Color, 1972, 104m. / Directed by Robert Altman / Starring Susannah York, Rene Auberjonois / MGM (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Though most critics will deny that he ever made a full-blown horror film, the wildly erratic Robert Altman certainly toyed with the genre's conventions in That Cold Day in the Park, The Gingerbread Man, and most notably Images, a nerve-jangler usually regarded as a Repulsion riff about a woman's violent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. The film appropriately opens with a recited fairytale about unicorns - nonexistent creatures, natch - spoken by Cathryn (York), a woman alone with only a telephone and a come-and-go husband to keep her anchored to the real world. While talking to her friend Joan, she is startled when the voice on the telephone suddenly changes to a different one entirely, warning Cathryn that her husband is off having an affair. When hubby Hugh (Auberjonois) finally returns home, he assures her that it's all just a nasty prank. Unfortunately Cathryn is startled and turns into a screaming wreck when Hugh suddenly turns into her deceased former lover, Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi). Hugh decides it's time to take his wife off to the Irish countryside for a little relaxation, but the vacation proves to be no less traumatic; Cathryn sees a sinister doppelganger of herself, repeatedly encounters Rene, and also runs into another old flame, Marcel (Hugh Millais), whose blonde daughter, Susannah (Cathryn Harrison), is more than a bit eerie herself. Realizing that these visions must be stopped, Cathryn decides to kill off her ghosts... with horrific consequences.

Unlike your standard beautiful-woman-going-crazy melodrama, Images elicits its chills through York's often startling reactions rather than the apparitions themselves. We often have to wait for her sudden scream to determine whether what we're seeing is truly unnatural or frightening; as her sanity seems to slide downhill, the viewer is left disoriented by having the one point of view in the film proven to be completely unreliable. In a sense this is closer to the ghost/madness subgenre which also includes Don't Look Now, the underrated A Quiet Place in the Country, and Symptoms, where the film itself becomes a jagged series of hallucinatory visions which the audience must later put together like a nasty jigsaw puzzle. York's excellent performance grounds a film that might otherwise be unbearably flighty, and Altman followers can find plenty of food for thought here. Sandwiched between McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye on his roster of films, Images completes what is in essence a trilogy of moody, genre-twisting Altman films with expert, groundbreaking scope photography courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond. It's a shame the two parted ways afterwards, as their styles fit each other perfectly. The film's elaborate visual scheme is consistently impressive, with mirrors and doubling imagery used to marvelous effect (outdone only by Dario Argento's similarly crafty Deep Red); continuing the motif with an especially bizarre stunt, the characters are all named after different actors within the film, essentially swapping everyone's identity with someone else of the same gender. Equally vital is the complex and often gut-wrenching sound mix, with an early and highly adventurous score by John Williams (complete with "sounds" by Stomu Yamashta). Good luck finding the extremely scarce soundtrack album; though not exactly accessible, the music works beautifully and obviously inspired Jerry Goldsmith's similar work on The Reincarnation of Peter Proud a few years later.

MGM's under-the-radar release is nothing less than a milestone recovery for horror fans with a taste for art house flourishes. Long mentioned as the "lost" Altman film surrounded by rumors of studio suppression, demolished negatives, and legal entanglements, this Hemdale release was first distributed by Columbia but promptly buried without a home video release. Fortunately the DVD finally offers a chance to assess the film in all its widescreen glory, and the results were worth the wait; the spooky Irish scenery and pastoral lighting look wonderful in this anamorphic transfer, which is bright and colorful where it should be and deliberately desaturated during several interior scenes. Zsigmond's filter-happy photography can be a nightmare even with modern digital know-how (e.g., Obsession), but few will find fault here. The disc comes with a handful of welcome supplements, primarily a 24-minute featurette, "Imagining Images." Best known as an actors' director, Altman is his usual chatty self here and warmly discusses the film without blowing too much of its ambiguity; Zsigmond also pops up for a quick interjection, too. Altman returns for one of those odd "selected scenes" commentary tracks (similar to What's Up, Doc?) in which he discusses some of his favorite moments and points out little anecdotes about the production history. The disc closes out with a long, borderline avant garde theatrical trailer that probably did this film no favors with general audiences.

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