Dogtooth (2010)

As a latecomer to his oeuvre, getting to know Yorgos Lanthimos as an auteur over the past decade has been a disorienting experience. The first film of his I ever caught was The Lobster – a coldly emotionless, abruptly violent farce that bizarrely parodies the socially accepted norms of dating rituals. Each film since has been a bewildering journey, as if I was tasked to put together the jigsaw puzzle of what he’s attempting to accomplish in his films without having seen the reference picture on the box it arrived in. I finally clicked with Lanthimos on The Favourite, but that film felt like the director meeting latecomers more than halfway – staging his usual emotionless trauma-comedies in a context where we’re more used to stilted, carefully veiled viciousness: the costume drama. Pure Lanthimos oddities like The Killing of a Sacred Deer—while amusing—still escaped me as a something I could fully embrace as personal favorites. It turns out that the answer key to fully comprehending Lanthimos’s Whole Deal was hiding in plain sight in the most obvious place: his breakthrough calling-card picture, Dogtooth.

Dogtooth is often mistaken to be Lanthimos’s debut feature as a director, despite being his third completed film, because it was the first to land his name on the international stage. For a solid decade I’ve heard flummoxed mumblings of how traumatizingly fucked up & darkly funny the film is from friends – to the point where I was actively dreading the experience of watching it, as if it were some depraved shock value gross-out like Martyrs, The Human Centipede, or A Serbian Film. I envy the audiences who stumbled upon Dogtooth totally unprepared without this decade’s worth or word-of-mouth build-up. Even with the warning, the film is surprising from start to end – both because it didn’t live up to the pointless, abject cruelty I had envisioned in my head and because it’s so far removed from recognizable human behavior that it was impossible to predict from scene to scene. More importantly, seeing Dogtooth early would have been helpful as a guiding roadmap to Lanthimos’s disorienting oeuvre. It’s a concise distillation of what the filmmaker has been delivering in each feature since: viciously traumatic hangout comedies. I think I get it now.

Three teenage siblings are raised in a walled-off Greek home, isolated from the world outside. That’s not to say that they’re merely physically imprisoned in their familial compound. They’re also intellectually cut off from the outside world via a radical homeschooling experiment conducted by their irrationally protective parents, one that scrambles their understanding of basic social concepts: the definitions of random vocabulary words, the mysterious nature of airplane technology, the mechanics of sex & romance, the production of entertainment media, etc. This is a plot template we’ve since seen echoed in raised-in-captivity films like Room & Brigsby Bear, but never with the specific, comically cold detachment Lanthimos injects into the material (and all material he touches). Although overflowing with difficult-to-stomach taboos like incestual rape & grotesque body horror, Dogtooth somehow always makes room to chuckle at the understated absurdity of its premise. By constructing such a bizarrely artificial, aggressively arbitrary version of insular familial socializing, it manages to have an indicting laugh at the way all familial bonds are arbitrarily established & enforced. It’s also in no rush to hammer that point home, either. Lanthimos instead forces us to stew in the discomfort, morbidly lingering on the absurd mechanics of the preposterous youth-in-captivity torture he’s envisioned.

If I had caught Dogtooth when it first reached the US in 2010, I might have been able to appreciate it purely as an absurdist portrait of the horrors of homeschooling. In 2020, I can’t help but view it as a primordial version of the director’s ice-cold oddities to follow; it’s most interesting to me in direct conversation with his later work. In either instance, I don’t know that I ever would have had the chance to fully fall in love with it. Excepting The Favourite, I always find Lanthimos’s work to be admirably unique & chilling, but not exactly My Thing. Dogtooth was no different in that respect. It did open me up to a better understanding of the director’s catalog at large, though, a clarifying primer I should have sought out much sooner than I did.

-Brandon Ledet

Track 29 (1988)

I always find myself seeking films that make me feel uncomfortable, and I’m not exactly sure why. It’s like I’m being rebellious against my own anxiety, trying to see how far I can go before my head explodes from nervous tension. Interestingly enough, Nicolas Roeg’s 1988 film, Track 29, is an unbearable, squirmy mess of a movie that found me. I was searching for a romantic comedy on Filmstruck to watch while I cleaned my apartment this weekend, and the moment I saw the movie poster adorned with a young, punk rock Gary Oldman, I immediately pressed play. If I knew what I was in for, I may have held off on making such a quick decision.

