In the Flesh: An Appreciation of David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg: The Came from WithinIt was in the old Cheltenham Theater in the mid-1970s, with the pungent smells of fried chicken and Lysol wafting through the aisles, that I first got acquainted with David Cronenberg.

I was definitely in the “horror movie phase” of my moviegoing life, seeing everything and anything that smacked of scary.  The movie was They Came from Within, a creepy and disgusting little Canadian shocker about tenants at a Montreal apartment who are stricken with an illness that is one part aphrodisiac, one part venereal disease.

My memories of the film are somewhat vague, but I do remember scream queen Barbara Steele taking a bath and icky cockroach-like insects creeping out of the bathtub faucet and entering her through her privates.

After being shaken by the experience—the members of the unruly, mostly stoned audience certainly contributed to the fear factor—I needed two questions answered. First, what demented person thought up such a perverse picture? Second, should I cancel my upcoming trip to Canada?

A few years later, I met up with Cronenberg again, this time taking one of my many sojourns to a Center City Philly grindhouse at midday (i.e. cutting college classes). The film was Rabid, and it starred porn star Marilyn Chambers. As if that wasn’t enough to make me to skip psychology and geography classes, there was the storyline: a woman (Chambers), critically injured in a motorcycle accident, undergoes an experimental skin graft in which a phallic-looking thingamajig is implanted under her armpit. In order to survive, she must hug people and allow the thingamajig to suck the blood out of them. The process turns the victims into rabid zombies, hence the title.

Beyond the generally queasy atmosphere of the deadly serious film, there was a certain mindset that Rabid shared with They Came from Within. There was certainly a theme that I had seen many times before: Science runs amok. But in a Cronenberg film, it seemed like science was meddling with flesh, the mind and human sexuality in a near-repulsive way. In both films, chaos eventually reigns supreme and there is no hope, neither for the film’s main characters nor humanity.  This sensibility made They Came from Within and Rabid, beyond their schlockiness and gore, haunting and disturbing.

The general sense of Cronenbergian uneasiness continued with The Brood, another movie taken in at a Philly flophouse—this time the Goldman Theater, which a friend once described as having “an eerie, subway ambiance.” In other words, a perfect spot to catch a movie with Oliver Reed as a psychiatrist whose experimental form of therapy enables women to channel their anger by giving birth to murderous, asexual creatures who are colorblind , toothless and missing their belly buttons. Hey, that’s entertainment.

The experience of watching The Brood is something that has stuck with me for over 30 years. I doubt there were more than ten people in the theater, a dark and dank hole, on this rainy, dreary day. The sight of Samantha Eggar licking blood off of her freshly born, distorted bambino while it was still attached to her umbilical cord was just something made me say “Should’ve gone to Political Science class today.”

I started to read about this seemingly kooky Canuck Cronenberg in magazines such as the dearly departed Cinefatastique and Take One. Turns out he was quite the hot shot in the Great White North, a college grad with several award-winning shorts under his belt, not at all worthy of the “schlockmeister” tag pinned on him by others and, at least at first, me.  I also learned that he had experienced a rough divorce from his wife, and his daughter was caught in the middle of the battle. This proved to be a big influence on him while he was making The Brood, a cinematic version of an emotional exorcism.

David Cronenberg: ScannersInterest in flesh and blood and science and psychology continued through several of Cronenberg’s films that followed The Brood.  There is Scanners, where guys with special mental powers run around and —to paraphrase another Canadian on Second City TV—“make things blow up real good”—including brains.  In Videodrome, James Woods is a TV executive absorbed by a pirate channel that offers snuff films. That’s the one where Blondie’s Deborah Harry plays a sadomasochistic psychologist and Beta tapes are inserted into slits in peoples’ stomachs.

Of course, there’s also his remake of the 1950s favorite The Fly, reworked as an analogy for losing a loved one to horrific disease–and, perhaps specifically, AIDS. Jeff Goldblum, a scientist experimenting with the teleportation of matter, accidentally splices his genes with those of a fly. He finds himself taking on insect-like qualities before literally falling apart; he, as well as journalist love of his life Geena Davis, suffers horribly throughout the ordeal.

