Serial killers are true evil personified. And yet, fascination with them has increasingly grown over the past several decades. True crime books fly off shelves, murder-focused podcasts play in the ears of millions, and an entire population of self-professed “murderinos” enjoy digging through cold case files to learn about these heartless humans.
Endless films have depicted serial killers, but none have intimately navigated the inner workings of their mind quite like director Tarsem Singh’s The Cell, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week. In order to visually capture the depths of human depravity, Singh turned to maverick production and costume designer, Eiko Ishioka.
Born in Japan, Ishioka had an innate artistic eye thanks to her father, who was a successful graphic designer. She graduated from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, later entering the world of advertising. Four years later, she became the first woman to win Japan’s most prestigious advertising award. Her affinity for surreal eroticism and talent for visualizing fabric texture and its flow on the human form allowed her to transition into various creative paths. In 1999, she designed costumes for the Dutch Opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen. In 2002 she created the costumes for Cirque du Soleil: Varekai; In 2003 Ishioka designed the logo for the NBA’s Houston Rockets, and in 2009 she crafted the costumes for Grace Jones’ “Hurricane” tour.
Her glamorous garments graced the stage multiple times over in various forms, allowing her to showcase her versatility across cultures and decades. However, Eiko Ishioka is best known for her lavish costume design on the silver screen. Some of the most notable moments of the films she has worked on are all thanks to her singular flair.
After collaborating with Francis Ford Coppola on the Japanese poster for Apocalypse Now, Ishioka was brought on as the costume designer for his 1992 Gothic horror film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The elegant period piece wardrobes consisted of a tapered crimson dress worn by Winona Ryder and the intricately woven white lace wedding dress adorned by Sadie Frost. These are just two of the iconic ensembles that justified Ishioka’s Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Her ability to capture themes of life and death, lust and love, as well as desire and excess, all properly prepared her for Singh’s 2000 psychological horror film, The Cell.
Singh’s film follows Catherine Deane (played by Jennifer Lopez), a child psychologist who uses cutting edge technology called the “Neurological Cartography and Synaptic Transfer System” to enter the mind of a serial killer in order to assist detectives in locating his latest victim. Murderer Carl Rudolph Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) kidnaps women and traps them in a glass cell that slowly fills up with water until they drown. In addition to recording his captives’ struggle, he partakes in body modification by hanging from the skin on his back in order to seek a sexual high. Suspension is a prevalent theme throughout the film and is displayed not only in sexual, scientific, and torture methods, but costume design as well.
The technique Catherine uses to enter Stargher’s mind is considered an experimental virtual reality treatment initially meant for coma patients in which the psychologist is able to enter their comatose state and lure their consciousness back to the surface. The blood-red suits in which both doctor and patient wear are tightly fit and made of rubber grooves that appear to mimic the muscular structure of the body. As with Dracula, Ishioka’s signature red color palette serves as a motif throughout the film.
In an interview with W Magazine, Singh disclosed that “Eiko would say that red is the most difficult color, but in many ways, red was Eiko: strong, intense, brilliant.” The blood-red body suits worn by Catherine and Stargher are suspended into the air as they enter their alternate dream state. Stargher’s perspective towards women is later played out in various roles within his subconscious, which include seeing women as a sex toy, sacrifice, saint, and eventual warrior. Each archetype depicts a shade of red in the costume design. However, white is incorporated whenever Catherine is viewed as a savior. This is also evident when she enters the mind of a young patient in the beginning of the film, as she is draped in a long white gown with a white feathered collar, meeting her patient in the desert.
In a scene where Catherine is taken hostage, she is forced to wear a collar around her neck. On set, Lopez requested that Ishioka loosen it to make it more comfortable, but instead she simply responded, “no, you’re supposed to be tortured.” Her commitment to the craft simply meant being uncomfortable and pushing the boundaries in order to get the most authentic reaction from the characters donning her work.
Upon entering Stargher’s mind, fairytale and nightmare collide. The landscape of Stargher’s unconscious contains several artistic influences including H.R. Giger, Norweigen painter Odd Nerdrum, and music videos such as “The Perfect Drug” by Nine Inch Nails and “Bedtime Story” by Madonna. The women Catherine encounters are dressed up like decrepit dolls with hooks and wires navigating or restricting their movements, further symbolizing Stargher’s ultimate need for control over them. His younger, innocent self (played by Jake Thomas) leads Catherine through his memories, chronicling the extensive abuse from his father. While Catherine tries to nurture him into telling her where his latest victim is, an evil force is seen to be lurking in the shadows and is the one ultimately responsible for the sadistic acts Stargher carries out.
Known as King Stargher, his costumes are adorned with colors symbolic of royalty and power since he finds pleasure by inflicting trauma. Descending from his throne, he wears a purple cape that is so long it lines the walls of a massive room; and in other scenes he is wearing a bejeweled golden robe with an elaborate collar and crown that complements his pale skin and seared red eyes. Another scene featuring body contortion and the King eerily creeping up behind young Stargher showcases the durability of Ishioka’s ornate costumes. There is a constant power struggle between the King and young Stargher as well as the King and Catherine. This sadistic power dynamic further plays into the psychosexual narrative of the film in which pain prevails.
Outside of Stargher’s psyche, costume design is nostalgic to the ‘90s and Ishioka finds ways to make commonplace wardrobe disturbing in its own right. The FBI agents wear traditional suits and ties while Catherine wears the occasional spaghetti strap top and choker, along with the signature mocha lipstick shade of the decade. The female victim who is held captive throughout the film is wearing a simple grey pencil skirt and blue blouse, as she was taken while leaving work. The decision to make her dress professional and commonplace makes her kidnapping even more terrifying. Since serial killers troll for their victims and have a tendency to pick them based on certain common features, this case is merely opportunistic. The simplicity of her dress and ease of her capture, despite her carrying a can of pepper spray, implies that it could happen to anyone.
Critical reception to The Cell was mixed. However, the general consensus on the film’s stunning visuals could not be argued. Ishioka’s ability to capture cultural iconography and character emotion through costume design is one of the film’s most striking features. Her work is sinister yet seductive and like the intriguing pull that serial killers have on modern day audiences, there is a certain dark allure in The Cell’s costume design that only Ishioka’s signature style can evoke. She went on to work with Singh again in 2008 on his film The Fall and later in 2012 on his fairytale adaptation of “Snow White” called Mirror, Mirror.
In an interview with Independent, Singh said “Eiko had only two gears: full-out or no gear at all.” It’s evident that she consistently put her entire being into her work. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2012, but her iconic creations are securely stitched into the cinematic universe of costume design forever.
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