In the rarefied world of cinema, a place frequently lost in a strong belief of its own self-aggrandisement, horror films are generally considered the poor relation. Designed in the main to terrify they are often relegated straight to dvd, unless you’re talking big budget teenage slashfests like the Scream and Final Destination franchises, or obscure art house frighteners with a limited, blink and you’ll miss them, theatre release. Recent oddities like the tasteless Human Centipede (2009) where subtlety is jettisoned in favour of gratuitous shock, and the nauseatingly degrading A Serbian Film (2010), have done little to ingratiate the genre with the film world’s elite.
Occasionally however, you still find something which recreates that feeling of psychological old-school horror, that leaves a lasting impression on the emotional psyche of the viewer long after the final credits have rolled. The Monk (2011), the new film by German director Dominik Moll and starring Frenchman Vincent Cassel as the eponymous protagonist, is a case in point – if an award was to be given for disturbing inference, this film would be named ‘Horror of the Year’, far superior to the recently disappointing The Woman in Black (2012).
Based on 18th century author Matthew Gregory Lewis’ cult novel, the story focuses on the rise and spectacular fall of a 17th century Capuchin monk. Abandoned on the steps of a Madrid monastery, Ambrosio is raised by its monks growing up to become the country’s most revered preacher. Held in such high esteem it is hardly surprising he should come to believe in his own virtuosity and righteousness. But, as often happens, pride comes before a fall, and Ambrosio does fall dramatically, giving in to fleshly temptations and haunted by a recurring dream which threatens to push him into insanity.
The Monk is a thinking man’s horror film, working beneath Ambrosio’s skin as it depicts him being pushed to the limit when he realises he cannot possibly live up to the high expectations of his flock, and that he is in fact no better than those he preaches salvation to each Sunday morning. The film’s depiction of the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, as it’s obsession with purity of the body even to the detriment of the soul is laid bare, is equally disturbing, emphasised in the moving sub plot of a young novice nun and her humiliation at the hands of her Mother Superior (an icily sadistic performance from screen legend Geraldine Chaplin).
The Monk‘s other lasting impression is its visually stunning background against which these debilitating neuroses play out. From the opening scenes where a hooded figure steals through a storm-stricken Madrid to deposit baby Ambrosio outside the monastery (after reneging on drowning him in the local river), the film is a visual as well as mental feast. Moll and cinematographer Patrick Blossier, capture the harshness of monastery life in a grey and moody-toned canvas, starkly contrasted with the sun-bleached Spanish landscape beyond its stone walls.
But neither is The Monk adverse to what may be seen as more orthodox horror elements. The introduction of a mysterious young man, whose features are shrouded beneath a waxen mask, and whose sudden arrival at the monastery sees the start of a bizarre chain of events culminating in the breakdown of Ambrosio’s ‘holier-than-thou’ facade, ensures there is also enough to keep even the most ardent fright fan happy.
The on-screen culmination of Ambrosio’s recurrent nightmare and his resulting disintegration as a human being, as well as the film’s final denouement within a bleak and acrid futuristic landscape, leaves a surreal impression as harrowing as much of the physical and visceral brutality regularly seen in contemporary horror cinema.
The Monk is released in the UK on DVD, on 20th August.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.