Black Swan

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  A finely-crafted noirish psychological thriller, abounding with insights into sex, identity, and art, but occasionally overindulgent.

Review:  Imagination is the life of the soul.  It enables us to evolve beyond our boundaries.  As a million and two film thrillers will tell you, it can also be incredibly dangerous.  Enter Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’, a fascinating neo-noir movie about ballet that I’d dare call the female counterpart to David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’.  Similarities abound; the relationship between physical and spiritual maturity, the destructive side of sex (both gender identity and intercourse), struggles against imposed ideals, psychological separation, paranoia — probably more.  They’re both disturbing experiences, though for reasons of demographics I found ‘Fight Club’ the more resonant film.

There are important divergences, however.  ‘Black Swan’ is about art and sacrifice and not popular culture and violence, for one.  Stylistically, Aronofsky’s film is claustrophobic and documentary where Fincher’s is large and hyper-real.  ‘Black Swan’ is more intimate, personal, and terrifying in the inescapable moment rather than by implication.

This brings me back to imagination.  Nina (Natalie Portman in her best role yet) is a soul struggling for perfection in the world of ballet, and she hopes to fill the lead role of her director’s new version of Tchaikovsky‘s ‘Swan Lake’.  This version, however, will need her to fulfill the role of the White Swan — innocent, virginal, controlled, much like herself — and the Black Swan — dangerous, sensual, passionate — and the director doubts she has it in her.  The film plays as an adaptation of ‘Swan Lake’ as Nina transforms into the Black Swan, first in her life and then on the stage.  This metamorphosis is a deadly combination of her repressed womanhood and the Black Swan character, her imaginative dreams invading her constrictive waking life.

Many psychological thrillers spring from the idea of personifying unwanted feelings, memories, and behaviors, separating the lead character from their internal torment and therefore dramatizing the conflict in a very visual way.  For the cinematically savvy, this can become predictable, taking the punch out of it.  Where ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Fight Club’ succeed is in diverting our interest from surprise revelations about identity and conscience to broader external conflicts.  ‘Black Swan’s source of tension, the upcoming, life-defining performance of ‘Swan Lake’, is a simple and powerful one.  It grips us like a vice, and everything else adds pressure.

Like a classic film noir, ‘Black Swan’ has strong sexual themes, in particular seduction, jealousy, and control.  Aronofsky dives into explicit territory, but what makes it work is the nagging question of how much is happening in Nina’s mind and how much is real.  Because of the subjective cinematography, we’ve reason to doubt either explanation.  I found this conflict’s resolution incredibly cathartic; by embracing her Black Swan persona, Nina gains control over her sexual identity and becomes assertive, granting her equilibrium and freedom from her mother’s implied abuse.

The film also has a strong horror backbone.  It plays similar to ‘District 9’ in Nina’s queasy, gradual transformation, which may or may not be real.  A quill here, a bleeding fingernail there.  And, of course, the doppelganger stalking her in subways and mirrors.  This is a film about self-image, which can be the worst enemy of self — or a powerful boon.

‘Black Swan’ is packed with great performances, cinematography, music, and ideas, but it certainly isn’t a film for everyone.  I wouldn’t call it the best picture of the year, either.  In some places it overplays its hand.  Nevertheless, it’s another reason to believe that cinema as an art will continue to survive, and even flourish, no matter how imperfect it is.

Classic Review: The Trial (1962)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A deep, brilliant classic and a potent humanistic antidote to exploitative horror films.


Review:  I have a bit of a beef with horror as a cinematic genre.  It’s typically immature at best and outright revolting at worst, with some blessed exceptions.  Like run-of-the-mill, thoughtless action films, there’s a noticeable separation between the filmmakers and the ethical subtleties of the material; it’s not so much about telling a story as it is about extravagance and extremes, which demands a pushed envelope with every new film.  The filmmakers shrug off concerns about content in favor of impact and, of course, money.  It’s why the standard Hollywood horror film of today continues to devolve into aptly named “torture porn“, the final expression of exploitative ethics.