Track 29 is a visually stunning film with a disoriented plot, heavily reminding me of past  Movie of the Month film Crimes of Passion. This is definitely one of those films that takes more than one watch to completely absorb. I’m not sure if I’m ready to hit this up a second time just yet, so my interpretation of all the film’s madness isn’t very refined.

Linda Henry (Theresa Russell) is a lonely American housewife that longs for a child and affection from her doctor husband, Henry Henry (Christopher Lloyd), but he’s more interested in playing with his model train set. Henry also lacks a sexual attraction to his wife, which may be due to the fact that she acts like a 5 year old and refers to him as “Daddy” in a childlike voice in her attempts to turn him on. He does, however, get his rocks off by getting spanked by a nurse he’s having an affair with at his place of work. The nurse is played by Sandra Bernhard, and I can’t think of a better actress to watch spanking Christopher Lloyd. The strange thing about Linda (or at least one of them) is that she brings her childlike behavior out of the bedroom. She has full-blown tantrums when she gets upset, screaming like a baby through her braces-filled mouth, and she even has a disturbing collection of baby dolls. It’s obvious that Linda is damaged.

One day, a young British man named Martin (Gary Oldman) mysteriously appears in town, and Linda runs into him at a local burger joint. There’s an obvious connection between the two, but it’s not yet known exactly what that connection is. He continues to mysteriously appear when Linda least expects it, and it is revealed that he is her long lost son. When Linda was younger (15 years old, I think), she was raped and impregnated by a carnie and forced to give her baby up for adoption. Linda is ecstatic to find out that Martin is her son as she spent years thinking about what happened to the child she was forced to give away, but then things start to get weird. One moment, she’s caressing his face in a motherly way, and the next moment, she making out with him on the floor of her home. Martin is just as impulsive as his mother, and watching the two of them go in and out of tantrums & make-out sessions is enough to make you feel like you’re going insane. The question “Is Martin real or not?” stuck in my mind through all of this. From this point on, the film becomes stranger and stranger as the minutes roll by.

It becomes obvious that Martin is a figment of Linda’s imagination when she is sitting with him at a restaurant having quite the orgasmic conversation, and the camera flips to the perspective of the restaurant staff, revealing that Linda is alone at the table. As her relationship with non-existent Martin intensifies, the film becomes a fever dream, ending with a mysterious violent event. It’s as though Linda drove herself to insanity because she never successfully filled an empty hole that existed because her child was given away, which is absolutely ridiculous. The notion that giving up children for adoption or having an abortion causes women to become mentally ill is so dumb, and I truly hope that Track 29 was not intended to be as misogynistic as it seems.

All in all, Track 29 is a pretty dark film that pushes the envelope with all the weird incest crap, but it’s also so wacky that it’s fun to watch. The secret to enjoying this movie is to just not take it seriously at all.

-Britnee Lombas

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1982)

William Asher is known for directing iconic television series such as I Love Lucy and Bewitched, so the fact that he directed the 1982 horror flick Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (aka Night Warning) is beyond strange.  His directing talent, along with the film’s unique story, take this early 80s slasher movie to another level.

When watching the film’s opening, I immediately thought of the  intense opening scene of our August Movie of the Month, The Psychic. In the opening of The Psychic, the main character has a vision of her mother jumping off a cliff. Instead of just watching the character jump and getting a distant view of the aftermath, viewers get to see this poor woman’s face get chipped off as she hits the cliff’s edges on the entire way down. Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker takes a similar approach by having very aggressive opening that is totally unexpected. A husband and wife go on a trip, leaving their baby boy in care of his Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell). While on the road, they realize the car’s brakes aren’t working. This happens a lot in horror movies, but usually there’s a quick crash and it’s over. Well, not this time. The car is screeching all over the highway, and when it eventually crashes into the back of a log truck, the husband gets beheaded by a log. The car then goes off a cliff and becomes as flat as a pancake. If that isn’t bad enough, the car catches fire and explodes.  All that happens within the first few minutes, so if that doesn’t signify that this is going to be an insane movie, I don’t know what would.

