I’ve neglected this site for a while, or should I say, I’ve neglected the genre as a whole. After a year of horror films, the past few months, i’ve been catching up on Rom Coms, Drama and Period pieces. With the awards season upon us, I’ve been bagging as many as possible in order to set my own predictions on the table which brings me to Black Swan, which in turn brings me back to the horror genre.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, a dedicated ballerina who dreams of the lead role. A vivid premonition comes true but it’s soon quite apparent that the path to success is not always the fairytale. The nightmare is about to begin. The new production is a reinvention of Swan Lake, a tragic tale, a princess is transformed into a swan who needs to find true love to release her from the curse, but her prince picks the wrong girl and our princess dies of a broken heart. So while Nina is pushing her body to the limit, her mind is crumbling with paranoia.
The film is a stunning character study which delves deep and offers multiple layers for the viewer to play with in their own mind. A crazy mother, pushing her own dreams onto her daughter, an ageing star now replaced, an eager dancer looking for competition and then there is Nina who is struggling with sanity, in need for compliments, success and love. What we also get is a balance or reality and fantasy. As we have the whole film from the view of Nina, every single scene can be questioned as to is this really happening and is it all in wrapped in desire or deep dark thoughts. Notably, the scene at the Hospital with the nail file, I’d question if Nina ever even visited the place or if this is just a subconscious dream of guilt and a desire to succeed, stabbing everyone in her way. The scene between Lily (Milla Kunis) in Nina’s bedroom reinforces this as we obviously see a graphic interaction between the two girls, yet later Lily’s involvement and attendance is questioned. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) also shows conflicting love, singled out mainly as an evil domineering tierant, although her final key scene suggests she is the only person who really knows what is going on in Nina’s head and is concerned about her daughters health. Let me also mention her lustful desire and obsession for the production’s artistic director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel); just who is he having an affair with, Nina? Lily? I’d again, argue this is all in Nina’s mind.
Now, let’s look at the horror side of things. The film is filled with classic 80’s jumps, which with big sound design allow the audience to feel on the edge of their seat, tension and terror with people appearing from behind doors, from the darkness… Classic stuff here. To fuel this, the main narrative focus’ on body horror, a finished result which Cronenberg would be proud of, although, any film fan would be aware, Aronofsky has a reoccurring theme here, the stength and power of the mind through obsession, desire and love which a poses the weakness of the flesh, the cask that we live our lives within; similar to Cronenberg although with immense depths of paranoia. Physically, we see some pretty nasty moments of skin ripping, self harm and the will to get under the irritation of the flesh. To top this all off, we have some weighty tips of the hat to Argento, close similarity to his 70’s masterpiece, Suspiria and his 80’s Opera, but also Nina’s apartment holds some uncanny resemblances to that of Deep Red; similar mirrors in the hallway and horrific paintings of Nina by her Mother and of cause, Argento’s signature theme, protagonists haunted and damaged by the actions of their past or parents. Finally, the club scene completes the salute with red and green lights filling the screen and dance floor, pure Suspiria.
Black Swan is something to watch, something experience and soak up the whole emotion of a woman on the edge and beyond. It’s beautifully horrific, uneasy and at times, difficult viewing, which gives the film that punch. Portman offers a flawless performance here, Cassel, Kunis and Hershey all support perfectly.
This is the first film which saw Cronenberg move into a different direction, one of politics and the bigger external picture, hinted at with his previous films. We venture into a much larger playing field which could emphasis the effects of change on a much larger scale the impact of on society by people who are different.
Scanners follows a similar rule as his previous films, with a chemical introduced during pregnancy creating a super powered mind readers, known as Scanners. OK, so they can do a bit more than read minds, in fact, they can control the actions of other people and in extreme situations, even make their head explode. It’s not long before a rival community of rebel Scanners are plotting to overthrow the ‘controlled’ scanners and even the world of non scanners. There’s back stabbing, conspiracy and corporate gain all thrown in to the mix as the plot unravels.
