A real great horror movie creates a visceral sense of dread and fear in the viewer. The easiest way to do this is through “jump scares,” the moments when something pops out at a character, often accompanied by a musical sting. Jump scares can be very effective (I used to hide in the linen closet and utilize the jump scare to terrify my sister. Worked every time), but there is very little nuance involved. Jump scares are the horror equivalent of vulgarity in a comedy – it is the easy laugh. A great horror film will build suspense and tension through circumstance and performance. The best example of this method from last year is not even a horror film; it is Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt.
The Hunt is the story of Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), an essentially good man whose life is thrown into upheaval when he is falsely accused of inappropriate conduct with one of his kindergarten students (Annika Wedderkopp). As the court of public opinion turns against him, Lucas’s relationships with his best friend (the girl’s father, played by Thomas Bo Larsen), his girlfriend (Alexandra Rapaport), and his son (Lasse Fogelstrøm) are all strained in various ways. Lucas strives to clear his name, but even if he does will it be too late to mend his reputation?
There is not much characterization for Lucas on the page; almost everything comes from Mikkelsen’s performance. And it is so strong. Mikkelsen conveys every emotion, mostly through his facial expression and exhausted body language. Lucas wants to blame someone for the situation, but he can’t really find the right person, so he spends most of the film of holding in his frustration and rage. This Bruce Banner-esque repression leads to very affecting moments of release.
Lucas’s frustrations are shared by the viewer. Every avenue of blame we might wander down turns out to be a dead end. The child lies, but she’s not at a level of self-awareness to even fully understand what these lies mean. The adults ask her leading questions, but they are doing what they think is right by assuming she is telling the truth. Lucas’s friends shun him, but how would you react if it were your child.
This is one of the truly horrifying aspects of the film. It is very easy to identify with Lucas (thanks in no small part to Mikkelsen), but you can also put yourself in the place of the other adults in the town. Lucas’s former friends take the accusations seriously, because it is a very serious matter, especially as the mishandling of the claims cause more and more questionable information to become public. It is very easy to imagine getting swept up in the mass hysteria that affects the townspeople.
The Hunt evokes palpable feelings of dread throughout. Regardless of what happens, Lucas’s life will forever be different, and there’s not really anything anyone can do about that. Effective horror films stay with you for days or weeks. They make you rethink actions that previously seemed innocuous. Jaws is so successful in this endeavor that it famously kept people out of the water. Well, The Hunt will make you never want to be alone with a child again. There may not be literal sharks in this film, but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise; some of the townspeople resemble the frightening water-based predators. Lucas doesn’t have the option to get out of the water. All he can do is try to avoid getting bit.