Aunt Cheryl becomes the guardian of her nephew, Billy (Jimmy McNichol), after the horrible accident kills her sister and brother-in-law. The film jumps to teenage Billy living with aunt. Cheryl has a peculiar obsession with her nephew that goes beyond being an overprotective aunt. One of the first interactions she has with Billy in the film involves him shirtless and asleep in his bed; she wakes him up by acting like a sexy cat. It quickly becomes apparent that she is sexually attracted to Billy, and it creates this unsettling aura almost immediately. Aside from the incest, Cheryl is an ordinary small-town homemaker. She pickles tomatoes, wears a hair handkerchief, and makes sure that Billy always has a tall glass of milk waiting for him. Her kind demeanor changes once Billy becomes interested in going to college on a basketball scholarship, and she does everything in her power to make sure that Billy never leaves her.

Cheryl’s murderous tendencies and violent past begin to surface once the fear of Billy leaving her becomes a reality. She initially attempts to bang the local TV repairman, Phil Brody, so she can have a man around when Billy leaves. He rejects her advances at first, but then he eventually asks her for a blow job, causing her to lose her shit and stab him to death. Billy and the neighbors find her covered in blood with Brody dead on her kitchen floor, and she claims that he was trying to rape her. I really do hate it when films indulge the “psycho woman that cries rape” scenario because it adds validation to the disgusting myth that women cry rape for attention.

Unfortunately, the ignorance doesn’t stop there. A homophobic lieutenant, Joe Carlson, doesn’t believe Cheryl’s accusations because he found out that Brody was homosexual. He believes that Billy was having sexual relations with Brody and killed him in a lovers’ quarrel. The reason he thinks Billy is gay is because he grew up without a father and was raised by a woman. Yes, this guy is the worst. I swear, every sentence that comes out of Carlson’s mouth contains at least one derogatory term for homosexual, and it’s so hard to not punch his face through the TV screen. He focuses so much on trying to get Billy to admit he’s gay that he ignores signs that point to Cheryl being a cold-blooded killer. One good thing about his character is that he isn’t portrayed in a positive light. His homophobia really contributes to his role as one of the film’s main antagonist, which is pretty interesting, as this film was released in 1982.

The Brody murder is only the beginning to Cheryl’s descent into madness, which brings out the Oscar-worthy acting of Susan Tyrrell. She starts to poison Billy’s milk in order to keep him from leaving her, but once he starts to find out secrets from her past, she quickly turns into a full-fledged monster, killing anyone that tries to come between her and Billy. She cuts all her hair off and goes into this sort of Neolithic state, and it’s one of the greatest moments in horror film history. Once Cheryl takes this turn, the pace of the film picks up speed and the murder weapons become more bizarre (hatchets, meat tenderizers, etc.)

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is part soap opera and part slasher horror. The combination of the two makes for an amazing horror movie experience. It’s one of those amazing, unique horror films that got lost in the flood of 80s slasher movies, but it does a great job of holding its own.

-Britnee Lombas

We Are the Flesh (2017)

As much horror media as I routinely watch on an annual basis, I do tend to have a weak stomach for the so-called “extreme” end of the genre. Titles like Martyrs, Cannibal Holocaust, Inside, Salò, and so on typify a graphically cruel end of horror cinema that I tend to shy away from as I search for less emotionally scarring novelties like Frankenhooker & Ghoulies II. That’s not to say that there’s absolutely no value in “extreme” horror, a subgenre typically associated with French filmmakers in a modern context. Just a couple months ago I allowed myself to be swept up in the explicit, yet hypnotic cannibalism terror of the recent coming of age horror Raw, despite trumped up reports of the film eliciting vomiting and fainting spells during its festival run. The gimmick of distributing Raw along with accompanying barf bags to theaters around the country to play up its onscreen extremity actually did the film a disservice in a lot of ways, setting an expectation for shock value gratuitousness in a way the film, however violent, wasn’t especially focused on delivering. I’m not sure the same can be said of the recent Mexican-American co-production We Are the Flesh. We Are the Flesh is the taboo, explicitly cruel hedonism of extreme horror perversity that Raw was hinted to be in its advertising & early buzz. Its graphic, button-pushing sexuality and violence is typically the exact kind of horror cinema extremity I shy away from. I went into the film dreading the nihilistic ways it would attempt to dwell in trauma & brutality. What’s surprising is that I left it convinced it’s the best domestic release I’ve seen all year.

