... aka: Den of Doom
... aka: Don't Touch My Sister
At an apartment house, a prowler is shot and killed, so a pair of detectives; aged, level-headed and experienced Lt. Max Westman (John Hoyt) and his younger, reactionary partner Sgt. Jeff Bradley (Robert Kelljan), are on the case. They go to interview Ellen Sawyer ("Arline Sax" / Arlene Martel), a quiet young blonde who claims to have shot the man when he broke into her flat. Ellen's recollections of the events don't seem to add up and neither do her stories about her family. She says her mother is dead and tries to change the subject any time the police ask about her father; whom she claims is an evangelist living in another city. As for Ellen's older sister Ruth, well she does live in town. In fact, Ruth was also there the night of the killing and had given Ellen the revolver used to shoot the intruder. Westman and Bradley go to Ellen's home and are unable to locate her. They find a portrait of the sister there though and she's a dead ringer for Ellen, only with darker hair and a much more sophisticated look. It seems that while Ellen lives very modestly in a cheap, barely-furnished apartment in a bad area of town, her sister is quite well off in her Hollywood Hills home and helps to support her sibling.
Jeff ends up becoming infatuated with the sweet-natured, soft-spoken and demure Ellen. Though she's polite and nice, she's also clearly got mental issues. And the same goes for Ruth (also played by Martel in a dark wig), who finally materializes at the police station to give her testimony. As it turns out, the victim wasn't a prowler at all, but Ruth's well-off businessman lover. We're basically given two options in this psychological horror / mystery. The first is that there aren't two sisters, and that Ellen and Ruth are the same schizophrenic person. The second option is that Ruth is a cold-blooded sociopath who wanted her lover dead for his money and thus set him up to be killed by her emotionally-fragile sister. Either way, the resolution to all of this isn't going to be surprising anyone. And if you don't want that aspect spoiled, go ahead and stop reading right now. I'll leave you with the note that this forgotten and extremely obscure film (thus far only distributed by Sinister Cinema on VHS) is worth tracking down.
Extremely low-budget and often technically crude (the boom mic is even visible multiple times), The Glass Cage still manages to overcome the predictability of its premise. For starters, it's surprisingly upfront for its time dealing with issues ranging from mental illness to childhood abuse to perverse sexuality. One of the more interesting side characters is Tox Midler (King Moody), an unemployed, sleazy starving artist / voyeur / exhibitionist who lives in a building across from Ellen and is constantly peeping in her windows. He knows just what's going on and witnessed the shooting, but instead of informing the police he attempts to blackmail Ellen into having sex with him. During one surprising sequence, Tox is in bed with a zoned-out Ellen trying to make love to her when she suddenly starts screaming and calling him "Daddy!" This kind of thing certainly wasn't the norm for mainstream releases in 1964, so it's easy to see why the film didn't get much of a theatrical release back in the 60s.
Ellen's frequent hallucinations are also very interesting, both in concept and in visualization. In one, she imagines a scar on her arm bleeding all over the place. In another, she's surrounded on a sidewalk by a bunch of leering men when suddenly a giant hand reaches out of a store window trying to grab her. In most of her delusions, a well-dressed man wearing a top hat and carrying a cane (Elisha Cook Jr.) is either chasing or following her. The man turns out be her father, whose current occupation as a clergyman (shades of The Night of the Hunter) betrays what a creep he really is. The director uses multiple cheap, experimental techniques to try to spice things up, including weird camera angles, distorted sounds, freeze frames, repeat shots and slow-motion. While these flourishes don't always work, they're highly effective when they do. Most of the performances here are at least decent, but everything pretty much hinges on the lead actress. Thankfully, the little-known Martel does not disappoint in her dual characterization. The actress gets to play two very different women; the delicate, aloof, introspective Ellen and the cool, seductive, outgoing Ruth, and she manages to pull it off. If this were a more high-profile film her performance would have received more attention.
I was also struck by the similarities between this and Roman Polanski's REPULSION (1965), which was released the following year. While it may seem a long shot to even suggest that one of the most acclaimed genre films of all time was inspired by a low-budget film that hardly anyone saw, just check out the list of similarities between this film's Ellen and Repulsion's Carole Ledoux played by Catherine Deneuve. Both are attractive, troubled blondes with likely sexual trauma in their childhoods leading to mental problems as adults. Both live lonely existences in apartment houses. Both have to stave off the advances of lecherous male admirers who don't seem to care that the object of their unwanted affection clearly has a few screws loose. Both have self-absorbed and uncaring sisters who only financially support them and are quite their opposite in personality. Both Santéan and Polanski chose to illustrate the protagonists' inner turmoil by utilizing elements of surrealism. And the list goes on. Though this doesn't quite pack the same punch as Polanski's landmark film, it's still worthy of a reevaluation and a larger audience.
This was the only directorial credit for Santéan, who co-wrote the screenplay with veteran character actor Hoyt (who receives top-billing here). Both men were also the executive producers. It's also interesting to see Bob Kelljan - who's better known as a director - in an early acting role, though he's the weakest link among the principle actors seen here. Kelljan went on to make the huge hit Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and its follow-up The Return of Count Yorga (1971), as well as Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973) and the sleazy rape-revenge drive-in hit Act of Vengeance (1974).
So will a DVD distributor eventually step in and save The Glass Cage from its sorry fate, or will it remain forgotten and unloved for the rest of eternity? It's hard to tell. For now, it exists only for the extremely dedicated genre fan; one who's willing to slog through a faded, sometimes-jumpy and heavily-damaged VHS print to seek its rewards. Said video was poorly distributed to begin with and I doubt many will pay attention unless a major label bites.