Henry Rollins thought he had it rough when, on Black Flag’s 1984 album Slip It In, he sang about “drinking black coffee, black coffee, drinking black coffee, staring at the wall.” But, hey, at least he got coffee.
That’s more than Jane, the protagonist of The Yellow Wallpaper, has.
Played by Alexandra Loreth (who also co-wrote the script with director K Pontuti), Jane is a woman in America during the 1800s, which means she’s basically a second-class citizen. She has, however, fulfilled her sole purpose in life, at least according to the patriarchal attitudes of the time: she’s given birth to a child.
Now, as a treatment for postpartum depression (once believed to be a byproduct of “female hysteria”), Jane is taken to a remote country manor to “rest.” In other words, she’s confined to a small bedroom with bars on the windows and furniture nailed to the floor. Actively deprived of stimulation by her domineering husband, she is forbidden to read, write, or exert herself in any way.
With nothing else to do, Jane spends her days staring at the hideous yellow wallpaper that decorates her homegrown prison cell. The longer she stares, the more she begins seeing things, glimpses of a woman trapped inside the wallpaper. She scrapes and claws, peeling it away in hopes of liberating the hostage bound by its flowery patterns, even as she herself slowly disintegrates in isolation.
Recently released to Blu-ray courtesy of BayView Entertainment, The Yellow Wallpaper is, of course, based on the 1892 short story of the same name by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It was inspired by the author’s real-life experiences under the care of infamous physician Silas Weir Mitchell, whose so-called “rest cure” historically harmed more patients than it ever helped. Mitchell’s misogynist pseudoscience was likewise called out by Virginia Woolf in her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway.
Today, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is considered to be both a pioneering work of feminist literature and an early example of weird fiction (H.P. Lovecraft himself called it “a most insidiously potent tale of the aura of madness”). Loreth and Pontuti’s film version hews close to the source material, often directly quoting Gilman’s words. Only in its very last moments does it substantially diverge, diminishing (though not quite eliminating) the original story’s ambiguity.
Though a bit stiff (especially early on), The Yellow Wallpaper is deliberately placed and carefully composed. It wants to draw you into Jane’s loneliness and boredom, into her ostracization and infantilization, and ultimately into her spiraling mental illness. To this end, Roger Coburn’s droning electronic score proves especially effective, calling to mind Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman’s work on 1999’s Ravenous.
As “quiet horror” goes, The Yellow Wallpaper may be too quiet for mainstream audiences. But for patient viewers who’ve survived mental illness, sexist oppression, or 19th Century English Lit homework, Loreth and Pontuti’s film has a certain power. Its bleak relatability does justice to Gilman’s harrowing vision.
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER is out now on BLU-RAY (Region FREE) in the USA from BayView Entertainment.