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|“||Is that right? And what world do you live in?||„|
|~ Words of Carl Rudolph Stargher.|
|“||Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey /a kiddley divey too/wooden shoe?||„|
|~ Carl Rudolph Stargher, singing "Mairzy Doats" right before suffering a schizophrenic breakdown.|
Carl Rudolph Stargher is the main antagonist of the 2000 psychological sci-fi thriller film, The Cell. He is a serial killer and a kidnapper, who has developed a unique modus operandi for dispatching his victims - namely a fully-automated prison cell. This glass enclosure is designed to gradually fill with water over the course of approximately 40 hours, eventually drowning the captive - whereupon Stargher subjects the corpse to further ritualistic treatments before dumping it for the authorities to find. Much of the film's action is prompted by the FBI's search for his 8th and final victim, for though they manage to capture him comparatively early in the film, Stargher has lapsed into a coma and is unable to answer questions - consciously at any rate.
He was portrayed by Vincent D'Onofrio, who also portrayed Private Gomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket, Edgar the Bug in Men in Black, Bob Fittler in Chained, Kingpin in Daredevil, Commander Vic Hoskins in Jurassic World, Luca Abele in Dishonored 2, and Lester Clark in Escape Room.
Carl Rudolph Stargher was born with a very rare form of latent schizophrenia known as Whelan's Infraction: caused by a viral infection in utero and triggered by water-related trauma, the condition remained dormant for much of his early childhood until he was six years of age, on the day of his baptism. Completely immersed in the waters of a river for a little longer than necessary, Carl believed he was drowning and suffered a seizure while still underwater - the water-based trauma needed to trigger his schizophrenia. Not long after the ceremony was complete, he began hearing voices, one of them eventually ascribed to an imaginary friend (never formally named but simply titled "him") that would help and advise him when nobody else wound. However, this "friend" eventually became the personification of his increasingly violent impulses, often making itself heard prior to the serial killings later in life.
Much of Carl's childhood was spent in the company of his abusive father, who regularly physically and emotionally abused him for little to no reason whatsoever: in the aftermath of his near-death experience at the baptism, his father broke three of his ribs and fractured his jaw for reasons that were never made entirely clear. Violent outbursts followed even the mildest of slights, with the act of accidentally breaking a plate being cause for beatings, screamed insults, and claims that Carl should have been drowned at birth "like the runt of the litter." Carl attempted to find an escape from the abuse by playing with dolls and retreating into his fantasies; however, his father soon discovered the truth and, in a monstrous attempt to make it clear that "I didn't raise no faggot," proceeded to burn his son with a clothes iron.
Snippets of memories overhead suggest that Carl's mother left the family, possibly to escape being abused herself, and Carl's father used this as further ammunition in his psychotic lectures: having either remarried or acquired a girlfriend at some point, he eventually went so far as to force his son to look at the woman naked, pointing out her privates as "a place of evil" while screaming "she's not your mother. She left us Carl! Remember that!"
It was at some point while wandering outside to escape his father's tantrums that Carl happened to find a wounded bird, helpless and unable to fly. Curious, he took the bird in and did his best to care for it; unfortunately, his father soon found out, and Carl quickly realized that it would only be a matter of time before something horrible happened to the bird. So, rather than let his father torture the wounded bird just to hurt him, he quietly drowned it in the sink, rationalizing that he'd "saved" the bird from further torment. This incident was to shape the rest of his life, forming the basis of his beliefs and his methods as an adult - and a serial killer.
As an adult, Carl was able to keep up a relatively respectable facade despite his increasingly delusional private life, having no prior arrests on his record and making a legal wage as a mechanic. He'd even acquired a pet, an albino German Shepherd named Valentine. Ultimately, though, it was his day job that was to form the final push towards his transformation into a serial killer: some years prior to the events of the film, a developer by the name of Bainbridge attempted to build a machine works in Delano, California, making use of pumps and hoists provided by Carver Industrial Equipment; however, Bainbridge's efforts ended in bankruptcy, and both the land and the failed machine works was made property of the state government - who immediately ordered it shut down. By chance, the job of sealing the place up went to none other than Carl Stargher.
With the property officially abandoned and a wealth of industrial devices left on the premises, Carl had everything he needed to make his fantasies a reality. Taking an industrial hoist back to his house, he arranged it for use in one of his hobbies - suspension: through eight metal rings implanted in the flesh of his back, he was able to hoist himself into the air, deriving pleasure from both the sensation of floating and the masochistic strain on his skin. Then, he returned to the abandoned machine works, having established it as a secondary base of operations, and began work on what was to become his favored means of dispatch.
Following extensive modification of the materials left at the site, he was able to rig up a fully automated prison cell for enacting his violent delusions on human victims. The targets of his obsessions were selected well in advance and stalked at length, sometimes for months on end: without exception, they were young, female, successful, and usually with a great deal of future potential - Carl having selected them both out of pathological loneliness and out of a belief that he was "saving" them by doing so. Capturing them though a mixture of deception and ambush tactics, he knocked them unconscious and drove them out to his secondary base at Delano, where they were locked in the cell and simply left there; the automation of the cell ensured that he had no need to conduct any of the torture himself, ensuring that none of the victims ever saw his face. For good measure, the plate-glass walls and airtight hatchway ensured that escape would be completely impossible.
