Thursday, October 7, 2010

Shocktober Director of the Day: David Cronenberg

Canadian director David Cronenberg has always been fascinated by horrors of the flesh and has never been shy about expressing that fascination. He made several shorts, features and Canadian television movies before his first widely distributed film, They Came from Within in 1975.

The story of mad scientist (is there any other kind) experimenting on his neighbors in a high-rise apartment complex, They Came from Within concerns a genetically engineered parasite that drives its host to a sexual (and murderous) frenzy. Using British scream queen Barbara Steele and a host of unknowns, Cronenberg's cheapie was derided as vile exploitation (which it certainly was) when it was originally released. But it had a certain style about it and the young director's potential was certainly on display:

In 1977, he made the similarly themed Rage (known in the U.S. as Rabid) starring former porn star Marilyn Chambers as a young woman whose experimental plastic surgery results in a phallic organ in her throat which drains the blood of her victims, turning them into blood-thirsty zombies, resulting in a Montreal epidemic:

For his next film, 1979's The Brood, Cronenberg managed to get two rather well-known British actors, Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar. Reed was known for several high-profile roles in films like Oliver!; Tommy; and Women in Love (where he shares a sweaty, naked wrestling match with Alan Bates*) and Eggar was he genteel Emma Fairfax in Dr. Doolittle. So it was a bit of a coup for Cronenberg when they agreed to appear as a deranged psychiatrist and his patient who somehow manages to manifest her feelings of hatred into physical creatures who kill those she feels have wronged her. 

The final image of Eggar licking the blood off her latest "child" may well be one of the disturbing in modern horror.

But it wouldn't be until 1981's Scanners that Cronenberg's films really began to garner notice among genre fans. Starring former super model Jennifer O'Neill, Patrick McGoohan ("The Prisoner") and genre powerhouse Michael Ironside, Scanners is a story about psychic espionage and is the first movie I can think of where this happens:


Next came 1983's Videodrome, the first Cronenberg film Uncle P saw in a theatre. James Woods and Blondie vocalist Debbie Harry star in this tale of a television producer looking for the next big thing. When he stumbles upon a pirate S&M TV show called 'Vidoedrome,' he thinks he's found it. Of course, in typical Cronenberg fashion, nothing is really what it seems and Videodrome is little more than a front for a bizarre cult. Playing on a common Sci-Fi theme (the marriage of flesh and electronics), Videodrome is the first of several times Cronenberg explores this topic. And of course, disturbing images abound:

Next came Cronenberg's 1983 adaptation of Stephen King's The Dead Zone, one of the few movies that is actually better than than King's source material, but which still left me feeling uninvolved despite some excellent performances from Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Brooke Adams and Colleen Dewhurst.

Three years later, Cronenberg made the movie that would cement his status as a Horror/Sci-Fi master forever. His remake of the 50's B-movie The Fly was a sensation and not just for it's envelope-pushing special effects. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis (in tragically ignored Oscar-worthy performances) play scientist Seth Brundle and science reporter Veronica Quiafe. When Seth reveals the teleportation device he's been working on to Veronica, the two of them become embroiled in a tragic romance worthy of Shakespeare. Of course, we all know that a fly is trapped along with Seth when he makes his first solo test, resulting in a mutation that would inspire nightmares (not to mention an opera) for millions of horror fans. The scene where Veronica visits Seth for the last time before he is completely dehumanized, can still make me choke up. Addressing cancer, AIDS and a slew of human foibles, The Fly touched audiences in a way Cronenberg never had before.

Cronenberg followed  The Fly with Dead Ringers, his 1988 adaptation of Bari Wood's novel "Twins," about two brilliant, but drug-addicted twin gynecologists (Jeremy Irons) who develop the worst kind of God complex:

1991 saw what may well be one of Cronenberg's most disturbing films of all time, an adaptation of William S. Burrough's supposedly unfilmable novel Naked Lunch, about an exterminator who becomes addicted to his own poisons and his journey into madness.

In 1993, Cronenberg side-stepped away from horror and adapted David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly, about a French diplomat who is tricked into an affair with a male Chinese opera star who is actually a spy. While not exactly a Horror movie, M. Butterfly still explores the connections between sin, flesh, deception and desire. Then came the repulsive Crash, about a group of fetishists who find sexual arousal in car accidents. Crash was the first movie I saw in a stadium theater, with most of my fellow cast mates of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and we were all both appalled and confused by what we were seeing.  major misstep for the usually brilliant director.

1999 saw return to Cronenberg's obsession with the marriage of electronics and flesh with the virtual reality-themed eXinstenz, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe in a story about a video game programmer on the run from those who would use her technology for nefarious means:

2002's Spider stars Ralph Fiennes as a mental patient who escapes into his childhood to avoid the horrors of reality. It is probably Cronenberg's least successful and least well-known film to date. Since then, Cronenberg has moved on to more mainstream films, such as 2005's A History of Violence and 2007's Eastern Promises, both of which explore the psychology of crime. His upcoming film, A Dangerous Method is about the relationship between the fathers of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Personally, I look forward to the day when Cronenberg returns to exploring both psychological and physical horror.

More, anon.

*Link probably NSFW


Marc said...

I don't really understand why so many people are shocked by Crash. Does it have to do with typical US prudishness? Crash is a brilliant movie, with a very well written script. And despite major changes the movie stays very true to the original book, which isn't easy to read.

I really like the movie, not only because of the good actingand directing and superb camera work, but also for its cool stylish look, that matches the tone of the book so well. IMO it's a milestone of movie history, one of DC's best works and the Cannes jury did the right thing by creating a special award for this unusual film.

Prospero said...

It isn't prudishness, at all. The movie is about really unlikable people with a very distasteful fetish. I'd say the same thing if the movie was about unlikable people with any distateful fetish. Finding erotic value in violence is a shocking and uncomfortable thing, no matter how well-made the movie may be.