Monday, October 5, 2009

Long Live the New Flesh!

Talk about a mad genius. Canadian director David Cronenberg has switched gears lately, but his earliest (and often most interesting) films are his horror movies.

Cronenberg has always been obsessed with human transformation, whether it be physical or psychological (and in many cases, both) though his earlier films seem to concentrate more on the former.

Take his first feature, 1977's Rabid, starring former porn star Marilyn Chambers (Behind the Green Door).
Ms. Chambers plays Rose, a young woman who, after a motorcycle accident, undergoes an experimental plastic surgery procedure which turns her into a blood sucking monster. But Rose is no ordinary vampire, by any means. No, Rose has grown a new organ - in her armpit! - a strangely phallic syringe-like thing which she uses to pierce flesh and drink blood, turning her victims into insane, blood-lusting monsters. Soon, all of Toronto is under Marshall Law as hordes of rabid maniacs attack everyone in sight:

In 1979's The Brood, Samantha Eggar is Nola, a deeply disturbed woman whose psychoses manifest themselves as murderous little children that literally grow like tumors on her body. The little monsters then go out and kill those whom Nola thinks have wronged her:

Cronenberg followed that tasty little treat with one of his most infamous films, 1981's Scanners. Thanks to a drug given to mothers with difficult pregnancies, 237 children are born with exceptional psychic abilities. The Scanners can read minds and even kill with with telepathy.
When the evil Revok (Michael Ironside) is discovered, it's up to "good" Scanner Kim (former model Jennifer O'Neill) to stop him. Scanners is probably best known for this lovely little scene:

Then in 1983, Cronenberg made Videodrome, a very disturbing piece starring a young (and still relatively attractive) James Woods as Max Renn, a cable television producer looking for "the next big thing." When a pirate satellite TV programmer shows him clips from an underground S&M channel known as Videodrome, Renn is ecstatic. But while exploring the channel and its excesses with sex therapist Nikki Brand (Blondie's Deborah Harry in her film debut), Renn soon discovers that Videodrom is much more than just torture porn. It's Video made Flesh (??!!) and he is soon putting VHS tapes into the slot that has developed in his abdomen and growing weapons on his hands:

Cronenberg's next film was his first adaptation of someone else's work - Stephen King's The Dead Zone. Christopher Walken stars as Johnny Smith, a man who awakens from a coma to discover he has developed psychic abilities. Johnny only needs to touch someone to know their future, and when he shakes hands with a Presidential candidate (Martin Sheen), he sees that candidate pushing the "Red Button," and must do everything in his power to stop him from winning, even if it means assassination:

As a huge King fan (I've read everything he's ever published), I honestly think Cronenberg made the only film that's actually better than the source material.

Of course, the film that put Cronenberg on the map, as it were, is his 1986 update of the 50's classic The Fly. A combination of perfect casting (Geena Davis always makes me cry when she says "I don't know what you're trying to say..." ) and then state-of-the-art special effects, The Fly is disturbing, disgusting and heart-wrenching all at the same time. Jeff Goldblum is Seth Brundle, a scientist who suffers from motion sickness and who invents a teleportation device in an effort to avoid traveling via conventional means. When a common housefly accidentally finds its way into the machine with Seth, a genetic catastrophe ensues. Davis is Veronica Quaife, a reporter from a scince mag who falls for the oddly charming Brundle, much to her later despair. The Fly is one of the few horror movies that makes me cry every time I watch it. It also inspired a rather succesful opera and is rumored to be remade again, by Cronenberg himself. As much love as I've given this movie before, it deserves all it can get. Both Davis and Goldblum are amazing and Howard Shore's sweeping score is the perfect accompaniment to this story of physical, emotional and psychological deterioration:

Two years later, Cronenberg adapted Bari Woods' novel "Twins" into Dead Ringers, a twisted tale of twin gynecologists (Jeremy Irons), one of whom creates gynecological tools meant for no human woman:

Then there was his 1991 adaptation of the supposedly unfilmable William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. More an examination of insanity than anything else, Cronenberg's film was derided by many, reviled by some and embraced as 'genius' by a few. It is a very disturbing look at the effects of drug addiction and hedonism, told as only Cronenberg could tell it. Starring Peter Weller (Robocop) and Judy Davis, Naked Lunch remains one of the most disturbing films ever made:

Cronenberg followed Naked Lunch with an adaptation of Henry David Hwang's stage hit, M. Butterfly and the atrocious Crash (not to be confused with the other atrocious movie of the same name which undeservedly won the Oscar for Best Picture), a disgusting little treatise about people who are sexually aroused by car-crashes.

His last picture about flesh, eXistenZ explores virtual reality's effects on human tissue. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law and the always amazing Sarah Polley, eXistenZ is about a video game played in a virtual world by people who are literally 'jacked in' the game's own reality. A companion piece to Videodrome, eXistenZ is about how virtual worlds might impact upon reality, should technology (another common theme in the Cronenberg Universe) advance to the bio-techno stage. Heady stuff, indeed.

Of course most recently, Cronenberg has taken to to exploring the Human Condition without the benefits (or detriments) of modern technology. Spider: A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are all films that delve into the darker sides of humanity, without being out and out Horror movies. But there is something about those earlier films that touch upon the dark side we don't really like to think about. If you are not familiar with his work (or with only one or two of his films) I urge to watch his earlier stuff. You'll certainly get an education on how twisted we can be.

More terrors, anon.


Stephen said...

I love his work & have seen them all...thanks for the gentle reminder to look at his films again. Being such a fan of horror, you must enjoy the month of October. To me, it is the scariest month of the year. Someday, I need to do a post about my real life experience encountering a ghost.

Prospero said...

October is my favorite month (with June a close second, because of the JTMF benefit) and Halloween is definitely my favorite holiday. I'm a bit of a skeptic when it comes to paranormal phenomena, but I try to keep an open mind. I have an aunt who insists she's encountered ghosts and odd-goings on, though I have never experienced anything liek that, myself.