2018 Film Essays

Exaggerated Confrontations of Human Behavior: How Yorgos Lanthimos Is a Master of Horror Realism

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is not exactly someone that comes to mind when one thinks of great horror directors. However, his films still manage to possess horror tactics. They don’t horrify with the use of blood and guts or creepy supernatural entities. Instead, Lanthimos chooses to paralyze viewers with fear by crafting hyperbolic demonstrations of disturbing behavior.

For example, there’s the movie Dogtooth which put Lanthimos on the map and landed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Dogtooth is quite eerie because it is an exaggerated portrayal of the way that parents condition their children. The film depicts a couple that shields their three kids from the outside world to the point where they force them to always stay in their house and, in the process, create their own world for them. Their unorthodox methods include teaching existing vocabulary words but giving them new meanings and making the children believe that a harmless cat is a vicious predator.

The film does present elements of satire which makes it in sync with Lanthimos’ pitch black sense of humor. However, the ways that the parents raise their children still provides heavy uncomfortability. Forcing two siblings to give each other sensual pleasure proves to be more unsettling than a zombie in a goalie mask slashing clueless teenagers because it’s a demonstration of regular human parents using their ego to mentally corrupt their offspring.

To almost amp up the film’s creep factor, there aren’t any scenes where the mother and father explain why they raise their children in such a manner. Normally, the best horror movie villains are the ones that have clear motivations. But sometimes, the most unsettling ones can be those that don’t have any real reason for being evil. Some people are born bad or incapable of being reasoned with, and Dogtooth is solid proof of that.

In order to keep up with the theme of world building, Lanthimos’ subsequent film The Lobster takes place in a dystopian future where people are pressured to find a companion or else they’ll be turned into an animal. It might not have a horrific premise in the same manner as Dogtooth, however, by the time the film ends, it still could make one shudder while looking through Tinder, as the film bares slight similarities to our current society. Because we currently live in a time where dating sites and apps are prevalent, there are those of us that feel quite desperate to find the right match so that we don’t feel so alone.

But while The Lobster delves into the dating pressures we feel, it never asks why we feel such pressure. It simply presents the situation at hand without questioning why it’s seen as abnormal in this day and age to live as a single person. However, to make the society the film takes place in feel distinctive, Lanthimos uses bleak cinematography to capture the characters speaking in a flat, deadpan manner.

In addition, the world The Lobster takes place in feels like it’s cut from the same cloth as the same one in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It’s shot the same way with the characters speaking in the same inexpressive manner. Also, thanks to its neverending sense of dread, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is probably the closest film to the actual horror genre that Lanthimos has made. When the film first opens and viewers see a heart being operated on with an ominous choir in the background, it becomes clear that one can expect an unsettling experience. Interestingly, that’s not the most disturbing thing to appear in the film.

One of the most unnerving aspects of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is how it serves as a parable for the duel between God and The Devil. After a surgeon named Steven (Colin Farrell) with a God-like complex accidentally kills a patient while operating on him, the deceased patient’s son Martin (Barry Keoghan), who is like Satan incarnate, decides to take revenge. Since Martin fits the “creepy kid” archetype that children like Damien from The Omen and Rhoda from The Bad Seed fall into, it allows The Killing of a Sacred Deer to play up its horror elements along with the simplistic storyline of a villainous child terrorizing a family in a squeaky clean suburban setting.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t set in a dystopian future like in The Lobster, nor does it take place in a claustrophobic setting like Dogtooth. The film takes place in a picturesque neighborhood that is used as a facade to try and mask the fact that watching the film is like walking into a nightmare. In my opinion, It’s unclear what the exact point the movie is going for, and the characters don’t react in the ways one would expect in a horror film such as this. It’s up to the viewer to reach a conclusion.

Lanthimos is not someone who aims to horrify with the use of supernatural beings or explicit violence typically shown in a slasher flick. His methods tap into disturbing aspects of human behavior and depict the ambiguity behind such behavior. Why do we feel the hunger to find a companion? What compulses people to raise their children in such a repulsive, unorthodox manner?

Even though Lanthos didn’t script his latest feature The Favourite, he still manages to make his vision feel present as if he is a mad genius orchestrating a macabre show. The film’s themes involving gender politics are worlds away from the hauntingly ambiguous thematic material in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, however it still features uncomfortable moments.

Also, the central performance by Emma Stone as Abigail, a servant looking to reclaim her royal roots, aligns with Lanthimos’ macabre sensibilities. Even if Abigail isn’t exactly a villain, she still masterfully plays up her innocent facade. She even becomes a perfect foil to the current favourite of the court, Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who possesses more blatant villainy even in her slyness.

Lanthimos is a master at challenging the notions of what a horror film can and should be, simply because he elicits the genre’s most key component, fear, out of his viewers. Fear takes many forms, and –as it turns out — it can force viewers to confront their most deranged impulses or remind of how cold people can be. Lanthimos is an original and distinct filmmaker, but like Abigail in The Favourite, he is capable of much unpleasantness.

Matthew St.Clair (@filmguy619) is a freelance film journalist who currently resides in Connecticut. He has written for outlets such as The Playlist, Cinema Sentries, Filmotomy and Awards Circuit. He is also a member of the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association and the Online Film & Television Association. 

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