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To begin HorrOctober 2020, we look at Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky’s filmmaking is both viscerally and psychologically aggressive. With a propensity for travelling shots, continuous close-ups, subjective angles and distorted visuals, an Aronofsky film is always an experience. Several of his films can be considered horror, perhaps none more overtly than Black Swan. While mother! is a more overt assault on the senses, many of the techniques and concerns from that later film appear in Black Swan. Ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is tormented by demons both inner and outer, seeing doubles from the start of the film even before the stress of performing the lead role in Swan Lake. Portman’s face often fills the frame while the camera tracks her passage through the bowels of the ballet centre and New York alike. Sudden moments of on-screen craziness such as moving paintings and other hallucinations express the cracking of Nina’s perception, while the body horror of peeling nails, deep scratches and full on transformation veers from wince-inducing to full-on WTF?! Similarly, the film explores interesting gender politics, such as the lines between seduction and molestation, stern training and actual abuse.
Toxic masculinity looms large in this film in the figure of Thomas Leror (Vincent Cassel), while the female body becomes less a site of visual pleasure and allure than one of suffering, embodied by Nina as well as Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina’s mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) and ‘Dying Swan’ Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder). Nina’s insistence on the need to be perfect, contrasted with the bodies of Lily, Erica and Beth, highlights the dangerous requirements that women face, and the film’s final act emphasises the destructive effect of expectations both personal and societal. Disturbing for much of its run time and at times viscerally terrifying, Black Swan finally delivers the best type of horror – that which remains unsettling long after the film has ended.
The Invisible Man is like Jaws, in the sense that the film is not about the object of its title. Indeed, the subject of Leigh Whannell’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel is a woman, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), who escapes from her abusive and controlling partner Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) only to find there is more to his influence than meets the eye. Across the film, Cecilia is made to question her perceptions and subjected to horrific psychological torture. Whannell make great use of negative space, making seemingly empty rooms terrifying while sudden appearances are both startling jump scares and nauseating gut punches. Moss dominates the screen with palatable fear as well as evident resolve and ingenuity, and the film’s constant sympathy for Cecilia, as well as its emphasis upon the predatory nature of the male gaze, enables it to be a damning indictment of toxic masculinity as much as a deeply disturbing horror film.
As a white man, there is a word I will not say. The word is probably obvious – it is a pejorative with a specific meaning, but also a term with contested meanings within racial discourse. Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting explores this term as part of its dramatisation of race relations in contemporary America. The film emphasises the reality that it is never easy being black in the USA, especially at the current political climate. While many might appreciate this concept, Blindspotting follows the excellent BlacKkKlansman as another timely film about race in modern America, which expresses how appalling it is to live under the oppression of racial prejudice. Collin (Daveed Diggs) is a convicted felon three days from the end of his probation. Collin is focused on following the rules of his probation carefully while dealing with his ex-girlfriend, mother and stepfather, and with his volatile best friend and work colleague, Miles (Rafael Casal). Collin’s resolve to stay on the right side of the law becomes more complicated when he witnesses a police shooting of a black man. From this chance encounter, Blindspotting follows a ripple effect of interpersonal dramas that intertwine with broad socio-political concerns. Estrada deftly charts a series of conflicts, both in the immediate story and through judicious flashbacks that explain how Collin got to where he is. Racial tensions battle against personal loyalties; smart humour gives way to sudden violence; aerial shots of the gridlike city are juxtaposed with with close-ups of startled faces. Collin’s attempts to devise rap songs show how he makes sense of the world, and his regular fumbling over words and rhythm demonstrates how hard that sense is to come by. Interestingly, the clearest moments are also the most unnerving, indicating that nothing cuts through confusion better than anger and fear. Therefore, in a world of confusion, prejudice and blindspots, cyclical violence manifests as an escape, a cathartic release and even the suggestion of redemption. Yet rather than slipping into a disturbing glorification of toxic violent masculinity or (like the recent Obey) a depressing, deterministic depiction of black identity, Blindspotting never presents violence as anything other than a terrifying choice that is nevertheless still a choice. Therefore, it takes a responsible and compelling position towards problems with no easy solution, while also being a vibrant and at times amusing tale of social stratification and the struggle to go straight.