Roman Polanski’s breakthrough movie in a career peppered with masterpieces. Repulsion is a horror classic and British to boot! Following his debut with Knife in the Water (1962), the Polish expatriate arrived in London looking for work and was hired by exploitation outfit Tigon Films, renowned by horror fans for schlock like Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) and The Beast in the Cellar (1971). Producer Tony Tenser contracted Polanski and co-scriptwriter Gerard Brach to deliver a psycho-chiller similar to those Hammer Studios were making in the wake of Psycho (1960). He later remarked the end result was like ordering a Mini-Cooper and being given a Rolls Royce.
French, blonde beauty, Carol (Catherine Deneuve) shares a London flat with her vivacious sister, Hélène (Yvonne Furneaux). Traumatised by a past sexual assault, either imagined or real, Carol cannot bear to be touched by men. When Hélène takes off for a wild weekend with her reprehensible boyfriend, Michael (Ian Hendry), Carol falls to pieces. She hallucinates all manner of delirious horrors while those who venture inside her apartment meet a nasty fate.
Here, Polanski takes concepts introduced to the cinema by Alfred Hitchcock and runs with them, drawing the thriller into previously untapped psychological and sexual dimensions. He explored variations on these themes in Cul-de-sac (1966) and The Tenant (1976) where, dressed in drag for the final act, his performance prompted Deneuve to joke Polanski secretly longed to play Carol himself. His filmmaking innovations are wondrous to behold: bizarre angles, distorted lenses, surrealist flashes culled from his own childhood nightmares. The striking image of hands reaching out from cracks in the walls to clutch at poor, frantic Carol, was inspired by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Remember the trees whose branches turn into hands grasping at Snow White? Amidst the slow-mounting, claustrophobic dread, Polanski stages fantastic, horror movie shocks. He invented the “something lurking in the bathroom mirror”-bit, now done to death in countless thrillers.
At the centre of it all, is the doe-eyed vulnerability of Catherine Deneuve, who keeps Carol a sympathetic heroine even at her most murderous. The central trick is the viewer falls a little in love with her (“I don’t care if she’s a psycho-killer, it’s Catherine Deneuve!”), which make the shocking plot turns hit that much harder. Repulsion is a forerunner of the pretty-people-as-psychos subgenre that peaked in the late sixties with Noel Black’s Pretty Poison and Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (both 1968). The idea that straight-laced, outwardly normal people harboured deep rooted, horrific traumas was a liberal riposte to Nixonian ideals, but has since been abused in so many movies and TV shows, the concept has lost almost all meaning. Nevertheless, Repulsion stands up as a landmark, hugely influential horror movie.
French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.
Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.