The Yellow Wallpaper Review- A Sweeping Gothic Chiller That Dives Headfirst Into Madness
The Yellow Wallpaper, which premiered at Cinequest, is a smart horror lover’s dream. Profoundly affecting, the potboiler is ambiguous and creepy to the very end.
The Yellow Wallpaper is an important piece of feminist literature. I would argue it should be important to everyone. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story was first published in 1892. It is a scathing indictment of women’s treatment in the 19th century. It is a brilliant mix of Gothic Horror and Lovecraftian dread. Gilman wrote it after a nearly debilitating bout of depression was treated using the “rest cure”. This was a commonly prescribed treatment for women. The cure was worse than the disease, though, as it allowed an already misogynistic society to create mindless servants who were dependent on the men in their lives for everything.
The story has been adapted many times, including several short films, a television movie, two episodes of a radio series, multiple stage adaptations, and a 2012 movie starring Juliet Landau of Buffy The Vampire Slayer fame. Most adaptations fell short of the crushing personal nullification and bone-deep anxiety that the story delivered. They all missed the ambiguity of the horror. The story is, after all, both a cathartic release of pent-up disappointment and chilling terror, even if that terror came in the form of a slow-burning ambiguity. The newest adaptation from Alexandra Loreth, who co-wrote and stars, and Kevin Pontuti, who co-wrote and directed the film, leaned hard into the mystery of the yellow wallpaper with incredible results.
This film-making team has a penchant for ambiguous fear. Their fresh take on the story finds Jane, her husband John, her infant, and her sister staying in a gorgeous but lonely summer home so that Jane can rest and recover from a nervous condition. John forces her to move into the upstairs bedroom, where yellow flowered wallpaper adorns the walls. The bed is nailed to the floor in the middle of the room, and John insists it used to be a nursery, but it feels more like a gilded prison for the beautiful but insane.
Too much time on her hands and not enough treatment causes Jane to slowly lose her mind. She retreats into the wallpaper and the wild woman she thinks she sees everywhere. What is real and what is imagined is where the magic of this film shines. In even the opening sequence, that understanding is tested. The dazzling final act completes an arch of hazy questions and eery answers.
Pontuti is a professor at the University of the Pacific in the Performance and Design Department, and it shows. He has an eye for juxtaposing the sunny beauty of the Irish countryside, in this case, a jewel of a find in Ireland (thanks to Emerald Giant Productions), with the haunting isolation and stalking monster which may or may not be in Jane’s head He lets the setting and his star do the heavy lifting. Too often, directors think they need lots of gore and CGI to create a scary experience. The Yellow Wallpaper needs none of those things to create an oppressive atmosphere and memorable story.
The setting is spectacular. The home, a reportedly haunted old convent and the room Jane is stuck in, reeks of decay and death. The death of her spirit foremost. The titular yellow wallpaper was designed by Pontuti and production designer Peter Galante. Attention to detail shows in the set design. Imagery is lasting, especially in quieter moments when the camera lingers on strange crawling creatures and harrowing descents into insanity. A light-dappled interior scene of Jane in the bedroom in her nightgown is so memorable it will likely show up in your nightmares.
Pontuti expands on the room as a prison by introducing more of the garden scape. That expanded space becomes part of her waking nightmare. The majority of the film feels like a misty bad dream that you can’t shake. Pontuti says this was intentional. The team put a lot of thought into “how the woman would manifest in the story”. By staying with Jane most of the movie, you never really know if this is Jane imagining things or is it real? She is the ultimate unreliable witness. There is a spectacular scene with Mary(Clara Harte) that is especially chilling because you don’t know if she is real or if she is a malignant presence?
Sound design was essential in developing the feeling of the film. Intentionally alien, they wanted to create something that “got in people’s heads,” Loreth said. As Jane becomes more shut off from the world, the outside sounds begin invading her inside spaces and vice versa in an unsettling way. Cathie McCellan’s costuming is lovely, but the real star is Loreth.
The entire film rests solely on Loreth’s slim shoulders. Jane is both the focus and the audience’s entry point into the drama. We only see what she sees and feels, and as a result, if Loreth weren’t sympathetic and believable, the film would suffer. She said she and Pontuti wanted to show “how destructive mental illness can be,” and they do. She is stoic and blank in her delivery which plays off the wildness of her visions. There is something terrible about the creeping monotony of boredom and isolation. Her husband doesn’t want her to do anything but preserve her strength for mothering. We feel Jane’s annoyance at the beginning and consuming mental illness at the end.
Everything from a well-shot sex scene to her maternal moments with her child showcases her numbness. This woman is holding tight to societal norms while indulging her inner demons privately. The post-credits scene especially showcases that manic placid quality Loreth projects while inwardly embracing madness.
Framed as a devoted but reimagined version of Gilman’s piece, even the infamous ending gets a retooling. Without giving any spoilers away, it is both strangely satisfying and disturbing. Less concerned with the controlling patriarchy of the times and more focused on the result, the film captures what modern mental illness can look like. While The Yellow Wallpaper doesn’t capture the same feminine rage of the source material, it does capture the weird strangeness of what the wallpaper means to Jane and what is actually happening. The Yellow Wallpaper is an intensely strange film that features a fantastic location, a great leading lady, and an impeccable story.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.