Herschell Gordon Lewis – the Godfather of Gore – would undoubtedly beam with pride. Lewis (Blood Feast, Color Me Blood Red, The Wizard of Gore) was the pioneer of promoting gory and blood-riddled horror flicks to lure audiences to drive-ins and grindhouses in the 1960s and 1970s with splashy, bright-colored movie posters with the promise of ichor, violence and nudity. Marketing the quote-un-quote objectionable elements of the macabre is nothing new. Negative reactions by horror film novices, closed-minded critics and unaware moviegoers in today’s day and age of the internet, stoke the raging fire of fear fandom.

Yes, people falling into one of these three categories, and who took the time to disparage THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018) on social media following the film’s controversial premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival in France, actually fanned the flame. They unwittingly helped promote Lars von Trier’s latest cinematic venture. Yes, and they perpetuated an online buzz that prompted others to see the movie. In other words, those in question actively aided the success of the horror film they could not tolerate. The old cliché of bad press is better than no press is alive and well in 2019. Let THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT serve as a cautionary tale for all the aforementioned audiences because it boasts and evokes some of horror’s most elemental, emotional aspects: disgust, shock, fear and dislike.

I. DISGUST

First, for the neophytes – those who are new to viewing scary movies – what follows includes a friendly bit of warning on a more disgusting aspect of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT. Despite their enormous appeal with a vast amount of the world’s population, some horror films are sadly not for everyone. Many horror movies including Last House on the Left (1972), Friday the 13th (1980) and even The Blair Witch Project (1999) endured their own bouts of controversy because of their graphic content and marketing schemes. Contention comes with the territory. The very name of the movie genre (horror), and by definition, is a clear, coherent and concise warning to those novices who might dare to brave darkened cinemas for the first time with their buckets of buttery, salted popcorn and ice-cold sodas to behold such graphic content.

God forbid someone shows any fear because the loved one he or she chose to drag along on the journey – particularly a known horror zealot – will smell such dread like an overused cologne or perfume, and he or she might choose to goose the novice in front of the hundreds of savvy horrorphiles in attendance. Their screams are sure to delight, but it is highly unlikely he or she will appreciate the experience or even warm to the idea of enjoying future scary flicks.

It is certainly not the most violent horror film ever made, not even close, but THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT serves as a cautionary tale for those newcomers to the genre in more than simply the most obvious warning: the following feature film contains graphic violence, blood and gore. In another sense, there is the message that suggests audiences not be dissuaded by controversy drummed up by those with no point of reference or appreciation for horror as art. Be an open-minded viewer and give macabre movies of your choosing the benefit of the doubt.

Is there disgusting gore? The answer is yes, but THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is no more of a splatter vehicle than any of the Hellraiser movies, Saw films or Eli Roth’s Hostel pictures. During Incident No. 2 of the director’s cut, Jack ties the body of Claire (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) to the back of his ominous, red van. Fleeing the scene of his latest victim, Jack drags Claire’s corpse from her house all the way back to his hidden, walk-in freezer on Prospect Avenue.

Matt Dillon in THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT

Along the route, Claire’s head bounces, drags and scrapes facedown across the jagged roadways effectively mauling her face off. Jack observes her body afterwards. What remains of Claire’s facial features more closely resembles one-half of an avocado split in two. But imagine the pit being removed and only the mealy crater remaining. This is one of the gorier scenes in the film, but it only appears on screen for a matter of seconds.

If you can stomach the gore here, and enjoy your first horror film, you will likely be hooked for life. THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, and its artistically psychological approach to horror is an excellent title to start with. More that could lure you into loving the genre: Psycho (1960), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Let the Right One In (2008), among many, many others.

II. SHOCK

Second, to the critics – particularly those in attendance at the 2018 Festival de Cannes – you should simply know better when it comes to the content of the films you are going to screen at the festivals in question. There is no misinformation when it comes to THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT. It is not pretending to be the nursery rhyme This Is the House That Jack Built, which arguably dates back to the 16th century.

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is not being promoted as an HGTV show. The advertising is not akin to the way Twentieth Century Fox misled moviegoers into seeing Miracle on 34th Street – clearly a holiday, Christmas film – in the summer of 1947. It’s not even how Raybert Productions tricked family-friendly audiences of the boy band known as The Monkees into seeing the surreal, satirical, dark and twisted Head (1968), in which band members Peter Tork, Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith all senselessly seem on their way to drowning in a cumbersome glass box at the musical’s conclusion.

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is promoted as horror, and, as such, critics knew what they were getting into when they attended the Cannes’ premiere in May of 2018 – period. They were supposed to be shocked. For the most part, reporters are well- educated and learned when it concerns all genres of motion pictures. If a writer is not well-versed and does not possess an open-minded approach to reviewing all genres of motion pictures, the questions obviously creep through the front door. Why are those people film critics? Why should readers value their opinions when those writers are already biased before they even traipse in the cinema?