While both sexual & violent, We Are the Flesh never allows its extreme horror provocations to devolve into the sexual violence exploitation of most of the titles mentioned above. Instead, the terror in its sexuality commands a kind of cerebral, Cronenbergian quality that pushes its audience’s buttons through taboos like incest, necrophilia, and fucking in literal filth. While the explicit nature of its imagery is presumably intended to shock & disturb on some level, the film overall has a lot more in common with Luis Buñuel’s traditionalist surrealism than it does with Salò or Cannibal Holocaust, titles it risks being swept away with critically by choosing to deal in horrific extremes in the first place. The film lives up to the “flesh” aspect if its title, slathering the screen with writhing naked bodies, sometimes even documenting them in unsimulated acts of sexual intercourse. Unlike with something like Love or Shortbus, however, the pornographic aspect of that display is not the main focal point of its depiction. Instead, the camera (along with the dialogue) breaks down the human body to its most basic components: meat, flesh, spit, semen, menstruate, etc. Like with all worthwhile surrealist art, there’s a darkly humorous reflection of both political and existential unrest perceivable just behind the facade of these evocative images. The anxiety cannot be fully understood and is cheapened by any attempt to put it into words, but it drives the heart of the work beyond the basic effect of shock value into much stranger, more transcendent terrain.

Two siblings emerge, hungry, from a post-apocalyptic cityscape to an industrial space where a total stranger has been seemingly going mad in his isolation. His madness initially takes the form of nihilistic displays of violence that would be right at home on something like The Eric Andre Show: destruction of furniture, off-kilter beating of a drum, nonsensical experiments involving large quantities of bread & eggs. Patterns & purpose eventually coagulate in this chaos, however. He uses the bread & eggs, provided from a mysterious source behind a concrete wall, as pay meant for the brother & sister duo to aid him in his work. Together, the three create faux organic spaces that eventually look like art installations in their now-shared squat. Broken furniture is arranged in geometric lines that recall crystal formations or spider webs. Walls & ceilings are carpeted over with flattened cardboard boxes until the rooms they create resemble ancient caves. The madman describes his creation as “the ultimate memorial of a rotten society.” He condemns the siblings for not fully believing in his work, exclaiming, “You wallow in your youth, though you’re nothing but rotting flesh.” Their initial caution towards his madness gives way to militaristic & cult-like religious devotion. He encourages them to engage in acts of incest, drugs them with a mysterious chemical dropper, imbues them with a fanatical reverence for eggs, and promises that devotion to the cause will lead to a transcendent epiphany, explaining, “Your skull unfolds and blooms like a gorgeous flower.” The whole thing plays out like an extended stream of consciousness nightmare. It’s unnerving, but strangely beautiful.

I’m in love with the way We Are the Flesh disorients the eye by making its grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitals, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores (like a poetically surreal distortion of Cronenberg’s Videodrome). Within the film, the man-made, artificially “organic” environments become “real” caves without explanation, both recalling Plato’s Cave and calling into question the inherent artifice of film as a medium in the first place. The isolation of the central three characters in this space makes it seem as if they’re the only people left in the world, evoking a Waiting for Godot style stage play existentialism. Militaristic chants and national anthems conjure similar anxiety surrounding modern politics and bloodsoaked history. We Are the Flesh didn’t exactly unfold my skull so my mind could bloom like a gorgeous flower, but the overall effect wasn’t all that dissimilar. Its dedication to explicit sex & violence was a means to a much greater, more intangible end instead of being the entire point of the exercise. I greatly respect the overreach & surprising success of that ambition.

I wish I had seen We Are the Flesh in the theater with a live audience like I had with the last gratuitous cinematic provocation I’d fallen this in love with, Wetlands. Not only would it have been a joy to see its gorgeous camera work large & loud in a proper cinematic setting, but there’s also something special about squirming with discomfort in unison with strangers when confronted with taboo sexuality. I got a little tease of how that might have felt when I first saw The Neon Demon last summer, but only for fleeting moments. We Are the Flesh is a long, sustained deep dive into violence & sexual discomfort that should likely come with a laundry list of content warnings for the typically squeamish. However, speaking as someone who doesn’t usually find much value in this extreme end of horror cinema, modern or otherwise, I found it to be the exact balance of discomforting moral provocation and intellectual stimulation through abstract thought that makes the times I tried, but failed to find similar fulfillment in films like Martyrs or Baskin feel retroactively worthwhile. I can’t say in concrete terms why the film resonated with me so solidly, because it’s not the kind of work that deals in tangible, measurable absolutes. I can say that it pushed me far outside my comfort zone in a uniquely rewarding way, which is all you can really ask for from surreal art & “extreme” cinema.

-Brandon Ledet