Horrorthon Day 21 – Lady in a Cage

Written by Greg B

Home Invasion flicks have become something of a cliché within the vast lineage of horror and exploitation subgenres. Every self-respecting movie fan is well versed in the conventions of the invasion narrative arc, where an upper crust or mild-mannered family has their everyday reality shattered by a group of savage degenerates who aren’t bought off with offers of money and who cannot be reasoned with. Usually after a torrent of physical and emotional abuse, the protagonists realise that they must resort to equally primal tactics in order to survive the ordeal. Perhaps these types of flicks are so popular because they tap into a basic fear, the fear of evil infiltrating our homes, the places where we feel the safest and trying to hurt those who we hold dearest.

(The Nightmare begins…)

The film opens with a stylish, angular title sequence, that’s somewhere between Saul Bass and Weegee. Mrs. Hilyard (Olivia de Havilland) is a poet who lives in a large baroque house with her mollycoddled, adult son Malcolm (William Swan). After breaking her hip, the lady finds it tough to get up stairs and so she decides to have a lift installed so she can retain some sort of mobility until her leg heals (a lift that seems to take forever and a day to get up a single flight of stairs). Clean cut Malcolm leaves for the weekend leaving Mrs. Hilyard to fend for herself, but a power cut caused by Malcolm’s car bumping into a ladder perched below a power line leads to her becoming trapped within her cumbersome lift. Initially, Mrs Hilyard keeps her cool but when she realizes that no ones going to be coming through the door of the house anytime soon, she gradually starts to unravel.

(Well I definitely didn’t expect my day to turn out quite like this.)

Once Mrs. Hilyard finds herself trapped in her cramped, shaky indoor elevator, all kinds of poor folk mosey in off the street and instead of trying to get help for the disabled woman, the street trash proceed to run wild in the elegant ladies classy abode. They loot, mess up the place and relentlessly terrorise Mrs. Hilyard who slowly slips into a kind of shock induced delirium while witnessing the amoral cruelty of the street hoods behaviour. There is an odd heavy-handed scene in the film in which Mrs. Hilyard asks the head hood Randell (James Cann) if he is the ‘welfare offal’ that she supports through her taxes. This suggests that he is a product of a broken system rather than just a plain old evil bastard. I don’t have any qualms with this little social message, but Walter Grauman directs it with a sledgehammer removing any nuance from the attempt at social commentary. Even after the hoodlums load their truck with stolen swag, they refuse to leave the house and continue the prolong the nightmare (when Mrs. Hilyard asks why the gang are doing these horrible things to her, the leader of the vandals replies that its simply because she was home, she is just an unlucky, vulnerable victim a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a theme which is repeated in 2008’s The Strangers and both versions of Funny Games).

(Sometimes even evil people wear Hawaiian shirts)

There are clunky moments in the film’s action, such as the scene in which Mrs. Hilyard attempts to pass the time and alleviate the panic by writing a poem in her head. Theres more emoting in this short scene than in most of William Shatner’s filmography. This flick also marked the major film debut of a young and rugged James Caan. He plays Randall the leader of the three feral thugs with a grinning, slimy zeal and his almost indifferent attitude to thoughts of murder adds a genuine sense of fear and unease to his scenes (his scummy screen presence reminded me of Krug Stillo, the evil leader of the murderous gang in Craven’s Last House on the Left).

(All’s fair in love and thievery)

The banality of the gangs cruelty is still quite unsettling today and a scene that I found particularly distressing involved the hopeless wino who is the first one to break into Mrs. Hilyard’s house after noticing the unending clatter of the emergency bell in her lift. Throughout the film Jeff Corey plays the derilict as a kind of grotesque, Quasimodo character, he’s all tongues and grunts. However when the thugs decide that he must die along with his hustler accomplice Sade (Ann Sothern) so that they can keep all of loot for themselves, he abruptly shifts gears as if the sheer severity of the situation forces him to become articulate. He says that he doesn’t want to die surrounded by laughter. Rafeal Campos and Jennifer Billingsley are convincing in supporting roles as Randall’s two dim but dangerous lackeys. On a visual level the film has a dessicated, stark quality and one can almost feel the blistering heat within the Hilyard household.

 Mrs. Hilyard does muster the courage to fight back but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she can win against the three unhinged youths. Lady in a Cage is a very paranoid and prescient urbanoia movie and, sure its ten minutes too long and as heavy-handed as a tabloid newspaper headline at times, but it still remains an unsavory little gem nonetheless. This movie ain’t upsetting on the level of say Funny Games, but for a 1964 studio picture, this flick is still pretty nasty.

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