The mass walkout – numbering approximately one hundred people – which took place during the premiere of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT indicates an audience rich with press members who have no inkling and/or no tolerance of horror films as an artform. It also indicates that the film’s shock value was present and accounted for.

New York Bureau Chief for Variety Ramin Setoodeh tweeted from Cannes: “I’ve never seen anything like this at a film festival. More than 100 people have walked out of Lars von Trier’s THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, which depicts the mutilation of women and children. ‘It’s disgusting,’ one woman said on her way out. #Cannes2018.”

English Correspondent for Al Jazeera Charlie Angela was among those who left the Cannes’ screening of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT early. She tweeted: “I’ve just walked out of #LarsVonTrier premiere at #Cannes2018 because seeing children being shot and killed is not art or entertainment.” With all due respect to Ms. Angela, here are a few of the definitions of horror for future reference:

Horror (noun) hor·ror | \ ˈhȯr-ər, ˈhär-\ Definition:

  • a literary or film genre concerned with arousing feelings of horror.
  • an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.
  • intense dislike.

It seems quite concrete, and to utilize a cliché it is crystal clear. Like it or not, THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is a horror film, a form of art, and exemplary entertainment. The movie is not trying to blandish writers like Ms. Angela into liking it. But one of the purposes of the flick is undoubtedly to shock audiences. As the question was asked before, why do certain people become film reporters if they cannot be open-minded?

Sofie Gråbøl, Cohen Day, and Rocco Day in THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT

In the defense of those professional writers in attendance who will obviously feign ignorance, and as the definition of horror (above) suggests, it is only natural for people to have such reactions to scary movies. One of the most disturbing sequences, particularly on a psychological level, is the so-called picnic/hunting trip. Audiences will undoubtedly feel shocked as they behold the horrific hunt. During Incident No. 3, Jack takes a middle-aged mother (Sofie Gråbøl) who he is involved with, and her two young sons Grumpy (Rocco Day) and George (Cohen Day), out to fire a rifle and shotgun at targets in a clearing near a wooded area.

Audiences will immediately cringe, as Jack passes out bright red caps for the family to wear at all times. It is a clear hint to the carnage soon to follow, and sadly for the family, Jack quickly shifts gears from friend to foe. He turns the outing into a hunting trip with the mom and kids as his prey – easy targets to fire on thanks to their cardinal caps. And the trio is so traumatized by what Jack is doing that none of them has the wherewithal to remove the loud baseball caps. What is even more shocking than seeing the two children gunned down is the ensuing picnic between Jack, the mother and the corpses of her dead kids. Even worse, is the art display he constructs afterwards which mimics the European trophy parade of the hunters’ kills.

Yes, it is shocking which is the intended reaction one should experience when viewing a scary movie. So, as an art form, THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is causing its desired effect. Further, what seems to have gotten lost in all the bad publicity is the fact that Lars von Trier, actor Matt Dillon (Jack) and the rest of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT’S cast received a seven-minute standing ovation following the Cannes’ screening from the hundreds remaining in attendance. The footage is readily available on YouTube for viewing.

Macabre motion pictures, particularly the latest creation by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, are an acquired taste not unlike beer. Even with the bitterness of the hops, yeast and malted grains, many people still enjoy a cold one. And what audiences have on their hands here is a frosty brew on a brutally hot summer day. If the booze is simply too much for certain critics, perhaps they should stop drinking beer.

III. FEAR

Third, for the uninformed attendees at Cannes, how could they not know they were walking into a horror movie when seeing THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT? Film fests – even the smallest of indie, mom-and-pop versions – provide detailed programs which reveal the genre of the films being screened. In other words, those in attendance should have known what they were walking into, and it clearly was not an animated Disney flick. And fear is an emotion sure to be evoked in the case of poor “Simple.”

During Incident No. 4, Jack reveals his strained relationship with his girlfriend Jacqueline (Riley Keough) who he insists on calling Simple. After learning her boyfriend is a serial killer, Simple makes the mistake of trying to turn him over to the police. Jack ties Jacqueline up, gags her and proceeds to cut off her breasts.

Matt Dillon and Riley Keough in THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT

Yes, audiences briefly witness the knife carving into Simple’s flesh and her right breast being sliced away from her body, at least in the director’s cut. Later, taunting the police, Jack leaves one of Simple’s breasts under the windshield wiper of a squad car as if it were a traffic ticket. Jack also reveals that he has sewn and prepared Jacqueline’s other breast as a wallet/coin purse for a rare trophy he decides to keep from his many victims.

Actor Matt Dillon discussed his take on THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT during an interview with BUILD, and it became obvious that fear is ever-present in the film. “It’s a meditation on evil,” Dillon explained. “It goes into dark places.” Again, audiences need to understand they are watching a horror film and not a movie about families frolicking at a Six Flags.

“The atmosphere on the set was very creative,” Dillon also said in the interview. “Jack is many things. And he’s many things because there is no sense of self at the core because he is a psychopath. And he lacks any empathy whatsoever. So, he has to become different people.” Dillon is electric on screen as the fear-causing serial killer Jack. It’s a true shame his performance did not receive an Oscar nomination for the 2019 Academy Awards.

