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), places demands on her that challenge the prudish 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? (and what is Barbara Hershey’s role if not a nod to “hagsploitation” pictures), 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 Polanski 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)
148. The Skin I Live In (2011- dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
149. The Woman in Black (2012- dir. James Watkins)
150. The Cabin in the Woods (2012- dir. Drew Goddard)
Flee Back to the 2000s…