Thursday, August 30, 2012

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 10: The 2010s (So far...)

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

146. Black Swan (2010- dir. Darren Aronofsky)

The sweeping horror resurgence of the ‘00s remained strong at the start of the next decade. After ten years of retro monster movies, zombie comedies, torture pornos, found-footage thrillers, animated chillers, political petrifiers, and scary musicals, one might assume there was nowhere left for the genre to go. Darren Aronofsky, a filmmaker never afraid to take daring chances that might end with him flat on his face, was the right guy to uncover roads still waiting to be traveled. Black Swan is both a film about and a loose adaptation of Swan Lake. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dancer chosen to star as the Swan Queen in a major production of Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Sayers’s path to success is jagged with obstacles. She must contend with the knowledge that her role came at the expense of former star Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), who lapses into alcoholism and ends up getting disabled in a car crash. Her colleague and new friend Lily (Mila Kunis) not-so-secretly covets the role and schemes to put Nina out of commission. Her director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), sexually harasses Nina while placing demands on her that challenge the influence of her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey). Nina also suffers internal obstacles. Her body begins displaying strange rashes and sores. Her mind is beset with paranoid visions of her doppelgänger.

The surreal aspects of Black Swan function as an allegory for the fears and absurd physical demands dancers face in the competitive ballet world, but the film works best as a stylistically radical and really disturbing horror movie. And don’t be fooled by all the critical praise and Portman’s Oscar; this is a horror movie. Aronofsky certainly doesn’t present his material traditionally, but inside the belly of Black Swan lies decades of horror tradition. The presence of a nefarious doppelgänger bears the unsettling tang of David Lynch, and a sex scene in which Nina sees that she isn’t copulating with the person she thought she was could be an outtake from Fire Walk With Me. The fixation on grotesque physical transformation and deterioration is pure David Cronenberg, particularly recalling The Fly. When Nina stands before a mirror, tears off her own skin, then finds herself perfectly intact, one can’t be faulted for remembering a nearly identical scene in Poltergeist. Nina’s relationship with a mother who infantilizes her and demonizes her sexuality is straight out of Carrie. The apartment setting evokes Polanski’s horror films. Nina’s paranoid visions are strongly reminiscent of The Tenant. Her sexual repression brings to mind Carole Ledoux in Repulsion, and traveling further back, Cat People, which also tied repression to physical transformation into an animal. Sexual desire and beastly transformation are also close associates in The Wolf Man, and Aronofsky has even described Nina as a “were swan.” Then back to the very birth of sound horror when Dr. Jekyll, who, much like Nina, allowed his dark side to emerge and consume himself all in the name of his work. Back to when a movement from Swan Lake served as the theme music for Dracula and The Mummy, forever linking that composition with monster movies in the minds of horror fanatics. Back further to the silent era when Phantom of the Opera placed horror in the lush interior of a theater. Elsewhere, Black Swan conjures the ballet-themed Suspiria, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Shining, and every horror movie that ever exploited mirrors to get a cheap shock.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Aronofsky takes all of these well-traveled tropes and transforms them into a film that is wholly original, wholly personal, wholly a work of art. In doing so, he enters the realm reserved for cinema’s finest, most distinct artists, a place populated by Hitchcock and Kubrick and Lynch. Like those filmmakers, Aronofsky takes outrageous risks, perhaps doesn’t always succeed. But Black Swan thrives on that audacity. It is reverent of horror traditions but disdainful of the rules, which leaves us viewers perpetually uneasy because we know its creator is capable of throwing anything at us at any time. Scary, humorous, wonderfully acted, imaginatively written and directed, thoughtfully metaphorical, respectful and irreverent, Black Swan packs the complete essence of what makes a horror movie truly essential.

147. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010- dir. Jalmari Helander)

Jusso (Jorma Tommila) is incensed to learn the reindeer he planned to harvest are already dead, because someone cut a hole in the fence intended to keep wolves from the herd. Just a short while earlier, Jusso’s young son Pietari (Onni Tommila) had cut that hole to spy on a local excavation site. Very naughty. Pietari is worried, not because his family just lost their livelihood, but because Christmas is approaching, and we all know what happens to naughty boys on Christmas. Or do we? Pietari would probably heave a massive sigh of relief if he suffered the traditional lump of coal in his stocking. However, the real Santa Claus ain’t your merry, ho-ho-ho-ing Santa. Rather, he’s a giant horned beast who tortures bad kids come December 25th. And guess what’s just been unearthed in a Godzilla-sized block of ice at that excavation site? Jalmari Helander delights in playing with horror and action-movie clichés in the aggressively original Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. An ominous advent calendar ticks off the days to Christmas like the date cards in The Shining. Pietari thumbs through terrifying pictures of Demon Santa like Roy Scheider poring over shark attack photos in Jaws. A creepy, face-biting old man arrives naked as The Terminator. The frozen beast evokes The Thing. That’s all fine and clever, but Helander does not merely use his retro references to please genre fans with recognizable images. He uses them to orient viewers as we navigate a world beyond anything we recognize; where Christmas elves are full-frontally naked old men with murder on their minds and a small child leads his elders into battle and resigns himself to suicidal self-sacrifice and the heroes end the picture as slavers and our main monster is used as a great, big shaggy dog. That last matter leaves Rare Exports with a slightly disappointing aftertaste, but it remains an innovative item essential for horror fans tired of the usual slicing and dicing and desperate for a seasonal alternative to Miracle on 34th Street.

