Tuesday, 6 October 2015

October Nightmares #6: Cube (1997)


When I started this horror marathon, I was keen to elucidate that this was a list of my favourite horror films and not a sort of definitive top thirty. I do so primarily because I knew some of my entries would be contestable, but also a desperate bid to silence those demanding to know where the likes of Don't Look Now are. Would you like to know where Don't Look Now is? It's sat recovering in A&E after having various parts of pretentious film critics' bodies removed from its sensitive areas. What I'm saying is that I make my selections based on whether I like them or not, and not just because film school told me I should. Going on I feel this is important to establish as some of my choices are bound to sit uncomfortably alongside the more traditional picks.

Take today's subject matter - the indie psychological horror Cube. At first glance one runs the risk of dismissing Cube as the cheap bastard child of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. A group of people awaken to find themselves trapped in an impossible mechanical maze filled with traps and mind screwing 'living' architecture. They are forced to work together in what has to be the most pressure-cooker environment since Spy vs. Spy. Inevitably leading to mental and physical clashes, and a "humans are the real monsters" sentiment. Maurice Dean Wint is rather excellent as increasingly unhinged cop Quentin, he even has a dodgy moustache which all but screams 'I am evil'. Surprisingly David Hewlett plays a good guy, considering his later more well-known role as the asshat on that TV show Starwars: Atlantis III: The Wrath of the Cylons.

Cube is not what everyone would immediately classify as 'horror,' because the closest it has to a villain is Kafkaesque bureaucratic red tape. Oh, there are certainly other threats. Cube was a Saw film before Saw films were even a thing. The opening scene depicts a man's face being sliced into bloody giblets by a razor wire trap. Another sees a survivor being sprayed in the face by acid, melting it away into a hollow mess. What is it with you and faces, Cube? You're like fucking Picasso. But Cube is much more than a handbook on creative ways in which to slaughter people. It's as existential as cinema gets. The characters devote much of the screen time debating the purpose of the structure, where it came from, and who created it. But these questions are just as empty as the void that surrounds the Cube. We learn nothing of its true nature nor its creators; as a matter of fact not one single second of footage takes place in the outside world. Cube exists in a cocoon, with our worldview informed only by the interactions between its prisoners.   

As I was re-watching the movie for the purpose of this review, I noticed that the character of Worth (Hewlett) is the one who undergoes the most substantial development and provides the audience with the most significant insight into the world. Throughout the movie he rants about the state of life: "I have nothing... to live for out there...I wasn't exactly bursting with joie de vivre before I got here; life just sucks in general." However, as the plot progresses, Worth jolts out of his misanthropic pessimistic outlook and becomes one of the more central and selfless characters. So it occurred to me that the entire movie could be interpreted as Worth's delusional Teenage Dirtbag style fantasy. It's the multiple layers of intrigue that make Cube's plot so fascinating. Well, that is until the prequel and sequel came along to explain all that intrigue away.

Cube was the d├ębut effort of Vincenzo Natali - who went on to direct Splice and is currently helming an adaptation of William Gibson's Neuromancer - and was made on shoestring budget. Legend has it, for example, that the special effects were handled for free by a local company. The two sequels had significantly healthier budgets than Cube, and that certainly shows in the different philosophical approaches between the later films and the original. Natali understood the vital principle of less is more. Cube's set design consists of unsettling geometric patterns and has a strange steampunk feel. The minimalist approach contributes to the desolate atmosphere by highlighting the cold, industriousness of this structure dedicated to death. Whereas Cube 2: Hypercube is a lot more elaborate and busier, feeling comparatively overdone.

What sets Cube apart from other films of its ilk is the unconventional resolution to its central problem. Advanced mathematics plays a crucial role in Cube: to navigate a safe passage through the Cube the characters calculating equations to determine the Cartesian coordinates of the structure, and prime factorisations to solve the mystery of the numbers embedded into each door. It's a thinking man's approach to horror, even if it does buckle under its internal logic like a strongly worded letter protesting against strongly worded letters. Even the story's ultimate hero is as unconventional as a sassy black woman who is part of the Ku Klux Klan. Kazan (Andrew Miller) is a realistically portrayed autistic man capable of performing advanced calculations in his mind; an ability which actually informs the plot. Christ, this film would surely be impossible to market in modern Hollywood:

Director: "Hey I have an intriguing idea for a new film".
Producer: "Sounds good! Do tell. But make sure I can hear you over this cocaine party."
Director: "Well it's about these flawed people who are placed in a mysterious prison that's never explained for reasons that are never explained."
Producer: "Boring! But Pierre has this tastelessly expensive idea for a CGI monster that we could shoehorn in."
Director: "No, no, no, there's not a monster."
Producer: "Oh. Wait. How about we create another new slasher icon to milk the hell out of? The Cube-Boy. I like money."
Director: "No, they're alone except for the traps and the creeping sense of existentialism."
Producer: "...But where are we going to clumsily insert the action sequences?"
Director: "There's not much action. Not really. But they do use maths and logic to beat the prison."
Producer: "...independent thought alert! Independent thought alert! Kill! Kill! KILL!"