79 mins | Hooroo Jackson | (USA) | 2015
With lush cinematography and a challenging feminist infused narrative, Aimy in a Cage is unlike any other horror film in recent memory. While there are certainly traditional elements of the genre at play in the film (forced imprisonment, global plague), the narrative is less interested in creating a sense of impending doom and more focused on exploring how perceptions of sanity are dependent upon environment. The end result is a remarkable film that contextualizes adolescent female sexuality in a wholly original way.
Our entry into the story comes courtesy of comic style drawings through which each character is introduced without fanfare. Not only do these drawings set a stylistic tone for the film, but they are an effective callback to the graphic novel upon which the film is based. On the surface, the story is a simple one. Aimy, whose refusal to acquiesce to any of her family’s behavior modification demands, is deemed to be troubled and is forced to undergo a lobotomy of sorts to make her behavior more socially acceptable. Meanwhile, the Apollo Plague, a mysterious and deadly virus, begins to make the national news.
There is an unfair tendency of audiences to equate low budget with low production value but Aimy in a Cage shatters that myth with a visual flair that suggests a Hollywood style budget. Stylistically, the film is reminiscent of works by David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick in that the visuals serve to create a story parallel to the one verbalized on screen. Kubrick, in particular, appears to have been an influence on director Hooroo Jackson, not least in his framing of Aimy’s forced medical procedure: the scene instantly draws comparisons to Alex’s conversion therapy in Kubrick’s famed A Clockwork Orange.
But it is the way the director utilizes the recurring motif of Aimy’s bedroom that really establishes this film as something special. Serving as a visual incarnation of the character’s mind, the aesthetic of Aimy’s bedroom is vital to the film’s narrative. Much like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which the peeling wallpaper underscores the lead character’s mental unraveling, Aimy’s emotional descent is recognizable everywhere in her bedroom. When we first meet Aimy, she is surrounded in Technicolor to the point that she and her surroundings almost glow. This distinctive whimsy unambiguously marks Aimy as a unique player in a cast of conformists.
Yet, as her family’s efforts to transform her into a member of polite society begin to take their toll, Aimy’s bedroom likewise starts to lose its spark, until, ultimately, she is left sitting in darkness.
By far, though, my favorite element of Aimy’s bedroom is her painting of an alligator. To say more would give away too much of Aimy’s journey. Suffice it to say, the alligator represents a subtle moment that answers any lingering questions about the state in which Aimy is left at the film’s end.
Adolescent female identity in horror has often been reduced to the body. Used to either invoke terror over loss of bodily control (Carrie White menstruating in Carrie) or to suggest a potent sexuality that if left unchecked will run amuck (Ginger’s overt sexuality in Ginger Snaps), this approach ultimately wrestles choice and control away from the female characters. But Aimy takes the audience in an entirely new direction. Instead of fearing the unapologetic creativity and independent hybrid that is Aimy, and the possible ramifications that could result from allowing her to live with her unique power, we are instead asked to fear the societal constraints that threaten to overwhelm her.
This difference is a startling one for horror fans who have been trained to regard female identity, especially adolescent and sexual, as something inherently marginalizing. As such, the film offers up a truly revolutionary way of considering female identity within the context of horror. Consider the predatory vibe that underscores all of Claude’s interactions with Aimy. Aimy’s perceived manic state protects her from Claude because it keeps their dynamic off-kilter. As such, the power dynamic between the two continually shifts in such a way that Aimy retains her agency. Even at her most despondent, when she begs Claude to stay and speak with her, Aimy doesn’t become a traditional victim because she is still asking for what she needs. She hasn’t lost her voice.
Gary Shield, the film’s casting director, deserves a virtual fist bump for assembling the perfect character actors to inhabit these roles. As the luminous titular character, Allisyn Ashley Arm is the unquestionable linchpin of this ensemble. Aimy is a difficult role in that we first see her being intentionally hurtful and destructive toward her grandmother (played with verve by the wonderful Terry Moore). Aimy’s behavior flies in the face of everything ever taught about acceptable behavior, and the moment predisposes the audience to dislike the character. And yet, Arm’s layered performance is so endearingly confident that we ultimately forgive her, especially as it becomes clear that Aimy is in a fight to preserve her own individuality.
Crispin Glover, too, is predictably effective as Claude Bohringer, the smooth-talking and much younger paramour of Grandma Micry. His performance is predictably weird and nuanced but also has a surprising depth that comes across in his scenes with Arm. Similarly, as Gruzzlebird Micry, the privileged male of the house, Theodore Bouloukos infuses his character with an underlining witlessness that prevents the character from spilling over into caricature. Rounding out the core cast is Michael William Hunter, who plays Aimy’s boyfriend Steve and whose mental deterioration is instantly evident by the height of his hair’s coif, and Paz de la Huerta, Aimy’s confidant, Caroline, who raises being a frenemy to new heights.
The back-end of the film is a return to more traditional horror storytelling. As the Apollo Plague leads to a complete societal breakdown, Aimy finds herself held captive by the increasingly psychotic Steve and Caroline. The collapse of civilization has never looked more alluring, and the way Jackson uses the camera to convey an increasing sense of confinement is bolstered by the muted colors permeating each scene.
Aimy in a Cage is easily one of the best films I have seen in recent memory. And while the quirky storytelling and fantastical surrealism won’t be for everyone, those seeking a truly innovative horror experience complete with stunning visuals will not be disappointed. The movie is currently touring in NY in underground/experimental theaters. It will be released on VOD/streaming early next year.