Now what does this rant have to do with Orson Welles’ under-appreciated masterpiece ‘The Trial’?  In short, this adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s novel is the antithesis of torture porn.  What that degraded form of horror says about the human condition, ‘The Trial’ says the opposite.  And yes, ‘The Trial’ is fundamentally a horror picture, at least in my opinion.  It is surrealistic, nightmarish and psychologically potent.  I had a similar gut reaction when I saw ‘Night Of The Living Dead’.  It is unique, which is more than I can say for most films.  Even today, after over forty years of film history have gone by, it’s only aged like a fine wine, becoming a richer and more profound experience that’s quite difficult to replicate.  Orson Welles’ direction is superb, as per his rep, and it’s packed with fine performances, particularly that of Anthony Perkins in the lead role.

And now, to explore the film’s story, I’ll continue my initial critique.  So what is torture porn’s — and by extension most postmodern horror’s — philosophy?  It’s the withering of human dignity in the face of unspeakable evil, usually embodied in one or a few figures.  It’s utterly vampiric, destroying souls and bodies in the quest for pleasure by the monster at a given film’s center, vicariously experienced — and here’s the real horror — by the audience.  We’re taught to identify with the vicars of decay.  Now, in the other corner is the ‘The Trial’, combining Kafka’s and Welles’ ideas, and its philosophy is the exact opposite.  The lone figure with whom we identify in this universally human nightmare is Josef K., the man accused of an unknown crime, a man who may not be innocent but is sure he is not guilty.  He is an avatar of our consciousness in a lucid dream, running from monsters masked by the faces of lawyers and little girls.  ‘The Trial’ is our subconscious rebellion against the weight of an impersonal cosmic law that offers no explanations and no access to its logic.  Pointedly, the antagonist is the very Advocate assigned to defend Josef.

So in what direct way is ‘The Trial’ opposed to torture porn?  The roles reverse.  The unsympathetic Court, the many, torments Josef K., the one, but he resists them to the last with unapologetic, humanistic ferocity.  ‘The Trial’ is bleak, but instructive, giving meaning to our nightmares upon waking.  We know what the monsters are — original sin manifested — and it equips us with self-knowledge to destroy them.  Torture porn, however, seeks to empower us at the cost of our empathy.  There’s no instruction, no moment of waking from that nightmare.  The films dehumanize the many victims and moralize the one monster’s actions, making it possible for warped minds to sympathize with it.  Vicariously, we become the monster.

But of course, ‘The Trial’ is much more than horror, and deserving of review beyond this contrast.  ‘The Trial’ has much to say about religion, law, politics, sexuality, and cinema itself.  It begs for in-depth analysis.  I plan to give it just that in due time.

Reportedly, Orson Welles considered this the best of his whole celebrated filmography.  It’s a shame that it’s been so often ignored by cinephiles and the critical community.  It’s wonderful stuff.

Let The Right One In

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A true masterpiece of postmodern horror, with heartrending emotional realism.

Review:  No matter who you are, when you’re a kid, bullying always seems to find you.  For some of us, it’s the moment when we realize that the world isn’t a friendly place.  Many are deeply scarred by their experiences and they may become dysfunctional.  Others adapt.   ‘Let The Right One In’ explores the most tragic response to childhood bullying; turning into a bully yourself.  The boy at the story’s heart sees it as the only way out.  Then the little girl shows up.  She’s not like any kid that Oskar has ever known.  She tells him his instincts are correct.  With Oskar right on the cusp of puberty, the mysterious Eli is magnetic, and in due time he gets close enough to discover the terrible truth: She’s a vampire.

