Warning: House of Flesh Mannequins depicts performances of bodily mutilation & pornographic sexual acts. 2009 was an interesting year for horror or cinema in general yet I dare say no film sparked as much controversy nor interest as Domiziano Cristopharo's own House of Flesh Mannequins.
Finally, we are able to see the director's uncut masterpiece on DVD for the first time. Needless to say, this is probably one of the biggest surprises you're apt to find this year in the distinct world of home entertainment & I would highly recommend purchasing this film for your own personal library.
While I'm certain that critics everywhere will make comparisons to other veteran Italian filmmakers such as Fulci or Argento, Cristopharo's work is clearly unique & begs to stand out from the tireless entries in psychological we've all seen at least a million times before. Aside from the beautiful cinematography & gloriously confident red herrings, the comparisons to Argento or Fulci can safely stop here with good reason.
Unlike the modern horror film, Flesh Mannequins is divided into three acts which would suggest that we are merely watching a filmed stage play. With the extravagant costumes & lighting, it wouldn't be uncommon to see a work of art like this on stage. During the first few montages, we learn of a seedy newsstand which caters to the pedophiles or perverts of the underworld who exorbitant amounts of money for rough pictures depicting sex with children or life's ugliness in general. Although the news stand scene is rather humorous, Cristopharo has already set the tone for what may be a rather disturbing portrayal of a society who roots seem to have manifested in carnal decay.
Basically, the story revolves around Sebastien (played by the amazing Domiziano Arcangeli) who has somehow survived a horrible childhood only to find himself still very much a victim. Sebastien spends his days & nights photographing life's morbidity not to exclude perverse sexuality. Unbeknown to the viewer, our lead may also be a witness to murder or may even be a psychopath himself.
Sarah Roeg, on the other hand, may just be the virtual opposite of Sebastian. Played by the lovely Irena Hoffman, Ms. Roeg spends her days writing children's novels & taking care of her father (veteran actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice) in an apartment that reminds one of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. Yet, things are never quite as they seem & our little happy family may hold some dark secrets of their own. After all, no one is ever truly innocent until proven guilty & everyone has something to hide.
Naturally, the two are destined to meet & grow close even though Sarah's father has an immediate distrust in the young gentleman simply because he finds the man a bit too "silent". As the film progresses, we learn of the tragic events which befell both leads such as Sarah's loss of her mother & brother. Sebastien, on the other hand, spent the vast majority of his formative years being filmed by father around the clock. Believe me when I say you may never look at family home videos in the same light again.
Although the relationship of Sebastian & Sarah would appear rather sweet on the surface, it becomes evident that their meetings are very unhealthy. In one montage, a naked Sebastian is visited by Mr. Roeg in the midst of watching one of his homemade films. Mr. Roeg makes it clear that Sebastian should seek help if he ever wants to see Sarah again. As one can safely assume, this doesn't sever the relationship of the young twosome but rather elucidates the mere fact that Sebastien himself clearly needs professional guidance to overcome his fears & the unwholesome obsession with the unnatural, unbalanced side of life.
Towards the end of the film, it becomes a bit difficult to decipher whether Sebastien has completely gone insane or is on the verge of snapping. By this time, the viewer is submerged into a parallel universe of sorts where characters aren't at all what we expect & losing one's grip on reality is almost inevitable. Is The House of Flesh Mannequins just a figment of Sebastien's mind or is this an imaginary world that he has fabricated?
Perhaps the most genuinely disturbing aspect of Cristopharos' film is that it was inspired by actual events surrounding the life of Sarah Roeg. If we are to believe any of the events as portrayed in this film, Flesh Mannequins may very be one of the creepiest most unsettling film experiences one has any right to see. With liberal references to the classic film Peeping Tom & sly nods to Brian DePalma, Cristopharo has secured himself a hot seat in film-making & a seemingly promising career. Cristopharo's passionate view of film-making is not only a beaming light of hope for those of us who lost faith in the psychological thriller genre but actually redeems the horror industry as well.