|Original art by Stephanie Murr 2016|
Over the years, I worked my way through Cronenberg's filmography and through his various eras and was nearly always impressed and entertained. For the purpose of this series, I'm looking specifically at his body horror work starting with SHIVERS, skipping FAST COMPANY, and ending with THE FLY. DEAD RINGERS could probably be added, but it lacks that specific sci-fi/horrorific/fantastic element of the films that preceded it. Then there's NAKED LUNCH, which I could also probably add, but really NAKED LUNCH stands out as a singular work and I already covered my relationship with both the film and William Burroughs book.
Starting with 1975's SHIVERS, Cronenberg's debut is a towering achievement for a first time director and would set the stage for themes Cronenberg would continue to explore beyond his horror work. Set in a suburban high rise, where the inhabitants are being turned into sex crazed zombies by a parasite that spreads through sexual contact, SHIVERS turns George Romero's Living Dead weirdly and grossly erotic. Also, there's a strange kinship to JG Ballard's novel HIGH RISE, which was published the same year. SHIVERS isn't a flawless achievement, however, it's cheap and there are certainly scenes that drag a bit, but it has, without a doubt, a pretty amazing ending. Right up there with INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
In 1977's RABID, Cronenberg takes the zombie threat outside the high rise. This time, the infection is being spread by a young woman with a thirst for blood after undergoing an experimental surgery. Her victims grow quickly plunging the city into madness. Starring Marilynn Chambers in her first non-porn role, RABID is a medical horror mashup of vampirism and zombies. With some similar themes carried over from SHIVERS, it ups the ante with production levels and better cinematography as well as better performances and a more thought out plot device. Chambers, known for her hardcore career, starring in films like BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR, showed some real acting skills, but I believe this was her only non-porn role. Between SHIVERS and RABID Cronenberg was treating us to a brand of horror we weren't used to-the monster wasn't out there, it wasn't 'the other', it was us, it was in us. These two films certainly helped inspire Dan O'Bannon while writing ALIEN.
I saw 1979's THE BROOD on USA, not knowing it was a Cronenberg, and it scared the shit out of me. I was probably 11 or 12 and those deformed kids in the snow suits were just frightening. THE BROOD is about divorce and the physical manifestation of rage. A creepy slow burn, more personal and nuanced than the previous films. (Less Lee More has a great review HERE.) Starring Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar, THE BROOD, on it's surface is about a father trying to protect his daughter from her mother who has been subjected to radical, experimental psychotherapy, but as with most Cronenberg films, the surface plot is window dressing for the subtext, which is always more creepy and enthralling.
Since the first time I watched 1981's SCANNERS I've wanted to see Cronenberg take on THE X-MEN, which he sort of does with this film anyway. Scanners are people with telepathic/telekinetic abilities, caused by a lab experiment. Michael Ironside stars as Darryl Revok, the film's Magneto, who leads an underground group of Scanners. THE PRISONER's Patrick MacGoohan is the film's Professor X, sort of, he created the Scanner's and enlists another Scanner, Cameron Vale, played by Stephen Lack, to stop Revok. It's a hell of a good story and spawned a franchise, which Cronenberg had nothing to do with. There were two direct sequels and two spin off films, SCANNER COP I and II. Like with many franchises, SCANNERS suffers from the law of diminishing returns, but that doesn't hurt the original, which stands head and shoulders above many other genre flicks for being such a unique experience, not to mention with probably the greatest exploding head scene in the history of cinema. I took on SCANNERS in My Heroes Have Always Been Monsters Part 35.
1983's VIDEODROME is a subversive, hallucinogenic, and philosophical masterpiece. It was Cronenberg's most ambitious film to date with some amazing special FX from Rick Baker and touches of the avant garde. The story follows Max Renn (James Woods), a sleazeball TV producer looking for sleazier programming to satisfy his viewers' tastes. He discovers a strange program called Videodrome, which opens his world to a bizarre conspiracy. Also starring Debbie Harry, Videodrome is possibly Cronenberg's most rewatchable and quotable movie. The film has nightmarish layers that peel back as the film winds deeper and deeper into it's creepy and bizarre brand of body horror-this time though, inanimate objects come to life, merging with the human form. The practical effects look so amazing. The idea that these guys were doing these things, like making a TV come to life, in camera is still amazing. The behind the scenes documentary that comes with the Criterion edition is really fascinating.
Also, from 1983, Cronenberg stepped away from body horror to adapt Stephen King's THE DEAD ZONE, starring Christopher Walken. Walken plays Johnny Smith who after spending five years in a coma awakens to discover he can see into the future. He uses his power to help the cops, but when he meets a slimy politician, played by Martin Sheen, and sees a horrifying vision of the future, he's forced to make some very difficult decisions. THE DEAD ZONE doesn't look or feel like a Cronenberg film, at least none produced up to that point. The horror is subdued, there is little bloodshed, and certainly none of his signature from-within horror. Even the small town Maine setting is a bizarre choice, yet THE DEAD ZONE is still a solid film, showing how versatile Cronenberg will become in his post-body horror era.
And that brings us to 1986's THE FLY. It's hard to express just how much I love this movie. This is the exact kind of science fiction I really dig. Spaceships and future-scapes are fine, but I like sci-fi when it's our world, with just a tweak-just a little off. Robocop and Alien Nation are good examples. With THE FLY, it's Seth Brundle's teleportation pods. The film stars Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum plays an eccentric scientist working on a revolutionary invention, the aforementioned pods. When he tests it on himself, something goes awry; a common house fly gets in the machine with him. Once the machine teleports him, his DNA gets mixed with the fly's and he begins to mutate, becoming more and more monsterous. Like VIDEODROME, THE FLY is inventive in the SFX department, from a rotating room to give the impression of Brundle actually walking up the wall and across the ceiling, to the sickening slow transformation Goldblum goes through. The film is elevated by the wonderful acting talents of Davis and Goldblum, not to mention their great on-screen chemistry (they also worked together on EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY and TRANSYLVANIA 65000). THE FLY is a remake of the 1958 film of the same name, starring Vincent Price. That film spawned two sequels. Cronenberg's only one, although I once read that Davis had planned to produce a second sequel entitled FLIES.
Cronenberg didn't completely abandon horror after THE FLY, there certainly touches of it through films like DEAD RINGERS, NAKED LUNCH, SPIDER, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and MAPS TO THE STARS, but he moved on and has tried other things. Usually it works. For me though, I have no desire to rewatch his last three films, because they don't speak to me with the same intensity and vigor that VIDEDROME does. I think it would be great in Cronenberg would return to his roots one more time, but we should feel very lucky to have what we have, because no one else would have made these films.
***Also worth a mention is eXistenZ, while it features some signature body horror and some glorious set pieces, it really is more science fiction than horror, arriving in 1999, 13 years after THE FLY. It comes in between CRASH (adapted from another Ballard novel) and SPIDER (a psychologocal thriller) and feels like an odd choice in vehicles for Cronenberg since it seemed like he had moved away from this sort of storytelling. In a way, it's VIDEDROME'S bad ass little sister, with it's fast and loose handling of reality and bio-tech fetishism.