This is a meditation on all aspects of abuse, which is what makes ‘Let The Right One In’ a prime example of the horror genre.  There’s nothing scarier than the bitter truth.  The title comes from a rule, mentioned occasionally in vampire legends, that prevents a vampire from entering a place uninvited.  As Oskar discovers, casual evil is indiscriminate, but the most insidious things ask for permission.  As we know, bullying doesn’t disappear when we grow up; it just becomes more devious.  An abuser needs victims for their sense of self to survive.  There’s an obvious parallel with vampirism.

Eli is a vampire’s victim, and tragically, she can only survive by embracing this new identity and the habitual murder that comes with it.  The character isn’t a villain or an object of horror.  She’s a believable, sympathetic person.  Oskar, for his part, just wants his anger to mean something.  Eli catches him early on stabbing a tree and practicing taunts.  When I was young and angry, sometimes my parents told me to go punch a pillow; but it didn’t matter, really, whether I punched a pillow or a brick wall.  We all want our fantasies to manifest.  Some of us have wise guardians who prevent us from taking vengeance and destroying ourselves.  Oskar isn’t so lucky.  Eli becomes his protector, but she’s also the ultimate bully.  Her feelings for Oskar are genuine, but she’s also the worst thing for him.

The film is technically well executed.  There’s no shaky handheld camera, jump cuts, or cheap scares.  The pristine wintry scenery is breathtaking and deceptively serene.  Johan Söderqvist’s score is incredibly beautiful, and if you need proof, just take a listen here.  The standout scene of the entire film is, fittingly, the ending.  I’ll probably never look at a swimming pool the same way again.

‘Let The Right One In’ will be considered among the 21st Century’s first masterpieces, even if it is under-appreciated by the public.  It’s a cinematic opus, a story that director Tomas Alfredson and writer John Ajvide Lindqvist should be terribly proud of.

Cult Classic: Army Of Darkness

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A strangely exciting epic and a fitting end to the ‘Evil Dead’ series.

Review:  The ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy’s progression is certainly peculiar.  1981’s ‘Evil Dead’ was a low-budget horror film set in a cabin-in-the-woods; ‘Evil Dead II’ in 1987 was an outrageous action-horror-comedy in the same scenario.  And then came ‘Army of Darkness’ AKA ‘Evil Dead III: The Medieval Dead’ in 1993, a horror action comedy epic with slapstick elements set in medieval England.  How we got from point A to point B is still a mystery to me.

Well, not really I guess.  After all, at the end of ‘Evil Dead II’, Ash (Bruce Campbell) does get transported back to the middle ages, so I guess it makes sense.  I guess… Anyways, he sets out to return to his own time, along the way defending a castle and its people.  They’re terrorized by the same evil he has combated in the first two films, the dark forces of the Book of the Dead.

The highlight is an epic battle at the end against the Army of Darkness (a vicious horde of the living dead) that, believe it or not, is somewhat reminiscent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  It makes good use of stop-motion effects in the vein of Ray Harryhausen, the man behind the effects in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and the original ‘Mighty Joe Young’.  Though these effects feel dated, they none-the-less have a certain charm.  This movie is overall much more action oriented than its predecessors, and yes, Ash’s chainsaw and shotgun are back for more fun as well, though this time around it’s not nearly as gory.

I really love the way that Ash handles himself in this film.  He cracks so many one-liners, whether it’s to the “primitive screwheads” he’s protecting or the armies of the dead, he just can’t seem to resist a dry witticism.  It’s made the film wonderfully quotable.  The comedy in general is upped from ‘Evil Dead II’, and it’s certainly entertaining, with nods to the Three Stooges and funny illusions to other films.  Unfortunately it’s had its effect on the films ‘horror’ aspect, and so it really doesn’t feel scary at all.  Like ‘Evil Dead II’, though, it’s so fun that you really don’t worry too much.
‘Army of Darkness’ is one of those once-in-a-lifetime movies. Its blend of genres may seem unorthodox, but it certainly feels fresh.  To use a time-worn cliché, it’s a rollercoaster ride of a film that goes up and down and in crazy directions that leaves you strangely satisfied at the end.  Like its prequel, there’s only one word that can sum this film up: Groovy.

