2010 was a banner year in the Horror Household. Even as a genre fan, it's rare for mainstream horror to claim so many spots in my mental checklist of any given year's best films -- at current count, Black Swan checks in at numero uno, and any honest Top 20 is rounded out by Let Me In, The Last Exorcism and Paranormal Activity 2. (Last year, any Top 20-worthy horror films were made outside the studio system and generally in other countries.)
My recent enthusiasm for American horror is fueled by the trending of multiplex audiences to choose intelligent fare over Saw Bajillion, which is dovetailing nicely with the sudden Hollywood push for mature horror grounded in solid characters and well-earned scares over an endless stream of viscera flying at the screen IN 3-D!
While it would be short-sighted to call Black Swan an unqualified masterpiece, it's a good omen for an industry that has spent the better part of a decade profiting from gore and stupidity. In Swan, Darren Aronofsky has joined the ranks of Polanski, Cronenberg and De Palma with a film that's simultaneously lurid and elegant, over the top and understated, entertaining and disturbing.
Ostensibly about twenty-something ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) and her short, swift slide into insanity, Black Swan constructs layer upon layer around a threadbare plot that borrows liberally from Repulsion. Is anyone really surprised by the evolution of the plot? Perhaps not. But in a film like Black Swan (mirroring Repulsion itself), the plot pales beneath the journey: Thanks to Aronofsky's claustrophobic framing and a screenplay that cleverly discards significant chunks of time in the pursuit of urgency and perhaps a quality more obscure, we're forced to adopt Nina's perspective, and as she spirals headlong toward derangement, we also adopt her terror and her uncertainty.
Whoa! Natalie, maybe you should get some sleep?
This technique, which is old hat in the world of psychological horror but has rarely been used so effectively, inspires viewers to question their assumptions as the film's last reel comes to a close. Understanding -- even attempting to understand -- Black Swan is as rewarding as when one first realizes The Exorcist is about the battle for Father Karras's soul rather than Regan's.
On my third viewing in as many weeks, my own interpretation was radically different than my first ... and in the intervening weeks, I've read theories that leave me desperate for a fourth.
My own working theory, an aggregate of several interpretations: Nina's madness is schizophrenia activated by childhood and ongoing sexual abuse, and the film unspools in a death-dream flashback. Even if one accepts the supernatural elements at face value, it's nearly impossible to tie together conflicting scenes and the disparate strands of plotting without acknowledging that Nina, as our guide to her world, is very, very unreliable. And the clues are many: Why would an adult have a room decorated like that of a little girl? How can Lily (Mila Kunis) be in two bedrooms at once? Why does a ballet seem to progress from inception to premiere in a matter of days? How can Nina stab three people with the same shard of glass? And why is Nina's mother (a terrifying Barbara Hershey) lurking nearby whenever her daughter attempts to break free of her sexual innocence?
Black Swan gets a lot of mileage out of its conscious use of doubles, triples, hallucinations and convolutions (not to mention its function as a metatextual reinvention of Swan Lake itself). So how did a horror film this entertaining, one so consistently absorbing and indebted to sterling classics of the genre, end up with a Best Picture nomination and a respectable box office gross ($100 million on a $13 million budget)? Stated simply, a goddamned miracle.
Lucky for us fans of smart, layered horror, the other three films mentioned -- Let Me In, The Last Exorcism and Paranormal Activity 2 -- also served as harbingers of a sea change in Hollywood horror. Each defied expectations (a remake of a well-respected Swedish film; a found-footage mockumentary nipping at the heels of a decade filled with found-footage mockumentaries; and a sequel to a found-footage mockumentary rushed to production after its predecessor became a surprise hit, respectively) to achieve commercial success, critical acclaim or a bit of both. (It's interesting to note that, aside from occasionally graphic vampire violence in Let Me In, all three were light on gore.)
If there's one lesson Hollywood execs should take away from 2010, it's this: Even in a genre that's spottier than Vargo's liver, it pays to bet on our intelligence, defy our expectations and appeal to those who aren't the target demographic for horror movies. If Paranormal Acitivity 2 can achieve a record-setting opening weekend with an audience that's predominantly female, it might be safe to say that next year's offerings will eschew mindless violence for literate, genuine, honest-to-God terror.
I can't wait.
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