Over the course of their time in captivity, his victims were provided with food, water and a toilet: however, every hour, sprinklers implanted in the cell's roof would blast the captives with water for several minutes, apparently as part of a cleansing ritual; after 40 hours, the outgoing drain sealed shut and the sprinklers flooded the cell, ensuring the victim's death by drowning. For good measure, video cameras recorded the entire incident for Carl's sick pleasure.
Well after the 40 hours were up, Carl himself returned to the machine works, drained away the water and took the corpse home: in the basement of his house, he bleached the bodies of his victims to make them resemble dolls, then suspended himself over the corpses and masturbated at length - often while using the recorded footage of their deaths to enhance the experience. The next day, he would decorate the corpse with a specially-made collar to demonstrate his ownership of them, and then quietly dump them in the wilderness.
Events of the Film
Carl has acquired no less than seven victims by the start of the film. However, things are starting to come undone for the serial killer: his mental state is worsening, apparently resulting in severe headaches; the time between kidnappings has dwindled from months to barely a week, Carl's appetites having grown too ravenous for him to accept waiting for police attention to die down; and in the meantime, he has started making serious mistakes. Having already left tire tracks near the sixth victim's dumping site, he not only leaves a fresh pair not far from the body of his seventh victim - Anne Marie Vicksie - but also allowed Valentine out of the car while disposing of the corpse, leaving a telltale dog hair at the scene of the crime. FBI agents speculate that Carl is either under the impression that the authorities are too stupid to catch him, or that he actually wants to be caught.
The rarity of an albino German Shepherd eventually leads Agent Novak directly to Carl's home. However, by then, Carl has already captured his eighth victim, Julia Hickson; worse still, before the SWAT team can enter the house and arrest him, Carl's headaches escalate into a full-blown seizure and he collapses on the scene. Medical study confirms him to be comatose and unlikely to ever return to consciousness.
With less than a day remaining to find Julia before she drowns, the FBI resort to an unorthodox method of discovering her location: film protagonist Dr Catherine Deane has been conducting highly experimental and speculative research into a virtual reality device that allows her to enter the minds of her comatose patients. Though recognizing the danger of exploring the serial killer's mind, Catherine agrees to enter Carl's subconscious and try to retrieve some information from it.
Upon entering, Catherine finds that Carl's mental landscape has manifested as a waterlogged kingdom of twisting hallways, vast staircases, surreal imagery, and incongruously palatial luxury. Over the course of her first visit, she discovers that Carl's psyche has divided itself into two distinct personas: the first is a vision of himself as a child, personifying his innocence; the other is his murderous aspect, his imaginary friend and violent impulses made flesh in the dreamworld in a monstrous new form - known in the script as "Stargher King". For good measure, he also maintains a collection of his past victims, here incarnated as a hideously mutilated array of life-sized dolls.
On her second visit, Catherine manages to meet up with Carl's child-self, and though the two of them briefly bond, they are disturbed by memories of his childhood abuse and forced to part. Catherine is eventually captured by Stargher King, who is able to mentally dominate her through the machine's connection and force his delusional reality on her: collared and enslaved as a living variation on one of his dolls, Catherine remains trapped until Agent Novak enters Carl's mind to rescue her.
Unfortunately, Stargher King almost immediately captures him and tortures the helpless agent by disemboweling him and winding his intestines along a spit; however, Novak is able to awaken Catherine by reminding her of her past, and she recovers long enough to stab Stargher King in the back. Though Stargher recovers very quickly, the effect is debilitating enough to allow Catherine and Novak to escape his grasp. Soon after, the two discover the Carver Industrial Equipment logo on a mental reconstruction of Julia's tank - a critical clue that eventually leads Novak all the way to Carl's secondary base, where he rescues the real Julia Hickson just in time.
While he does this, Catherine once again connects with Carl, this time bringing him into her mind - manifested as a biblical paradise. Having grown to care for Carl's child self, she tries to offer some comfort to him, but she admits that he can't stay in the mental paradise forever; manifesting as his adult self, Carl recounts his mercy-killing of the injured bird - and suggests that Catherine should do the same for him. Unwilling to go through with it, Catherine then finds herself confronted by Stargher King; however, with the feeds reversed, she is easily able to defeat the murderous aspect in single combat. However, she realizes that the two personas are inextricably linked, and cannot kill one without killing the other.
So, with no choice but to accept the original suggestion, Catherine tearfully drowns Carl's child-self, putting an end to his suffering and destroying Stargher-King once and for all.
- In the original script for The Cell, Stargher King's battle with Catherine ends in a stalemate that only Stargher's rational mind can break, leading to the serial killer destroying the personification of his violent impulses. For good measure, Stargher then drowns himself and his younger self.