This is a great film, there’s no question about it, but this is Cronenberg focusing on a more mainstream audience, maybe due to the promise of a bigger budget, bigger name actors or the idea of appealing to a greater audience which toned down the finished result. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Disney and has some shocking moments but I can’t help but feel diluted here. The exploding heads are still spectacular and probably the best ever captured on film, even though the effects date back 30 years: perfect and shocking. I’d forgotten how amazing they were. The script is great and realistic as usual with Cronenbergs films and once again, the fantastical plot line is believable from the opening scene, carried by fine performances all around. I’ve said it before, but Cronenberg has this masterful skill to bring a realistic performance out of any actor, regardless of how outrageous the plot or situation, it always feels believable.
Mike Ironside, Pat McGoohan, Jen O’Neil and Steve Lack all fill the screen and work well here, but I can’t feel a little disappointed with lack as the lead role. Ironside is outrageously good and realistically, it’s his film through and through.
I’d like to mention the score here too, which is dramatically different in style from his previous films, although still incorporating classic style, a huge electronic intervention washes over the whole movie in sound a vision, even the end credits role with letters typed out on a computer
The film is a brave move for Cronenberg, but I believe it was to be his next feature which would be the biggest step in his career, a film similar in content to that of Scanners, but incorporating elements from his earlier films, emotional and erotic colours and the embrace of physical and mental changing conditions, alongside a corporate conspiracy story line. Scanners was the building block and for this we should be grateful.
Cronenberg has always been one of my favourite directors. I’ve been watching his films since I was 14 and they’ve always captivated me, but as time passes by, I grow wary to revisit some films as they might just disappoint. Was it a time and place which makes a film special and how will they stand up against today’s standards? Has Cronenberg got better with age? After this week, I’m so glad I’ve included a few of his early films in the project as they are perfect beyond belief and I actually think they have had more of an impact on the older version of myself, rather than the innocent teen all those years ago.
Shivers is set in a super modern, state of the art apartment block on a luxury island. As you can expect, the complex has everything from swimming pools to it’s own hospital. It’s this hospital in which scientists are working on experimental procedures. A parasite which can eat and replace a damaged organ, but one scientist has other ideas working on a parasite which will induce a sexual lust sending its host into a frenzy. When his work goes wrong, he attempts to destroy his experiment within his teen girlfriend. It’s not long before the whole apartment are crazy with lust.
This in effect is a zombie film, but once again, Cronenberg focus’ on the human emotion and desires with connotations of social needs and changing climate. Every taboo is touched upon here. From the opening scene, with an old scientist strangling a teenage girl, a brutal scene without music brings the horror and reality to the viewer. Later, a father kisses his daughter with passion, (I just know you’ll like my daughter, Erica!) old and young are crazy fiends, but it’s not a clear cut film. Some characters embrace the change, waiting and watching as their body morphs, notably Allan Kolman as Nicholas (A character later mirrored as Set Brundle by Jeff Goldblum in the Fly). Other characters, Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) show desire before the outbreak, suggesting a possible early infection, although this is not the case, she just craves the attention of her Doctor, who attempts to keep things professional.
Another shocking point to make is Cronenberg’s repeated signature of involving children as viewers to extreme violence, a trait which I’ve noticed in many of his films. I’m not sure if the children had prior knowledge to what was about to happen before the camera’s role, but he captures a pretty shocking expression every time.
The cast are perfect here too, clinical and dry, solemn and in control as Cronenberg always likes them. His direction is superb, no-one captures emotion at such a stripped down level like Cronenberg. Lynn Lowry, Barbara Steele, Paul Hampton and the brilliant Wally Martin.
Finally, the climax of the movie is such a success. The swimming pool scene is one of the most memorable I’ve ever known. Shot as what should be a bleak ending, this actually celebrates and embraces the infection which has taken over. A love affair of desire and wanting which works as much as a happy ending rather than the expected. The chemistry between Lowry and Hampton is electric and when they kiss, it wrap’s the film to perfection. I must also mention one final note regarding a speech which Lowry makes a little earlier on in the film, she tells Hampton of a dream. This speech is one of the finest moments in any film I’ve ever seen. It’s as memorable as the Long Live the New Flesh one from Videodrome, yet not nearly as recognised.
‘I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I’m having trouble you see, because he’s old and dying and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.’