The House that no one asked for; our modern obsession with killers

Title: The House that Jack Built (2018)

Director: Lars Von Trier

The world has a very morbid curiosity with serial killers.

This can often border on voyeurism; hours and hours of consuming endless documentaries detailing heinous crimes that are enough to prevent you from all forms of social interaction, ever. We occasionally enhance this experience even further in our shared consciousness by watching films so graphic, that just in case those police tapes or interviews didn’t leave an impact, the Hollywood reenactments definitely will.

So why? Why do we seem to care so much about these men and women that do such terrible things? I read somewhere that we feel a need to know these dangers to make us appreciate how close we are to them on a daily basis, to look out for signs as it were. I disagree. I’m no psychologist, but I think humans have always had a fascination with the subversive, the extreme, the sick underbelly of what could be. “Could I be a serial killer?” You may ask “let me watch all these documentaries and see what the links are? What did they do? Why?” And it is in many ways just as intriuging as it is disturbing; how some of us can walk around, killers in plain sight? Watching The Ted Bundy tapes is a bit like a modern equivalent to visiting Bedlam, only you can pause occasionally.

So what do we actually learn from sitting through hours of police material, tapes, and reconstructions? Well, we may learn what Lars Von Trier seemingly learnt in his serial killer binge while researching this movie. Von Trier apparently spent a few months “intensively” studying everything he could about killers to make this film as believable and convincing as possible. He probably learnt that we are likely to remember ugly little details like body count; we recall if they buried the victims alive, or ate them, perhaps if they had some weird fetish or did something particularly unsettling with the bodies. Nasty grisly little details it seems, are really at the epicenter of this entire film.

The end product of his “research” is a truly unnecessary and unengaging two and a half hour journey of exhaustion. Lars Von Trier should’ve really used his time and energy doing something else. Literally anything else.

Jack is played by Matt Dillon, and could easily be Ted Bundy or Dahmer or any of those other 70s bad boys who got away with murder for excessively long periods of time. Jack is in many ways a cliche; he’s a sociopathic intellectual who through an unfortunate combination of narcissism and lack of empathy has become a killer. He wears thick framed glasses like Dahmer, he is socially very charming, sometimes he pretends to be disabled and uses crutches…all these things we have grown to associate with creepy dudes who like to kill. Jack is also an architect who is obsessed with high brow art and culture. Von Trier perhaps thought would be the separation between this movie and run of the mill torture porn. We learn very early on that Jack has killed over sixty people during his twelve years of activity but due to time restrictions (I’ll use this term fluidly) we delightfully only get to see five of these massacres at random.

The body count mounts up, quite literally in a giant freezer, somewhere outside of the city. We occasionally see Jack transporting the corpses back to their orginal place of murder for macabre photoshoots and yes, it is exactly as grim as it sounds.

The death scenes themselves are graphic and really over the top detailed; exactly what you grow to expect from Von Trier and exactly what created all the hype about this film in the first place. Everything else is so bland and unengaging that you almost wonder what the point is. It’s as though the death scenes are as over the top as possible to leverage what’s essentially a pretty dull film about a pretty irritating bloke. In the process of being a cinematic troll, Von Trier will actively try to push your buttons; he will stop at nothing, showing things like a kid being murdered, or a duck getting its legs casually clipped off. One of the final scenes displays a house that Jack literally builds out of a mountain of corpses. Fab.

The violence against women was my biggest issue with this film as it’s such indulgent and thinly veiled misogyny that not even art can explain it. In which world does no one fight back? So many opportunities and no person actually uses their brain, no one ever really TRIES to stop Jack from killing them. There is a scene where a girl is standing right by a knife rack…..right by it and nothing. This actively reinforces the idea of passive victim vs master manipulators; how the men who committed murders were somehow EXTREMELY smart and cunning, (and as Bundy is constantly described good looking and Kennedy-esque) and all their female victims are somehow really naive and uninformed; its male superiority in all its glory. Jack literally calls one of his victims “simple” and she continues spending the evening with him, insecurity is one thing, but that whole incident made me cringe with disbelief.

