Antichrist is a 2009 horror film directed by Lars Von Trier. Like other blatantly unique directors, Von Trier makes a point to personalize his work, inserting his name into the title cards and breaking up his movie into a five-chaptered fairy-tale. Antichrist is bold, unforgettable, and downright haunting. Its only characters are played by Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, simply named in the credits as "He" and "She" respectively. The story's oldworld origins, the horrors that haunt us century after century, are in the medieval rituals of witch burning. She has gone to a cabin in the woods to work on her thesis about evil done to women in the medieval ages, and ends up concluding the opposite, that women are evil.
Abrasively artful, the prologue depicts She and He passionately making love, in slo-motion black and white, with "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Handel's Rinaldo playing in the background. Amidst the lovers' tryst, their son climbs out a window and falls to his death. The rest of the plot deals with how the couple handles this grief. He is a calm, calculating pyschologist, and tries to apply such methods to his wife's grief. She is at times catotonic, dangerous to herself, or suddenly lustful. He decides they should return to Eden, their tranquil cabin in nature, to get to the bottom of her paralyzing fear. You know the drill from here: people in a horror movie heading to a cabin in the woods, terror ensues.
What's most remarkable about this film is that despite Lars Von Trier's handle, the minimal casting, and extra-filmic execution, Antichrist still falls into the "cabin in the woods" sub-genre of horror. Film scholar Christopher Sharret identifies four elements of the postmodern horror film in a 1993 essay: "The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture," which takes on the paradoxical identity of today's horror films, which are expected to dismantle and critique modern societal ills, such as capitalistic culture, while at the same time reaffirming traditional values, thereby asking you to forget the critique and keep shopping. No genre more blatantly embraces this paradox than the cabin sub-genre, and it's elements include:
1. "A dominant order that is simultaneously discredited and affirmed:"
In Antichrist, He struggles against the failures of psychoanalysis and modern therapetic practices. The dominant paradigm, which takes its roots in Hitchcock's monumental Psycho, involves the evil serial killer monster being revealed and understood through pyschology: the killer isn't crazy, but merely understood. It's a childhood trauma, or deranged relationship with the mother, that fuels the killer. Antichrist subverts this dominanting ideology and replaces it with an even older paradigm, the dominance of men over the inherent evilness of women. This rule is best exemplified by Wes Craven's Scream (1996), which has come to be seen as the apex of postmodern horror. In it, the characters recognize and belittle the clichés and pitfalls of modern horror movies, and then go right ahead and enact those very clichés. 2012's The Cabin in the Woods takes this meta-horror concept one step further, by framing the tried and true tropes of the cabin subgenre within an age-old ritual. The exercise of postmodernity effectively breaks down modern horror only to ultimately return to a familiar paradigm.
2. The monster shall be either destroyed or incorporated into the dominant order.
Here the monster serves as The Other to societal normality. In most cabin-in-the-woods films, the backwoods hillbillies serve this role. They are different than the typical city-dwelling youth that ventures into the isolated woods. These others are sometimes cannibalistic, rapists, or sadistically insane. To avoid any spoilers, I'll at least say that Antichrist incorporates this element in the fact that the story has a firm resolution, identified upon the arrival of the "Three Beggars." Much of postmodern horror is comfortable with incorporating the monster nowadays. Hannibal Lecter has turned from villian to full-blown protagonist over the years, with his roots examined in Hannibal Rising and his heroic status in a new television series. Sometimes this trope gets boring, take for example the recent Texas Chainsaw 3D. In it Leatherface goes from a mysterious killer to a fully-realized human, who requires nurturing and care like any other child.
3. An atmosphere of unfettered sexual expression.
Why do teenagers fill up the movie theaters to watch tired tropes of people just like themselves being killed off one by one? Because they're also going to see boobs! As surely as you can expect gorey death in the slasher genre, you can also expect to see breasts and premarital sex. From this we get the trope of the virginal Final Girl, whose reluctance for sex earns her the priviledge of living through the movie or at least being killed last. Practically no horror film shies away from this element, so I don't think I need to give too many examples. In Antichrist, one merely needs to sit through the black & white prologue to see slo-motion sex and explicit shots of penetration. From what I hear, Willem Defoe had a dick double, but it's hard to tell.
4. The universe which is chaotic, carnivalesque, and diverse is celebrated and subdued.
This is the type of atmosphere typically populated by teens who along with having sex engage in drugs, rock and roll, and a devil-may-care attitude. The carnival is a non-stop ride, and even as young teens are slaughtered one by one, characters often choose to continue their shenanigans and party on until their gruesome deaths. In Antichrist, as the characters are adults and care little about getting away from their parents or school, nature is the universe celebrated. At first it seems a wonderful, green, peaceful environment that will provide tranquility and reflection. Yet when one takes a closer look at nature, its status is subverted, and it can be seen as a place of death. Horrifying glimpses of death in nature, from ants crawing upon a dead bird's corpse to a deer that carries its stillborn infant attached at the womb, permeate the movie and make one think twice about how calm the woods really are. On this note, I'd like to leave you with one of Charlotte Gainsbourg's monologues, which is telling of the movie's lurking evil, intelligent dialogue, and unique reflection on the cabin in the woods subgenre:
Oak trees grow to be hundreds of years old. They only have to produce one single tree every hundred years in order to propagate. May sound banal to you but it was a big thing for me to realize that when I was up here with Nic. The acorns fell on the roof vent. They kept falling and falling. And die and die. And I understood that everything that used to be beautiful about Eden was perhaps hideous. Now I could hear what I couldn't hear before. The cry of all the things that are to die.