The Cell: Disturbing, stunning Visuals Overcome Familiar Serial Killer Story

As the 90s gave way to the 2000s, the serial killer psychological thrillers that dominated the decade began to recede. Too many thrillers tried, and failed, to recreate the horror of Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. Moreover, Torture Porn and the New French Extremity were just off in the distance. Somewhere in between these movie styles, The Cell scored a surprise box office hit for first-time movie director Tarsem Singh and rising star Jennifer Lopez. In response to the growing familiarity of serial killer film narrative, Singh flipped expectations drawing in science fiction and horror elements. At the time, critics were lukewarm on Sing’s feature-length debut. But The Cell has a loyal following of fans that were stunned by Singh’s visual aesthetics.


Serial killer Carl Stragher has alluded police while abducting, torturing, and killing young women. Tortured by twisted thought, Stragher drowns his victims in an airtight glass prison and then turns them into garish dolls. But when police finally close in on him, Stragher suffers a near fatal seizure leaving him comatose. With the whereabouts of his latest victim unknown and time running out, Special Agent Peter Novak turns to child psychologist Dr Catherine Deane and a radical new experimental technology. It’s a technology that allows Deane to enter a patients subconscious. Now she’s entering the bizarre psyche of a depraved killer in the hopes that she can unlock his secrets.

The Cell Boasts Stunning, Disturbing Visuals Alongside a Somewhat Derivative Police Procedural

Upon its release, critics were torn between The Cell’s stunning visuals and its somewhat derivative story. With his feature length directorial debut, Tarsem Singh certainly important the skills he honed making music videos. Once The Cell introduces audiences to Carl Stragher’s twisted subconscious, this serial killer thriller is like nothing previously seen. There’s a twisted creativity to the movie’s visuals that engrain themselves onto your mind. While The Cell boasts a number of bombastic images, Singh’s dissection of a cow stands out. And The Cell’s introduction of Carl’s idealized image of himself – accompanied by Howard Shore’s powerful score – is both mesmerizing and terrifying in equal parts.

There’s a twisted creativity to the movie’s visuals that engrain themselves onto your mind.

Where The Cell falters is its time spent out in the real world. Specifically, screenwriter Mark Protosevich’s story struggles to balance the science fiction, horror, and crime procedural elements. If The Cell’s fantasy world is a well-designed visual descent into madness, the real-world elements feel familiar, bordering on derivative. Horror movies have often struggled to mix police narratives with genre convections (see The First Power or Resurrection). Similarly, The Cell’s screenplay struggles to distinguish itself from Silence of the Lambs or Se7en. As a result, Singh’s mostly inventive thriller often feels like two very different movies.

The Cell Confirmed Jennifer Lopez as a Hollywood Star

By the time The Cell hit theaters, Jennifer Lopez was a legitimate movie star. With her Anaconda days behind her, Lopez was a good fit for this high-concept thriller. And she was clearly a big enough star to draw in audiences despite the movie’s eccentric and bombastic visuals. As Dr Catherine Deane, Lopez accomplishes two critical things – she brings a human element to the grand world of Carl’s psyche and she offers audiences something in which to invest in the thriller’s outside world. Simply put, Lopez’s balance of vulnerability with steely determination elevates the character above the screenplay. Though it’s hard to imagine today, but in 2000, Vince Vaughan was a “serious” actor. Yet in spite of his acting chops, Vaughn feels out of place here.

…Lopez’s balance of vulnerability with steely determination elevates the character above the screenply.

Since his chilling role as Private “Gomer Pyle”, Vincent D’Onofrio has perfected eccentric, morally dubious characters. No matter how hard the MCU may try, D’Onofrio now owns the character of Wilson Fisk. And as the mentally disturbed Carl Stragher, D’Onofrio is a terrifying addition to The Cell. Yes, the visual effects and set design certain help give D’Onofrio a distinctive look. Nevertheless, D’Onofrio’s ability to channel two very different characters – the real world’s awkward Carl with his subconscious’ idealized image – puts Strager on par with cinema’s most disturbing killers. In addition to The Cell’s principal stars, you’ll find a surprising number of recognizable faces in supporting roles. Dylan Baker (Trick r’ Treat), Jake Weber (Dawn of the Dead), and Marianne Jean-Baptiste round out an impressive cast.

The Cell …

Ultimately, The Cell is indeed a tale of two different movies. When Singh drops us into his killer’s subconscious, The Cell is a visually stunning and disturbing serial killer movie like no other previously seen. But when The Cell shifts gears to the outside world, it’s an awkward crime procedural that too often reminds us of better thrillers. Fortunately, Jennifer Lopez anchors the story in both worlds. Her performance adds much needed emotional resonance ensuring The Cell is more than just eye candy.


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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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