Horror 365, Movie 88: Black Swan

Tacked up in the torture chamber fitness room here at Castle Blogferatu is a list of directors I have a love/hate relationship with. Surprisingly, it’s not an extremely long list, but it does grow by a few directors every so often. Kubrick is always in the top three. So is Dario Argento. Certainly Aronofsky has a safe spot in the top five.

I mean, I loved Requiem For A Dream and Pi, but both stayed with me for a few days like a particularly disturbing nightmare. I feel just a little damaged by them. Bastard.

Little bit of backstory, I never even knew I liked ballet until after the start of the 21st Century. The only reason I found out was because I saw, ironically, Swan Lake.

In Russia.

Hell of a way to start. I’ve been in love with ballet ever since, Swan Lake still being one of my favorites along with Giselle. I fully expected, therefore, to be emotionally tortured as well as fascinated by Black Swan.

My first hurdle was, of course, getting past Natalie Portman without thinking V For Vendetta. This is made more difficult by the fact that Mila Kunis is often just a little more interesting to watch.

But Aronofsky is certainly no slouch. First there are the mirrors, on one hand so obvious and necessary in a ballet studio. On the other hand, the plot is also rife with duplicity and moral ambiguity as evidenced early into the movie as Nina (Portman) sits in front of the mirror in newly ousted Beth MacIntyre’s (Winona Ryder) dressing room then steals some of her belongings.

There is also the wing/feather motif. They’re everywhere in the background: sculptures, dressing rooms, wallpaper, towels, blankets, even actual swan images over Nina’s left shoulder as she soaks in her tub.

How about contrast? Lily (Kunis) is always dark. Nina is always light. I also like the Nina/Lily subplot and really wanted Lily to be a delusion like Paul Bettany and Ed Harris were to Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Admittedly that would have made things more explainable. On the other hand it could diminish the surreal/hallucinatory viewing experience of the movie.

But one of the most interesting aspects of Black Swan is the fact that it has all the hallmarks of Grande Dame Guignol (as elaborated in Peter Shelley’s 2009 book Grande Dame Guignol Cinema). For starters there’s Nina’s mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey). She’s not just overprotective but cloyingly and weirdly so, infantilizing Nina in the process.

Erica also has hang-ups about the past. They’re not at the level of, say, Baby Jane Hudson, but they’re there (having given up her career to have Nina).

Nina is also imprisoned but, in a clever twist, by her own hand. She uses a pipe to barricade her door shut and try to gain some measure of privacy from her ever-hovering, nearly omnipresent mother.

As for the guignol aspect, well, it’s everywhere, and it escalates. Aronofsky starts with Nina splitting a toenail while practicing. There is her ever-worsening rash, her bloody fingernails, her hallucinated stripping of skin from her finger, the slamming of her mother’s hand in a door, the stabbing of Lily, and of course the finale.

Aronofsky’s guignol even crosses into body horror. In her delusions, Nina sees intensifying instances of her transformation into the Black Swan: gooseflesh, red sclera, backward-bending legs, and a clear reference to Cronenberg’s The Fly as she plucks a feather out of her shoulder. Her ultimate full commitment to her role and the onstage result are unnerving yet gripping.

Overall, Black Swan is often a stunning film to watch, not only in terms of the ballet itself, but also in terms of its metaphor for commitment to one’s art/field/role as well as the double-edged sword of reward/delusion that such commitment can become. To be fair, I wasn’t planning to watch it again.

Now I feel like I should.

For rent on Apple TV+, Google Play, iTunes, Prime, Vudu, YouTube

Horror 365 Movie 31: Sun Choke

sunConfession time. I thought I had this one figured out about fifteen minutes in, and it was with good reason my cinematic hubris was aroused. Sun Choke displays many of the hallmarks of the finest films in the Grande Dame Guignol tradition.

1)  Older (not necessarily elderly) and/or more physically and/or mentally able woman left to care for younger and/or less physically and/or mentally able woman

Check. Irma (horror staple Barbara Crampton) is the therapist and caretaker for Janie (Freaks And Geeks’s Sarah Hagan). Irma is every bit at nurturing as Nurse Ratched, at times flat out torturing Janie. We also see evidence that she has been abusing Janie most of her life.

2) More capable woman tries to make and/or keep the less capable woman insane and/or incapacitated and, therefore, dependent

Check. Irma constantly infantilizes Janie, often referring to her as “little girl,” and has her on some truly bizarro psychological and nutritional regimens. Me personally, seeing Irma hand Janie a smoothie also takes me directly to Rosemary’s Baby. I’m sure that’s no accident.

3) Mysterious backstory

Check. Like the dark pasts in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, or Strait-Jacket, we don’t know exactly what Janie’s condition is or what caused it. The difference here is that we never find out. In this case that actually works well.

4) Power struggle in which the victim makes several attempts to assert her independence

Check. Janie takes increasing liberties with the scant freedom she is given, but these meet with dire repercussions.

5) At least one murder

Giant red check, but also where Sun Choke takes a hard left. I was fully prepared to end this review with praise tempered by disappointment: praise over the treatment of these classic Grande Dame Guignol themes, disappointment that no new ground was broken in terms of plot.

I am so happy to admit that I was so wrong.

Without getting too specific, what I expected to happen is exactly what happened, but it was far sooner than I expected. From there, the plot goes into a psychological tailspin. In order to avoid any spoilers, I’ll just stop.

As Janie, Hagan is disconcerting. She has this little girl voice that masks her cunning, violence, and lack of remorse. At the same time, she’s fascinating. We can’t help being on her side, especially after the events of the first fifty minutes of the film.

As for Barbara Crampton, what can I say? I’m a huge fan, from Re-Animator and Chopping Mall to We Are Still Here and Beyond The Gates, I’ve been watching her in horror movies for a good long time and will happily watch any movie she’s in.

As for Sun Choke, she is delightfully evil, perhaps a less aggressively volatile version of Annie Wilkes. There’s nary a scene with Irma in which she appears to harbor anything but resentment and malice for Janie.

This becomes clear only a scant half hour into the film when Irma says, “When your mother died, I made a promise to your father. That promise means I’m going to spend the rest of my life worrying about you and caring for you whether either one of us likes it or not.”


4 onscreen