Cults in Horror Movies : DOGTOOTH (2009) (Greek)


I love films that can present a story without feeling the need to explain every detail. I appreciate a filmmaker with enough respect and faith in the audience’s ability to draw their own conclusions and fill in the gaps. We have become lazy as movie viewers. The filmmaker shouldn’t need to answer every why or how in order to get their point across. If a film’s ambiguity leaves us unsettled or disturbed, the filmmaker has done his/her job.

After watching DOGTOOTH I searched out and watched ALPS, both by writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos. His new film, LOBSTER, is set for release this week and I can’t wait to see it. I only wish I had discovered these films sooner. Both films center around the absurdity and superficiality of relationships. Lanthimos shows how our connection to another person can be used to twist how we experience reality.

DOGTOOTH is a glimpse into a family where the normal parental instinct to overprotect has deteriorated into a manipulative familial cult. Father (Christos Stergioglou) and Mother ( Michele Valley) have kept their three adult children isolated behind the wall surrounding their remote compound. The older brother and two sisters – no one in the family has a name – live in a perpetual child-like state in which every aspect of their lives is controlled and their understanding of reality has been molded to keep them helpless and ignorant. Mother and Father have not so much raised their children as they have subjected them to elaborate brainwashing.

The film opens with the Elder Daughter (Angeliki Papoulia) listening to a vocabulary lesson on tape. Simple words are given glaringly wrong definitions ( “sea” is defined as “a leather armchair”) and we get our first clue that we are about to be shoved down a deep rabbit hole. This deliberate miseducation continues later when Father translates a song by “Grandfather” (Frank Sinatra) into a sermon about loving your family and never leaving home. The children are also kept in constant competition with each other. This has created an animosity between Elder Daughter and Brother (Hristos Passalia). Her growing rebellion is at the heart of the film. The facade is cracking.

As in most cults, fear is also used to keep the children in line. They are told the world beyond their wall is a dangerous, toxic place and that only Father can leave to go to work every day because he is in the safety of the car. The title of the film comes from the story the parents tell that children can only leave when their permanent dogtooth, canine tooth, falls out. They can only drive when it grows back in again. The parents have also spun a cautionary tale about another brother who left home too early and is now stranded on the other side of the wall. We don’t know if the brother ever existed just like we never know how this family got to this point.

Father is clearly the puppet master. Mother is involved, but even she is kept within the confines of the compound and is easily manipulated by Father. His controlling nature extends to his factory and the treatment of his employees. He has even created a story about Mother being confined to a wheelchair due to an accident as an explanation for why the family is never seen or heard from. The only place he has no control is the dog kennel where he is waiting for his dog to finish training. The trainer explains to him the involved process of getting his dog to the proper level. Father seems intrigued and runs the family like his own dog kennel. In one scene, Mother and the three children are on all fours practicing to bark like dogs. Mother and Younger Sister (Mary Tsoni) even lick his hand and face in placation. Whatever his initial motivation, it is clear that Father relishes coming up with new ways to screw with his kids’ heads.

The "barking dog" scene from DOGTOOTH
The “barking dog” scene from DOGTOOTH

The children’s only exposure to the outside world is Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) the factory security guard who is brought once a week, under great secrecy, to have sex with Brother. Lanthimos sets up a great shot of the two awkwardly hanging over the ends of Brother’s small bed, complete with stickers on the headboard. Christina also interacts with the sisters, especially Elder Sister, whom she coerces into oral sex using sparkly headbands and VHS tapes as bribery. Elder Sister begins to use memorized dialogue from a ROCKY movie and JAWS to express her rebellion. She tells her sister to call her Bruce, ironically, the behind-the-scenes name for the mechanical shark.

Incest is an undercurrent throughout the film. Brother climbs into bed with his parents; Elder Sister teaches Younger Sister about oral sex; Younger Sister climbs on top of Father in bed and offers to lick his ear. The siblings seem nonchalant, however, like young children playing doctor. The girls at least don’t seem to fully understand the implications of what they are doing. They are just passing time. However, when Christina is banished for the video tape fiasco, Elder Sister is chosen to be her replacement. One night with Brother and she decides she must make her escape.

The imagery in DOGTOOTH is purposely bland. The family is obviously well off, but the house and yard look very basic. The characters dress mostly in neutral colors and they lack anything that speaks to individual personality. Even Brother’s painting lacks any real creativity. The family is very reserved; their dialogue seems careful and deliberate. As in ALPS, violence and desperation are just under the surface. Father beats Christina with her VCR; Elder Sister lunges at Brother and slashes his arm; and Brother brutally kills a cat, not understanding what it is. The acts of violence are all the more shocking because they are sudden. Even Elder Sister’s frenzied FlashDance routine feels almost like mass murder.

Elder Sister’s escape, successful or not, is also left for the viewer to decide. Like everything else in this film, and with this family, the concepts of truth and reason don’t seem to apply.