Art Attacks, Not Heart Attacks – Reviewing ‘The House That Jack Built’

I love horror movies. I have ever since I was a pimply, brace-faced teenager shuffling through the aisles of the Network Video store (may it rest in peace) borrowing five DVDs at once to take home and watch during the day, because I was too chicken to watch them at night. And I don’t just love horror movies – I love horror television shows, video games and books. From the esoteric beauty of Hannibal to the mindless gore of the Saw franchise; from the heart-attack-inducing terror of the Outlast game series to the chilling writing of Stephen King; you name it, I’ve consumed it, not unlike the way Hannibal Lecter consumes his murder victims – with relish (and some fava beans and a nice Chianti). So when I heard there was an opportunity to review a horror movie (a 2.5 hours long, unrated, director’s cut version of a horror movie, no less) for Lot’s Wife, I jumped at the chance.

That being said – I hesitate to label The House That Jack Built as a horror movie. Yes, it had extremely high impact violence and disgustingly realistic visuals that I probably won’t be forgetting any time soon (see: Jack, our serial killer du jour, killing a small child, warping their face into a grisly Joker-esque grin, then freezing the corpse to preserve its facial expression forever, a filmic display that had critics at Sundance walking out of the premiere screening in droves). Yes, it primarily involved the five murderous incidents that sent Jack down the path to a literal Dante-esque hell in the last agonising twenty minutes of the film. But instead of this movie giving me heart attacks a la The Exorcist, Child’s Play and the like, this film provided me with art attacks instead.

Throughout the film, there are several random interjections of famous artworks and strange, out-of-place anecdotes as Jack explains that murder is a form of art. He urges us, ‘Don’t look at the acts, look at the works!’ How modernist of him! In one hilariously random scene, Jack even explains the various forms of freezing and hastening decomposition in grapes to make wine – an incredibly obvious allegory to the overripe, putrefying corpses he is keeping in his freezer. I bet they don’t share the same, er, full-bodied flavour. However, these monologues work well when you remember the context – we are being told a story through the lens (and voice) of a psychopath, who embodies all the usual traits (hell, he even holds them up on written flashcards for the audience’s benefit!) – impulsivity, narcissism, superiority complexes – the list, literally, goes on. At first, I thought these interjections of art pieces and educational soliloquies indicated the director had his head entirely buried within his own ass, but then I realised – that’s the point. Jack is, by his own admission, an engineer who wanted to be an architect – a sore point for him. Instead of being the eloquent artiste he has a more mechanical, less lofty profession. Of course he would, in typical narcissist fashion, boast of his own intelligence and erudition by giving us these odd asides on art history and high culture. After all, this is a guy that adopts the serial killer name ‘Mr Sophistication.’

This is not to say that the movie isn’t well done. Its use of colour is a great addition. In each murder, I noticed, there was bound to be something red.  It was as if the colour red was a trigger for Jack’s bloodlust – he sees it and can’t help but kill. Throughout the incidents, I counted: a red car-jack, telephone, suitcase, dressing gown, baseball caps, fingernails, and a flashlight. It was a bizarre little game I played throughout this arduously long movie! I also appreciated the unique way in which Jack described his psychopathic urge to kill. He describes it in one scene as “the blood frenzy an ermine experiences in the henhouse.” In another, he compares his compulsions to kill to that of shadows and streetlights – that the further he gets from the streetlight, the more his dual shadows, pain and pleasure, stretch out before and behind him, until he feels he must kill again. This was a new and innovative way of showing what might drive a person to commit murder, and I appreciated the analogy, as someone who’s watched just about every serial killer film and documentary imaginable trying to answer that question – The Ted Bundy Tapes, anyone?

In the last thirty or so minutes of the movie, Lars Von Trier finally lets go of his inhibitions and indulges himself in the full aesthetic vision he’s been longing to unleash– before, we had glimpses of classical art; now, Jack literally becomes a living art installation! Descending into a Dante-esque inferno with the guidance of his unknowable confidante Verge (an obvious reference to Virgil, the tour guide of A Divine Comedy) we enter an almost dream-like sequence of images that even includes a moving tableau recreation of La Barque de Dante – with Jack as Dante! Verge and Von Trier guide us through the circles of hell – letting Jack look back on his terrible acts and his childhood, before the inevitable sizzling end to Jack’s story, as he tries desperately to cling to the walls of the infernal pit, determined that he will be the one to climb out and thus cheat fate, despite the fact that every other damned soul before him has failed.

This is what the movie is all about at its core – a killer who sees himself as part of some colossal, timeless art movement, more special and unique than anyone else. But in the end, he’s just an ordinary person; a run-of-the-mill psychopath. He’s not special. And there is enormous satisfaction in the final scene, as Jack loses his grip on the walls of the inferno and falls, screaming, into the pit of pain, to become yet another tortured sinner. A fitting end for Mr Sophistication.

Rachel Hehl

The author Rachel Hehl

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