The whole film made me cringe

Lars Von Try hard makes me cringe

I would’ve been happier with a human centipede type scenario because at least you know what you’re getting. This failed and miserable attempt at a portrayal is not even remotely elevated or as interesting as a gore fest because it’s just so utterly dull. If you want to know about serial killers there are at least 6000 titles to choose from on Netflix.

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Sometimes remakes are better

*many spoilers*

Pet Sematary (2019)

Dir: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer

Everyone’s really pissed about this remake.

And under usual circumstances, I would be too. I’m normally a bit of a purist, and utterly detest remakes based on their sheer futility. Does the world even need 10 versions of “A star is born”?

No-one knows the cosmic answer to this age old question. What I do know is that on this particular occasion repetition was necessary because “Pet sematary” is a great book, whereas the 1989 screen original was infact quite shit.

Sorry

I watched the original for the first time at a Stephen King retrospective just over a year ago at the BFI. The BFI is a very serious institution that won’t serve you popcorn; they have expensive nuts and craft beer served by bearded men who know a worrying amount about Stanley Kubrick. Everything is a bit high brow and post ironic and there is definitely no popcorn…..apart from maybe this crap

Laughter is also frowned upon at the BFI, so you can forget about that if you ever visit. When I then spent 10 mins hyperventilating at one particular scene in Lamberts exercise in mediocrity I was convinced I’d get chucked out. Strangely, in a unexpected twist of events this seemed to trigger a bit of a chain reaction, whereby everyone else in the screen started laughing, viva la revolution. And just like that we all lightened the fuck up and accepted this film for what it was.

Naturally, when the remake idea came up, I was all in. Judging by recent reviews you would somehow think that Mary Lambert had made a horror equivalent of The Pianist, “This film should’ve stayed buried” cries one outraged critic, seemingly frothing at the mouth at the audacity of someone to remake a forgettable film from the 80s. And whilst I agree that there is some material that should never ever be touched, this isn’t one of those times.

The new film sticks pretty closely to the formula set up by Lambert, including those things that seem implausible in 2019. I don’t know about you, but if I was buying a house with 15 acres of land, I might want to have a little walkabout first, you know, see what’s on that land.

Because let me tell you something, if it turned out to be a massive Indian burial ground, I would be less than happy with that situation, nor with the estate agent that conveniently failed to mention it. Less unassuming is the pet cemetery (sematary according to the locals) right at the foot of the back garden, the one everyone in the town uses to bury their dead animals. Literally everyone. Everyone in the town.

That’s what keeps this film feeling retro I guess, the fact that were going to ignore our modern day obsession with true crime and just accept that people Google houses AFTER moving in.

There is the “doctor moves from a big city to a quaint village” context, which is the same. The city in question is Boston, in the original it was Chicago (no real issues with that change). Jud the New England oddball from across the road is still there, contradicting himself in literally every scene “let’s bring your cat back to life/sometimes dead is better/let’s go to the burial ground/I should’ve never shown you the burial ground”. Both versions of Jud Crandall (too mental to handle) are absolutely phenomenal, never a dull moment. It’s like watching a sweet mackavellian old man ruin a family whilst simultaneously trying to help them. In both films he’s my favourite for being so utterly off his rocker.

Jud explains Pet sematary

And whilst Lithgow does a great job portraying Jud 2.0, he just not nearly as unexpected or weird as original Jud, so I guess that was my only real issue. Also, I absolutely love that he decides to give Jason Clarke a run down of the area’s history like…..way after he moves in.

He lost me a bit on the Windogo…..

Not to be confused with Windolene

But all the other stuff about the burial ground made a lot of sense, in fact dare I say contextualised much more in this version.

Aside from the ending, which goes way off-piste compared to the original, the structure is very similar, and the overall tone is darker and less B movie-esque. The ones that weren’t too busy hissing and spitting venom do mention that this version actually stays truer to the book in terms of tone.

I recommend that you watch both films for very different reasons. I’m happy this happened and I hope that once people get over the 80s they will be too.