Classic Review: The Silence Of The Lambs

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The only horror film to win Best Picture, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is terrifying because it’s truthful.

Review:  There’s “theme park” scary movies and then there’s true horror. ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’, the only horror film to ever win Best Picture, defines the latter class. It originates from the same real-life story as Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Instead of establishing distance from the psychopath, however, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ takes us up close and personal with not one, but two dangerous and terrifyingly realistic villains.

The most famous is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a brilliant and seductive psychopathic psychologist played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s the most vile and convincing villain I have ever seen on film. FBI Agent Clarice Starling, excellently played by Jodie Foster, has to consult with the incarcerated monster to see if she can discover how to find a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Their interactions are not only the highlight of the movie, but some of the few perfect moments in cinematic history.

This is a brutal experience.  It is a descent into the darkest dungeons in the human spirit, into Tartarus.  It is a challenging picture that requires viewers of strong constitutions.  By not flinching, the filmmakers are putting us in absolute sympathy with Clarice; she’s vulnerable, naïve, and though she has an idea of where her journey will take her, it’s a horrifying ride that leaves her shaken.  Director Jonathan Demme takes the Hitchcockian ideal to its absolute limit, lets us chew through our nails and grind our teeth until the last logical moment, which results in a fantastic catharsis.  This isn’t a film for the faint of heart, and the weight of the thing goes beyond simple thrills.  Psychologically and philosophically, it sticks with you.  Every major religion has a theme of the descent into darkness and pain.  Consider the challenge of Christianity, as made by St. Paul, for believers to “crucify their flesh” — to endure the greatest suffering for the greatest reward.  ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a filmic exploration of that challenge, both as a narrative (Clarice’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill) and as an experience.  Provided that viewers know what they’re after, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a uniquely rewarding film.

The philosophical theme of ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is that yes, indeed, monsters do exist, and to our horror, they’re people like us.  There’s something convenient about supernatural horror that separates the man from the monster, allows us the comfort given a victim, that when all’s said and done, history takes pity on the innocent.  Here, there’s no such comfort.  Instead, Clarice Starling discovers the bitter truth of how similar Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill really are to “normal” people.  Being human is a dangerous idea.  Within each of us, there’s a devilish potential that we only think we’ve successfully sublimated.  Inside our private hells, we keep monsters locked away, but what about the ones that seem so attractive that they can lure us in to their homes for some fava beans and a bottle of nice Chianti?

In an interesting contrast, let’s compare Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with Jonathan Demme’s ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’.  ‘2001’ is a film about, literally, heaven, space, evolution and the divine potential of humankind.  It’s a hopeful journey through time with a strangely (for Kubrick) optimistic point-of-view.   ‘Silence’, however, is about Earth and things underneath it, like basements and pits and darkened rooms.  It’s about devolution, complex, civilized man’s disintegration into a cannibalistic hunter, the diabolical potential of humankind.  Perhaps this Halloween, for a unique double feature, you ought to watch both.

Cult Classic: Evil Dead II

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: An awesome, fun dark comedy.

Review:  Around the time in ‘Evil Dead II’ that Ash strapped a chainsaw to his arm and, in the most awesome close-up of all time, uttered “groovy”, I realized that I wasn’t really watching a horror film.  But, being honest, I didn’t really mind; I was having too much fun.

All kinds of dark ridiculousness go on in this remake/sequel to 1981’s ‘Evil Dead’.  Ash (Bruce Campbell) must again face the evil forces of the Book of the Dead in an over-the-top display of special effects, shotguns, the aforementioned chainsaws, carnage, one-liners, and all the campy goodness you could ask for.  That’s what I like about this movie: It’s so delightfully silly, and that’s what makes it work.  If director Sam Raimi had tried to make a film more like the first ‘Evil Dead’, I think it would have seemed trite and much less entertaining by comparison.

