Roman Polanski, despite his rather grave personal failings, has made some absolutely champion horror films, his particular genius lying in his portrayal of claustrophobic paranoia and spiraling descents into madness.
The Tenant (1976) was the third film in Polanski’s so-called ‘apartment trilogy,’ which also included Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The reader can check Wikipedia for a complete plot synopsis, but in brief, The Tenant is the story of a Polish immigrant, Trelkovsky (played by Polanski himself) who moves into a Paris apartment that was previously occupied by an Egyptologist named Simone who slowly went batshit and tried to end it all by leaping out of the apartment window. As the movie goes on, it becomes clear that Trelkovsky is either on his way to repeating the cycle of madness, or he has the most relentlessly malevolent neighbors on earth.
This ambiguity, also present in the other two films in the ‘trilogy,’ is one of the best aspects of The Tenant, and also one of my favorite horror themes in general. Is Trelkovsky simply losing his mind as Simone apparently did (raising the possibility that the apartment itself is somehow causing the crazy), or was there some kind of organized plot by the other tenants to eventually drive them both to suicide? Judging from what happens in the film, it could go either way, though I tend to fall into the “descending madness” camp.
There is really just one scene I’d like to call out, though the film is really an embarrassment of riches on this score. An atmosphere of close, dingy dread infuses every scene with jittery unease, and there is ample terror conveyed by simple shots of grungy shutters or twitching curtains. It’s bad enough that Trelkovsky has already discovered that the wardrobe in the apartment is still full of Simone’s clothes, that he can clearly see into the bathroom across the courtyard, and that the glass awning a couple floors beneath his window still bears a ragged hole where Simone’s body crashed through it. But then comes this unsettling development…
Trelkovsky is moving the wardrobe when he happens to glance out the window. He freezes. For there, standing in the bathroom window across the courtyard, is a woman. She is just standing there, staring at him. She is dressed in a long black coat and a black hat. Her face is blurred, but she looks startlingly like his crotchety landlady (played by Shelley Winters), feeding his burgeoning paranoia that the landlady and the other tenants are actively trying to freak him out. Troubled, he turns back to the wardrobe, and it’s then that he spots a hole in the wall that looks to be stuffed with a wad of cotton. He pulls the cotton out and peers into the hole with his lighter. He thinks he sees something, so he pokes his finger in there. And what he yanks out is a tooth.
A FUCKING TOOTH. A long, white canine tooth, clearly extracted at the root. Trelkovsky stares at it for a moment before dropping it into a nearby ashtray. Then, looking down at the tooth with a slightly disgusted expression on his face, he picks the tooth back up and sticks it back into the hole in the wall, and replaces the cotton.
The reason I love this scene so much is that it’s done so elegantly. There is no dialogue, and the background score (which sounds like an oboe) is suitably downbeat and eerie. Besides that, finding a vaguely squicky object left by persons unknown in a place where you weren’t expecting to find such a thing is a fantastic way of building suspense and keeping the viewer guessing. What is the tooth doing in a hole in the wall behind a wardrobe? Is it Simone’s? Did she pull it herself or did someone else do it? And why did she keep it? The imagination races to make sense of the grisly little relic. The appearance of the tooth is never fully explained, and that is what gives the scene this disquieting aura of menace.
There is a later, similar scene that I’d like to touch on as well. Trelkovsky is lying in bed, sick and slightly delirious. Eventually he leaves his apartment to visit the bathroom, making his way through the shadowed halls. When he gets there, a slow pan around the room reveals that someone has very meticulously carved hieroglyphics all over the walls. This is ominous enough to make Trelkovsky bolt from the room and hightail it back to his apartment, but when he gets back there, he glances out the window and sees someone standing in the bathroom he just left seconds before. And this someone is completely wrapped in bandages, like a mummy. Just standing there. Then, the figure slowly begins to unwrap the bandages from around her head, and it’s a weirdly smiling woman, Simone. Her smile reveals a missing canine tooth. This scene is also a great thematic callback, as not only was Simone an Egyptologist, but she was also in a full body cast the first time Trelkovsky saw her (though she died later from her injuries).
The Tenant remains one of my favorite psychological horrors of the era, and the scenes I described still give me chills to this day. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.
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