‘Black Narcissus’ is best left in the past

Sunday, November 29, 2020 - 6:13pm

NOSELL

FX

If you took Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall out of the snowed-in haunting of “The Shining” and replaced them with Anglican nuns, you’d get “Black Narcissus.” The latest FX miniseries attempts to capture the terror of claustrophobic horror but cannot move past the burdens of its history.

Based on the novel by the same name, “Black Narcissus” follows a small order of nuns trying to establish a new convent at an abandoned mountain palace hidden away in the mountains of Nepal in the 1930s. Unbeknownst to them, this “House of Women” has a dark past as the home of a general’s harem and the site of his sister’s tragic suicide. The secluded fortress begins to overwhelm its religious residents as they encounter the spirits that still haunt the grounds. 

Led by Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton, “The Voices”), the nuns seek help from the nearby village and a mysterious Englishman named Mr. Dean (Alessandro Nivola, “Chimerica”) to keep the convent open despite strange supernatural events. The longer the women occupy the palace, the greater their internal temptations become as they lose their grip on reality. Tensions rise as a rivalry forms between Clodagh and the young, ambitious Sister Ruth. Soon, the convent is overwhelmed by the palace’s dark history and becomes a hub of paranoia and violence. 

Despite being based on a classic novel, the story of “Black Narcissus” is perhaps best known for its 1947 film adaptation starring Deborah Kerr (“The King and I”) as the head nun Sister Clodagh. The psychological drama became an instant cult classic for audiences unfamiliar with Nepalese culture and shocked by a lurid story of Anglican nuns embracing sin. However, audiences have changed, and “Black Narcissus” might just not hold up in 2020 like it did in the early twentieth century. 

Since the film’s premiere, the horror genre has evolved. “The Shining” has become the industry standard for psychological thrillers and creepy nuns have become well-trodden territory thanks to “American Horror Story: Asylum.” In the 80 years since the book’s publication, “Black Narcissus” has lost some of the appeal that previously attracted critical attention. What once was a frightening tale about exotic foreign ghosts takes on new meaning with the perspective of an average modern viewer.

“Black Narcissus” is not necessarily offensive or intentionally insulting, but the lack of nuanced portrayal of Nepalese and Indian culture as sinful or inherently backwards is not acceptable. Though only the evil of the palace brings out the existing desires of the isolated nuns, the implication that the past residents are somehow responsible for this devolution, rather than just the secluded location itself, signals a reductive view of South Asian tradition.

In an extreme representation of culture shock, “Black Narcissus” does not hold up against better members of its genre. Psychological thrillers shouldn’t have to rely on fetishizing foreign cultures to scare us; after decades of innovation in storytelling, it’s time to expect more than what this FX miniseries has to offer. Paired with laughable special effects and underwhelming acting performances, the three-part show can’t build on the best aspects of the original without continuing to embrace its problematic ones. 

“Black Narcissus” may be one of the many stories that simply does not need to be revisited. Without the context of its history, the miniseries can’t hold up to the standards of the ever-evolving horror genre. As new stories captivate audiences, it becomes clear that older, classic narratives like “Black Narcissus” need to do more than just retell themselves; they must acknowledge their past while justifying their place in the present.

Daily Arts Writer Anya Soller can be reached at anyasol@umich.edu.


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