I’d also like to mention that Bruce Campbell puts on one of the best performances of his career in this film.  Campbell is essentially the Marlon Brando of modern cult film-making, and, unfortunately, he may also be the most under-appreciated actor of his generation.  Anyways though, he does an absolutely terrific job in this picture.  He subtly makes his character go from dead serious to terrified to borderline-insane in a matter of moments as he encounters truly crazy supernatural phenomena, and he manages to do it all without making it frightening; on the contrary, it’s simply entertaining.  It’s the highlight of the film.

‘Evil Dead II’ is a well-done, funny, and very enjoyable film, as far as dark comedies go that is. For anyone into cult films, this is a must-see. As Bruce Campbell would say, this picture is simply “groovy”.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★☆☆☆

Summary: One of the worst films I have ever seen.

Review:  I wanted to like this film; I really did.  I wanted to be able to say that I enjoyed it and found it a great example of the horror genre.  Heck, it’s been on nearly every Top Horror Film list of the past few years.  But after watching ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and seeing it’s gory sub-mediocrity play out on-screen, I came to the painful realization that this, in truth, is an awful film, and the only reason it has any notoriety at all is because it was just so disturbing.  But it’s long worn out its welcome.

Where do I begin?  The story is an incomprehensible mess.  It has something to do with a group of teenagers or twenty something’s stumbling upon a band of deranged psychopaths.  But really, you don’t care, because the movie starts killing them off shamelessly before you really figure anything out.
Even by later “slasher” film standards, our cast goes quickly.  Three of these teenagers are gruesomely murdered in a period of about ten minutes, and I should mention that there’s only five in this group.  What other film kills over half of its “good guys” so quickly?  Of course, I didn’t really care about those three, seeing as how they were all bland, underwritten, and poorly acted.  Nor was I particularly affected by their murders.  The film irreverently executed them with no suspense or satisfying buildup, just lots and lots of gore.  And then there’s this guy in a wheel chair.  I couldn’t figure out if the actor was bad or he was intentionally written to be so annoying, but either way I detested him, and I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when he was finally butchered and killed, because it at least meant I wouldn’t have to listen to him anymore.  This leaves one girl left.  And literally (I’m not exaggerating in the least) her entire dialogue for the second half of the film is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, but incomprehensible screaming.

And about these psychopaths, they may just be four of the most deranged, destructive, and masochistic people on earth.  They pile up bones in their house, raid graveyards, and kill people in any way possible.  It’s certainly revolting.

But it’s all so pointless because there is no STORY here.  Only murder, gore, and horrendous, horrendous imagery comprises this short movie of 80 minutes. And for all that, it goes absolutely nowhere with it.  There’s no pacing, no narrative tying it all together.  There are no characters to care about.  There was nothing to hold me over except gore, and frankly I just couldn’t stand that after a while.
I hate this movie.  I hate the story.  I hate the one-dimensional characters.  I hate that a narrator at the beginning reads aloud the opening crawl that we could just as easily read ourselves.  I hate that the last teenager alive literally spends the second half of the movie screaming.  I hate the ending, which resolves nothing and seems to glorify one of the villains.  I hate the villains who are creepy but never fleshed out.  I hate the nearly non-existent score.  I hate the disorienting cinematography.  I hate every last, little audience-insulting aspect of this movie.

This film should be banned.  It’s an insult to horror films.  It’s an insult to independent films.  It’s an insult to film-making in general.  Heck, it’s an insult to Art itself.  It sets the bar so low on all sides that literally anyone with half a working brain could have made something better.  This is exploitation of the worst order.  It is one of the most hateful, disappointingly unsatisfying, confusing, and downright mean-spirited “classics” that has ever been my misfortune to watch.  And worst of all, this film took from me an hour and a half of my life that I’m never ever getting back.  This is an awful, awful film.