IV. DISLIKE

Did you know dislike could be weaponized? And it often backfires like an ageing pickup truck. Thirty years ago, on Sunday, January 15, 1989, a Michigan-based housewife named Terry Rakolta watched the Married… with Children episode “Her Cups Runneth Over.” Appalled by what she saw on television that night, and without the acumen to simply change the channel, Rakolta began a letter-writing campaign to the CEOs of advertisers of the show threatening a boycott of their products. “If you indeed support this type of programming message, I will be obligated to take the next step and start a boycott of all your products,” Rakolta said in an interview at the time.

Initially, it seemed Rakolta’s antics paid off as large companies pulled their advertising dollars from Married… with Children. In a statement from McDonald’s, at the time of the controversy, “We felt the program [Married… with Children] was not consistent with our family image.” Even Procter & Gamble wavered in the controversy: “We share Mrs. Rakolta’s interests in quality television programming.”

FOX – the brains behind Married… with Children – unlike ABC, CBS and NBC could not afford to advertise effectively because the network was still a fledgling broadcaster. Thanks to Rakolta, and the tonnage of free publicity she stirred up, Married… with Children became a runaway, household hit. Prior to Rakolta, the show was struggling to find its audience during its third season. Ironically, Rakolta aided the program, and after all the negative press Married… with Children’s ratings jumped an incredible, T.V. record-setting 117%.

Married… with Children stormed onward to television immortality and it was in no small part thanks to the misplaced actions of Mrs. Terry Rakolta. Rakolta became the punchline of jokes who the show’s writers often lampooned in several episodes which followed. For the oblivious, and future viewers of horror, let THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT be your cautionary tale or your Married… with Children. Do not recklessly rant like Rakolta.

Also, in 1989, a fifteen-year-old boy was watching yet another episode of Entertainment Tonight. Long before the ease and on-demand convenience of internet information, the boy viewed the T.V. show evening after evening eagerly waiting for new developments on the upcoming film A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. A devout horror movie fan, the boy spent his summers with his grandparents. His grandmother indulged his love of the macabre by buying the youth a Fangoria Magazine featuring a sneak peek of Nightmare 5. And after digesting the wonderfully-written behind-the-scenes look, the boy was dying to see The Dream Child in cinemas.

Finally, the episode of ET aired on the very day the movie opened in cinemas, but Nightmare 5 was under attack by protesters who claimed the film was far too violent. During the ET segment, a reporter interviewed one such dissident outside a theater screening the latest Nightmare. The man appeared to be in his mid to late 30s, with a wildly disheveled mustache and beard, and sported glasses stereotyping an intellect he arguably did not possess. “Violence begets violence,” the man insisted as he averred the ills of society were in some way related to the graphic violence depicted in horror films. “The more you see the more you’re going to need. It’s like a drug!”

The boy watching ET laughed heartily as he listened to the man’s bovine diatribe, but it was not the protestor who caused the youth’s laughter. As the man seriously debated the amount of savagery in horror flicks, with the reporter, a kid approximately ten to twelve years old stood clearly visible behind the broadcast journalist and the interviewee. The boy’s clever maneuver was akin to a photobomb by today’s standards. As the man droned on and on, and was clearly unaware of what was happening behind him, the young child smiled from ear to ear and proudly tugged on his black and red Freddy Krueger t-shirt for the whole viewing audience to see. The preteen was effectively promoting his love of horror while undermining an obvious detractor of scary movies on national television. Talk about your all-time backfires, as Nightmare 5 grossed over $22 million domestically.

V. CONCLUSION

Let THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT serve its purpose as not only a must-see horror film but as a modern-day cautionary tale for the nescient, novices and critics. And be mindful of those elemental, emotional aspects you will be subjected to in most horror movies, especially the good ones: disgust, shock, fear and dislike. Whether it be THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, or the countless meaningful and entertaining horror films available, there will always be those who favor and others who oppose scary movies. Whichever ideology you side with, it is your choice. Fortunately, for the genre, and movie diehards alike, there will always be a little kid unashamedly sporting his or her Fred Krueger t-shirt against the blowhards trying to derail horror films.

Matt Dillon in THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
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Steven Thrash

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Author, film journalist, horror movie fan and sports enthusiast, Steven graduated Cum Laude from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communications focusing on film studies, journalism and theatre. Mr. Thrash also received his MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University.

Dubbed a prolific writer by Hollywood icon Kenneth Johnson (The Incredible Hulk, V, The Bionic Woman, Alien Nation), Steven was honored by the Arkansas College Media Association for his storytelling prowess. He also received recognition for his dramatic writing from many horror film festivals.

Published credits: The Canticle, Subconscious Lee, The Benton Courier, Carroll County News, Saline Courier, Forum, Echo, Moroch Marketing, abc Financial, Diabolique Magazine, Morbidly Beautiful, Dread Central, Rue Morgue Magazine, Nightmarish Conjurings and Screen Rant. Contact: www.steventhrash.com
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