If you spent an afternoon flicking through daytime TV and chanced upon Lars von Trier’s 1994 hospital drama series Riget (The Kingdom), you probably wouldn’t think twice. The handheld camerawork and washed out palette look unconventional for sure, but much of the content feels like a fly-on-the-wall Holby City: flirting staff, excessive bureaucracy and power struggles initiated by overbearing egos.
Your first impression would be much different if you jumped in during one of its darker, more surreal moments. Take the climactic moment of the first series as an example. There’s a woman giving birth. So far so normal. But wait: her pain is off the chart and her body is pulsating ominously. The antenatal team are in a state of panic, leading one to holler, “I can kill it in the uterus, but outside it’s murder!”
And then the baby emerges. And by “baby”, I mean, “the screaming head of Udo Kier.” Who didn’t look anything like a baby even 25 years ago. The scene cuts to a tuxedo-suited von Trier, who ends each episode by summarising what happened and hyping up the next instalment. Even he’s covering his eyes in horror.
This is part of the magic of Lars von Trier. Call him an auteur or a provocateur, but a compelling slither of horror creeps into almost everything he does.
The Art of Murder
The release of The House That Jack Built makes this is a perfect time to examine von Trier’s credentials in the world of horror. The hype comes from its showing at Cannes, where numerous people walked out in revulsion. Starring Matt Dillon as the narcissist serial killer Jack, it’s not by any means an easy watch. Jack snipers half the head off a child, strangles a woman to a slow death, and hacks off his girlfriend Jacqueline’s breast as if he’s carving a Christmas turkey.
The horror of each incident comes not so much from the visceral violence, but from the ominous foreboding of knowing roughly what will happen before it does. When Uma Thurman’s character jests that she’s set herself up to be murdered, the tension comes not from her eventual death but from the awful anticipation of when it would happen.
But von Trier plays very little straight, as we’ve seen in everything from Melancholia’s use of the apocalypse as a tool to explore depression to Epidemic’s elaborate film-within-a-film mix of experimentalism and disorientating horror. As much as The House That Jack Built is a serial killer flick, it’s also the bleakest of black comedies. See Jack taking a body back to the scene of the crime to pose a better trophy photo. Or him goading Sofie Gråbøl’s character to continue to feed her dead child. Much like the cult Belgian shocker Man Bites Dog, it keeps challenging fans of subversive cinema. You can take deprived black comedy, but what’s your breaking point?
Mental Anguish >>>> Monsters
Despite his flights of fantasy, von Trier’s most compelling trait as a purveyor of horror is his fondness for the mundane. He has a rare ability to hone in on moments of psychological torture that remain rooted in the real world. One of the early criticisms of The House That Jack Built is how the naivety of the police leaves Jack free to commit further atrocities. Yet many real-life serial killers evaded detection in ways that in retrospect seem ridiculous. That only accentuates the psychological torment that Jacqueline experiences: terror when she realises Jack’s plans; relief when she spots the police; followed by an overwhelming sense of doom when the officer ignores her desperation.
That loss of control, often combined with a manipulated innocence, echoes through many of von Trier’s films. And isn’t intense suffering as a result of something you have no power over far more terrifying than any traditional horror trope?
Some examples. Dogville’s Grace is brutalized by the town until retribution becomes her only option. In Breaking The Waves, Bess’s utter devotion for her paralysed husband results in a suffering as profound as her love. Guilt leads to genital mutilation in Antichrist. It’s most striking in Dancer In The Dark’s gruelling finale in which Selma, a blameless martyr figure even by von Trier’s standards, is executed.
Even that is eclipsed by one from the director’s cut of Nymphomaniac. Joe’s sexuality takes her to ever darker places, the nadir of which is a kitchen floor self-abortion. It’s a moment so brutal it makes Selma’s execution look like the kiss from Lady and the Tramp. Even yanking out Udo Kier at the end would lighten the tone.
Lars von… Troll?
Following Nymphomaniac with The House That Jack Built feels von Trier is playing a game. What will elicit a bigger reaction? Explicit sex and exploring the realities of abortion? Or depicting extreme violence and toying with ideas around gun control?
In practice, the motivation behind von Trier’s provocative nature seems to be boringly functional. From the excitable manifestos of his Europe Trilogy to Dogme95’s rules and now sex, violence and taboo-busting content, he’s always used controversy as a way of drawing attention to himself. Debate leads to media interest, which gives his relatively inaccessible films a wider audience. It’s a tool which horror has often used too, from Cannibal Holocaust to The Human Centipede. A little controversy or censorship has always helped a movie stand out from the pack.
The great John Carpenter once said that “horror is a reaction; not a genre.” That’s what von Trier excels at. He can turn stomachs with vile imagery, force an emotional response by casting innocent characters into a living hell, or blur the boundaries between art and sensationalism. At his best, he does all of those things at once.