148. The Skin I Live In (2011- dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

Themes of sexuality and identity have always been integral to the films of Pedro Almodóvar. In La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In), he plumbs them once again from Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula. The results are far more twisted than even the earlier dark comedies and dramas for which Almodóvar is known. The film takes both the transgressions of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Antonio Banderas’s unsettling intensity way, way beyond the pale. Banderas is Dr. Robert Ledgard, a scientist developing a form of indestructible artificial skin. The gorgeous Vera (Elena Anaya) is his seemingly willing, yet existentially despairing, guinea pig. Their relationship seems like a conscious echo of the father and daughter of Eyes without a Face. It is hardly so clear cut, much like the chronologically choppy first half of the film, which leaves the viewer bewildered but anticipative of how the jigsaw pieces will fit together. When they do, they do vengefully, and we realize the horrific extent of Ledgard’s madness and the even more horrific cause of it. The film’s scenes of physical violence are not as shocking as the psychological implications. Almodóvar forces us to empathize with both a mad scientist capable of particularly demented vengeance and the vile, misogynist/rapist who wreaked havoc on his life and complicates matters further by presenting a completely unexpected—and seriously unhealthy— relationship between the two. Most viewers will find this material very difficult to digest, but Almodóvar’s fearlessness in tackling it is heroic, as are Banderas and Anaya’s performances. The director called The Skin I Live In “a horror story without screams or frights.” While that may be true, it will haunt and disturb viewers more profoundly than most typical horror fare ever could.

149. The Woman in Black (2012- dir. James Watkins)

Fans of Britain’s most venerated house of horrors couldn’t help but be thrilled by news of its return in the late ‘00s. That excitement may have quickly turned to disenchantment, because like so many resurrected corpses, Hammer came back wrong. The new generation of producers didn’t quite seem to know what to do with the valuable property. Following a toe-in-the-water web series called “Beyond the Rave”, the first new Hammer feature to see release was a stalker picture set in hipster Brooklyn called The Resident. Aside from the winking presence of Christopher Lee, this hackneyed piece of lint couldn’t have been more out of step with the Hammers of old. The folk horror throw back Wake Wood was closer to the mark, though slight. A remake of Let the Right One In was well made, but pointless when the body of the superior original wasn’t even cold yet. After five years of trial and error, Hammer finally returned with a picture that would have made the Carreras family proud. James Watkins’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story The Woman in Black is a return to the creep shows of old. While the lack of dime-store blood and heaving bosoms is decidedly un-Hammer-like, the period setting, Gothic desiccation, and Daniel Radcliffe’s fey performance ably fill all the baggage that comes with the studio’s name. Radcliffe is a solicitor charged with settling the paperwork of the unappetizingly christened Eel Marsh House. His arrival at the crumbling old manor sets off an extended sequence that recreates the sensation of walking through a really scary carnival spook house more accurately than perhaps any other film— right down to the ghosts that slide out of the darkness as if on tracks. Watkins does not let a cheap trick pass him by, from faces that materialize out of the shadows to rocking chairs and doors that swing of their own volition to loud bangs to close ups of the creepiest antique doll collection in the world. We let him have his clichés because they all work so marvelously well. That nerve-wracking passage alone would make the film essential. However, The Woman in Black is also bolstered by a strong central mystery that doesn’t cop out on its specter’s malevolence and what may be the most macabre happy ending in ghost story history. Welcome back, old friend!

150. The Cabin in the Woods (2012- dir. Drew Goddard)

Even those familiar with Joss Whedon’s penchant for yanking the carpet from beneath his viewers will be sent loopy by The Cabin in the Woods. In the quite brilliant script he co-wrote with director Drew Goddard, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other cult T.V. favorites establishes the usual slasher movie clichés only to draw attention to and subvert them. I know, I know; Scream did that very same thing some fifteen years earlier. But it didn’t do it like The Cabin in the Woods does it. Scream was clever because it finally acknowledged the silly decisions and sillier archetypes common to slasher pictures. The Cabin in the Woods is genius because it explains why those clichés exist, and the explanation is a stroke of such unfettered imagination that it makes the appearances of massive force fields, a merman-fixated scientist, a murderous unicorn, and a universe-annihilating god fist completely logical. Like the Evil Dead films, which it references often and lovingly (keep an eye out for that “angry molesting tree”!), The Cabin in the Woods works as both incisive parody and visceral horror. The one thing it lacks—and this is highly unusual for a Whedon creation—is empathy. The writer is usually a master of manipulating his viewers into caring about his daffy characters. The ones in this film are stereotypes by nature: the stoner, the slut (well, sort of), the jock (well, maybe), the virgin (ummm, not quite, but for all intents and purposes…). The thinness of these characters certainly serves a plot function, but it also makes the film feel a little hollow since we don’t get quite as broken up when they’re dispatched as when, say, Buffy died that one time, or when she died that other time, or when she died all those other times. What The Cabin in the Woods lacks in emotional depth, it more than makes up for in intellect, originality, and a menagerie of geek-pleasing references to 90 years of Horror cinema.

Flee Back to the 2000s…
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