Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Black Swan as Horror Film

with 9 comments

by Weiner

Jewish boys across America met with disappointment when Natalie Portman confirmed that she was engaged to French-born ballet dancer Benjamin Millepied, who helped with the choreography on her recent film, Black Swan. I myself would have preferred to see her with someone more intellectual and more Jewish, like perhaps Black Swan director and fellow Harvard alum Darren Aronofsky, instead of the dancing sheygetz she chose. Still, we should not allow this recent turn of events to cloud our judgment. Black Swan is a terrific film. It is also flush with female Jewish leads–not just Portman (nee Hershlag) but also co-stars Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder (nee Horowitz) and Barbara Hershey (nee Herzstein).

Indeed, the acting was superb all around. Kunis and Hershey may well deserve Oscar nominations for best supporting actress (Ryder’s role is too small though she’s great too), and if Portman doesn’t win best actress I’ll be shocked. Is there even anyone else in contention?

The movie isn’t perfect: Aronofsky is hardly subtle in his use of imagery, really hitting you over the head with the film’s central metaphor. Still, it works, thanks to a solid story, visually stunning cinematography, and the aforementioned acting. And did the lesbian scene with Portman and Kunis hurt? No, no it didn’t.

The movie also interested me because it represents another example, (Silence of the Lambs being the other that comes to mind), of a horror movie whose distributors do not advertise it as a horror movie for fear of it seeming too unsophisticated. This isn’t my idea: I read this a few years ago, maybe in The New Yorker or somewhere else like that. The horror brand has become so associated with low-budget, low-brow b-movie schlock (which, admittedly, I love) that filmmakers and distributors don’t want to tarnish their products by donning the horror label. I didn’t realize the movie was supposed to be scary at all until I read this Vogue article on Portman, which noted: “Black Swan is a lurid but effective parable about growing up, a stylized horror tale full of mirrors and blood that owes large debts to Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.”

I’ve never seen Red Shoes or Repulsion, but I have seen Carrie (and read the novel by Stephen King) and I know that that is a horror movie. And though Rotten Tomatoes lists Black Swan‘s “genre” as “mystery & suspense” and “drama” it is also, quite clearly a horror movie, in fact, probably more than it is a drama or a mystery. It is gory and full of frightful imagery and pop-up scares. Rotten Tomatoes, like other critics, also calls it a “psychological thriller,” but what is that if not a sub-category of horror?

My point is that many horror movies are indeed schlocky, and often quite bad. These have their place. But when horror is good, it can be great, even brilliant, and we shouldn’t hesitate to label it appropriately.


Written by David Weinfeld

January 2, 2011 at 21:36

Posted in film, Jews, pop culture

9 Responses

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  1. great, great, terrifying movie. little programming note: your review doesn’t really contain spoilers. i think it’s pretty well known that there’s a lesbian scene with mila kunis, and you don’t really give anything away by describing it as a horror film. i wish someone had warned me in advance about how gory it is. still: a solid movie, that i’m pretty sure will get some well-deserved recognition come oscar night.


    January 2, 2011 at 21:52

  2. 2 more comments, after watching that trailer: 1) it gives away a whole lot about the story, at least in retrospect; 2) i was surprised to see nat referred to as an academy award nominee, so i looked it up, and you know what she was nominated for? closer.

    ok, also, 3) i can’t wait for her to be cast as audrey hepburn in the inevitable biopic.


    January 2, 2011 at 23:03

  3. There’s an important reason that films like this don’t want to be labeled as horror: marketing. And I don’t think it’s just so it won’t seem unsophisticated. It’s an audience issue. I can’t stand traditionally schlocky horror films like Saw, but I love a good psychological thriller like Silence of the Lambs or a well-told ghost story like The Others or The Sixth Sense–largely because of the presence of a real story and storytelling, rather than just an excuse for gore. Sure, psychological thriller is arguably a sub-genre of horror (or drama) but it’s an important distinction that says a lot about the movie. It’s like the difference between romantic comedy or bawdy comedy. Sure, they’re all comedies but they have very different audiences. The people who go to see The Hangover aren’t necessarily the same ones who go to see 27 Dresses, or even something as classic as Annie Hall. And that’s why The Black Swan shies away from the horror label. Also, of any movie ever labeled psychological thriller, this truly is. Half the film takes place inside of Nina’s mind–and not inside the mind of some serial killer. And that’s an important distinction too. It’s character driven, not situation driven. It’s about the psyche and not blood and guts. Sure, it’s scary, but it’s not horror, at least not in the colloquial sense.


    January 3, 2011 at 12:49

  4. Thanks for the comments Julie and Karla.

    Julie, I removed the spoiler alert from the post. And yes, Portman would make a great Hepburn.

    Karla, I think you’re absolutely right about marketing.

    I also think you make a good point about psychological thrillers. I think I would argue for a broad definition of horror: anything that deliberately tries to scare belongs in the category. But that particular sub-genre is an interesting one. Movies like Se7en are hard to categorize: that is a crime story, but also a particularly gory one, and a psychological thriller too. So I’d be ok calling it horror, though it’s probably closer to mystery/suspense. A movie like the Usual Suspects is quite clearly mystery/suspense, and when contrasted with Se7en, you can see why the latter might be considered horror. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is also a psychological thriller and something of a mystery/suspense, but I think most critics would call that horror too. Same with The Birds. But what about Rear Window? That’s a tougher one to call.

    The boundaries of these genres are of course subjective and fluid. I just think it would be silly for someone to say that they hate all horror movies but loved Silence of the Lambs and Black Swan. Your distinction, that you hate schlock horror but enjoy more sophisticated psychological thrillers or ghost stories is a good one I think.


    January 3, 2011 at 14:00

  5. Annette Bening from The Kids Are All Right is the other top contender, though I gather Natalie is as heavy a favorite as I can recall.

    I agree Karla’s comment captures what the studios are thinking, though I wonder if the studios are wrong not to label “sophisticated” horror movies like Black Swan as horror. I suspect the primary target audience will take the time to sort through reviews and friends’ recommendations and find the sophisticated movies, regardless of the marketing label. But by labeling such a movie “horror” you may have a better chance of attracting a Saw audience that is more responsive to traditional marketing.


    January 3, 2011 at 16:41

  6. “someone more intellectual and more Jewish”… I guess “tall, dark and handsome” is just too cliche?

    PS: Tall being relative here – he’s 5.9ish while she’s 5.3ish.



    January 7, 2011 at 17:21

  7. From what I recall, NP is closer to 5’1” or so. But “tall, dark and handsome” get enough breaks in this world. I tend to root for “gangly, pale, and awkward” myself.


    January 9, 2011 at 13:42

  8. […] son of the famous artist Roy Lichtenstein. As some readers of this blog may know, I’m a big horror movie fan. But Teeth interested me for political reasons as well. Call it a horror film or a dark comedy, […]

  9. Black Swan is without a doubt a horror movie. As studios are becoming more worried about box office sales, they will market their movies with the thriller label. “Thriller” label applies to horror films as well as other films such as James Bond, Borne Identity, and Fast Five. And as you can see, they do not have to be sophisticated, they just have to be exciting to qualify.


    November 23, 2011 at 00:40

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