I wish every great director would have at least one go at horror, preferably before exiting their best years, but I’d settle for an early or late-stage effort. Robert Altman gained fame and acclaim for movies like M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player and Gosford Park. Ensemble satires that sometimes have a dramatic tinge. Not even a cousin to an intimate psychological horror film that dives early and deep into paranoia, simple hallucination and madness.
Altman tried his hand at various types of films, not just the one he won most of his plaudits for. He made a very good neo-noir film in The Long Goodbye, a very different but interesting take on a classic Chandler novel. He made the western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He made Popeye presumably to get the worst movie and decision he could possibly make out of the way. In summary, he was not afraid to step outside his ostensible comfort zone, even though he brought his usual heavy interest in characters to the genres he ventured into.
What sets Images apart from his other work is that it rarely tries to be funny. Even The Long Goodbye and McCabe had some wit and irreverence to them. Images is wall to wall strangeness, insanity and unreliable reality. It is a movie primarily focused on making you feel as mistrustful of what you see as the protagonist feels, and it doesn’t exactly ease into this.
Before the fifteen minute mark, Cathryn, our protagonist, is unmistakably experiencing psychosis. She hears voices call her name. She receives phone calls from a “stranger” who sounds like her and tells her things a stranger couldn’t know. Not long after, she runs screaming from her husband after seeing him as a completely different man. This prompts a trip to the countryside, to get away to a less stressful environment, where she immediately begins seeing her doppelganger, followed by sightings of a dead lover. This is all still pretty much within the film’s first act.
As trippy, psych-out horror movies go, Images is rather well executed. It indulges in the opportunity to plunge into Cathryn’s insanity without overdoing it. She sees things that cannot be, speaks to and even attacks people who aren’t there. None of this is new to this sub-genre of horror, but Altman handles it in a seamless way that never lets Cathryn feel like she’s not quite human. Even good-to-great, similarly psychological movies like Black Swan or The Lighthouse can fall into the trap of having their lead characters become part of a visual and auditory madness that’s inflicted on the audience as opposed to remaining an individual who is experiencing and suffering through these hallucinations, time-skips and emotional swings. Watching Images, I don’t recall thinking, “What’s going to happen next?” at the expense of thinking, “I hope she manages to get it together.”
A lot of credit has to go to actress Susannah York. She basically has to play multiple versions of Cathryn. The version that is still sane, the version that is on the edge, the version that teeters over the edge, the one that is in denial, the one that tries to embrace her insanity, and the one that isn’t her at all. York transitions between these different takes on the same character neatly and as believably as possible. As great as Altman is, the movie just doesn’t work if she doesn’t handle the role as well as she does.
I held off on writing this review until after I had seen Images a second time. I wanted to be surer of how I felt about it. On second viewing, the flaws that I perceived in it the first time through (a predictable outcome, some repetitiveness, my inability to take René Auberjonois too seriously) were still present, but just didn’t stand out as much. Some time in the next few weeks, I plan to find out whether those flaws diminish even more with a third viewing.
Final Verdict: Seriously, every great director should make at least one horror flick. I could do with more really good works like Images in my life.