatment of the three delinquents who torment Cornelia, played by James Caan, Rafael Campos, and Jennifer Billingsley. After encountering a homeless wino (Jeff Corey) and a hustler (Ann Sothern) pawning expensive items that obviously have been stolen, the trio of hoodlums follows them back to Cornelia’s house. There they find that the wino and hustler have been stealing diamond jewelry and porcelain trinkets from right under Cornelia, who’s stuck in the elevator and unable to escape. The trio takes advantage of the situation, ransacking Cornelia’s home and killing the wino before turning their attention to Cornelia.

At the time of its release, critics felt that Grauman and screenwriter, Luther David, had gone too far with their over-the-top antagonists, turning the three youths into a one-dimensional caricature of juvenile delinquency (“Those wild kids with their sex and drugs, diggin’ on that crazy rock ’n roll beat!”). As Randall Simpson O’Connell, the de facto leader of the gang, Caan delivers an unhinged performance that most closely resembles a psychotic version of Stanley Kowalski (a role that a young Dennis Hopper would have no doubt killed for). Matching his manic intensity are Campos and Billingsley, who fully inhabit their character’s own unique brand of malevolence. And while all three performances are excessive, the characters themselves are an eerie omen of events to come. A few years later, in 1969, a group of young disenchanted youths – not too different from the ones in Lady In A Cage – would break into a similarly lavish home and murder an actress named Sharon Tate.

The characters and events in Lady In A Cage also foreshadow future horror films. Rafael Campos’s deranged performance of Essie – the uptick of his mouth, the crooked smile and berserk eyes, the playful handling of his knife – is at times interchangeable with Edwin Neal’s role as The Hitchhiker in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Jennifer Billingsley as Elaine has the same sugary-sweet, sing-songy insanity as Sheri Moon Zombie as Baby Firefly in The Devil’s Rejects (2005). The climatic ending of Lady In A Cage, which finds Cornelia escaping from her home and crawling across her front lawn, crying out for help at a crowded street of passing cars just a few feet away while Randall stalks her from behind, is redolent of Drew Barrymore’s demise in the opening sequence of Scream (1996). The very premise of Lady In A Cage sets into motion the home-invasion subgenre of horror, perhaps best exemplified by The Strangers (2008). Modern horror directors such as Ari Aster have been quick to praise Lady In A Cage, citing it as a constant reference and influence: “As far as evil is concerned, Lady In A Cage is top shelf,” Aster said in a 2022 interview with The Criterion Channel.

Besides its nihilistic perspective and evident moments of visual horror, what is truly disturbing about Lady In A Cage is everything the film implies in its subtext. While it’s never directly stated, there is a bizarre incestuous relationship between Cornelia and her son, Malcolm. While Malcolm only appears briefly during the film’s opening, his interaction with Cornelia is enough to suggest that he may be his mother’s reluctant lover despite being a closeted homosexual. They live alone together, and he refers to her as “darling,” and she calls him “love.” After sharing a kiss that’s a bit too romantic for a mother and son, Cornelia pulls him closer, commenting on the “marvelous scent” of his after-shave. “Guaranteed to make me irresistible,” Malcolm replies with a smile. The flirtatious nature of their exchange is deeply uncomfortable, made all the more upsetting when we finally see Malcolm alone, standing outside the house, his pleasant demeanor quickly dissipating as he puts on a pair of sunglasses and sets out for his trip. We later ascertain that Malcolm is trapped in his own kind of cage, one created by an overbearing mother he cannot escape.

Later, Essie discovers the “love letter” Malcolm left for Cornelia, teasing Malcolm’s writing as “gay.” He gives the letter to Randall, who recites it to a horrified Cornelia: “Release me from your generosity. Release me from your beauty. Release me from your love.” Not exactly the kind of note a son leaves his mother, right? By this point, Randall is in the elevator with Cornelia. Despite being moments away from death at the hands of Randall, Cornelia hasn’t done anything to defend herself. It’s not until Randall finishes reading Malcolm’s passionate letter that he finally hits a nerve with Cornelia: “I’ll bet you had him at it till he was about twelve, didn’t you? Kept him sucking!” At this point, Cornelia slaps Randall, whose taunting has hit too close to home.

Besides reinforcing the strange relationship between mother and son, Malcolm’s letter also reframes events from earlier in the film when Cornelia’s trapped in the elevator, trying to reach out to her ringing telephone. Unable to retrieve the phone below her, the calls go unanswered. We later learn in Malcolm’s letter (“Release me from your beauty. Release me from your love”) that he didn’t leave to take a weekend trip, but to present Cornelia with an ultimatum: if Cornelia doesn’t “release him” from their relationship, he will kill himself. He will call her to get her final answer, and if there is no answer, well, then…We never find out who calls Cornelia or what happens to Malcolm, but we know the calls go unanswered. It’s safe to say that Malcolm will never return home.

“There is not a single redeeming character or characteristic,” Variety wrote in their scathing review of Lady In A Cage. If you take all the psychosexual subtext at face value, the Variety review is on point: this is a deeply twisted and gross film. By the time credits roll, the insinuations about characters and their relationships – and our relationship with them – encourage audiences to go back and revisit the first ten minutes with a more scrutinizing eye. The realization begins to dawn that the central conceit the audience is engaged in – criminals breaking into a wealthy woman’s home and terrorizing her – isn’t nearly as depraved and sadistic as what’s been occurring long before the film began. Furthermore, it complicates who the real villains are, or if everyone is just varying degrees of evil and sickness.

But outside of the story, the true darkness of Lady In A Cage lies in its transgressive commentary on humanity. Cornelia’s house serves as a microcosm of the breakdown of society. It presents an America in decay, a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah where people everywhere are crying out for help but no one is listening; where the inherent evil and corruption in all institutions becomes self-evident but impossible to combat. So it should come as no surprise that the film found a second life of fandom in 2020: a year when many Americans felt helpless and confused as the world seemingly burned down around them (literally, if you lived in some areas of the country). “We built cities and towns, and we thought we had beaten the jungle back, not knowing we had built the jungle in,” Cornelia remarks at one point.

Undoubtedly a product of its time, the tawdry premise and stunted performances of Lady In A Cage are ripe with shlock, often veering the film straight into camp. But in its subtext of class depravity, social corrosion, and sexual taboos, Lady In A Cage reaches far beyond the trappings of hagsplotation and pulpy thrillers. In many ways, it’s unfortunately as thematically relevant today as it was in 1964, and still just as perverted. | e hehr

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