Lest we forget Dead Ringers, a based-on-fact tale of twin gynecologists (the amazing Jeremy Irons in both roles) who react in different and often unsettling ways to the women in their lives, especially an actress (Genevieve Bujold) with a rare gynecological condition. The credit sequence, featuring sketches of rare gynecological instruments, is enough to make viewers of both sexes cringe.

And of course there is Naked Lunch, a loose adaptation of William S. Burrough’s unfilmable surrealistic story, which brings the bugs back to the (nervous) system in full force. The film showcases Peter Weller as a Burroughs-like drug-addicted exterminator named William Lee, who believes his addict wife (Judy Davis) has slept with his friend and tries to do something radical about it. A beetle—no kidding—tells him about the illicit affair. There is no “naked lunch,” per se, but there are all manner of insecticized permutations of sex organs for the family to enjoy. Not.

Two other films with high Cronenberg shock quotients are Crash and Existenz. Based on a story by J.G. Ballard, Crash is essentially the saga of a group of Canadian folks who get their jollies being injured in car wrecks. Rated NC-17 and featuring such name actors as James Spader, Rosanna Arquette and Holly Hunter in kinky scenes you’d never think you see them involved in, the film ruffled the feathers of Ted Turner, then owner of New Line Pictures, who denounced and distanced himself from the movie. It remains one of the boldest and most controversial films ever put in movie theaters.

Existenz, meanwhile, proved that if the director was going to tone down his act after Crash, it wouldn’t be by much. In this downbeat futuristic fantasia, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a superstar game designer whose latest virtual reality creation relies on “fleshpods” that are linked to a person’s spinal cord in order to offer maximum realism.  A parade of disturbing images—“oozing, throbbing, ghoulish hallmarks of Cronenberg fever dreams,” is how the New York Times’ Janet Maslin put it—abound, while Leigh and security guard Jude Law dodge spies and assassins out to stop her and the too-intense-to-be-true invention.

In between what had become considered David Cronenberg’s typical films were other works, which may be seen now as an attempt break out of the “shock and awe” mold. Along with the 1979 drive-in drag racing opus Fast Company, there’s 1983’s The Dead Zone, one of the director’s most straightforward works, based on Stephen King’s novel about a man (Christopher Walken) who awakens from a coma and discovers he has psychic abilities that enable him to foresee the future, including the real plans of a presidential candidate (Martin Sheen) with a secret agenda.

Then there’s the director’s (unfairly) reviled 1993 version of the Tony Award -winning play M. Butterfly, with Jeremy Irons as the French diplomat who carries on a long-term relationship with a Chinese opera star/spy (John Lone), unaware (or is he?) that the lady may be something of a tramp as well as a man.

Spider, Cronenberg’s 2002 film, played in theaters on a limited basis despite some strong reviews. Considering the subject, its financial fate came as no surprise. Ralph Fiennes plays a schizophrenic released from a London mental hospital to a halfway house, where he considers his tragic childhood while trying to grapple with the present. The dark, time-skipping drama is relentlessly bleak and certainly less commercial than A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning look at schizophrenia from the year before.

Since Cronenberg’s financing has come primarily from other countries (often his Canadian homeland), he’s never had to kowtow to movie studios’ demands. There have been times where he’s flirted with directing big budget projects like Total Recall or Basic Instinct II, but they haven’t worked out. While the idea of Cronenberg tackling such projects seems intriguing, it is probably for the best that he’s steered clear. This absence of having to answer to others has obviously allowed David Cronenberg to simply be David Cronenberg.

If anything, Spider marked a distinct turn for Cronenberg, as he moved into more realistic cinematic turf, with an eye for exploring violence and its effect on individuals and families, surrogate and blood, with an obvious accent on the latter. A History of Violence, his 2005 film adapted by Josh Olson from a graphic novel, showcases Viggo Mortensen as a mild-mannered Midwestern luncheonette owner whose seemingly idyllic life with wife Maria Bello and two kids is disrupted when his eatery is taken over by thugs, and his violent side becomes apparent when he deals with them. These violent actions put up a red flag that gets back to some mobsters (including a disfigured Ed Harris and an Oscar-nominated William Hurt) looking for Mortensen, who they know under a different name and identity, that of a hood from Philadelphia.

While the film’s violence is isolated to its effect on Mortensen and his family—his teenage son shows uncharacteristically strong-armed methods to defend himself against bullies at school—Cronenberg draws an analogy to the role it plays throughout families and throughout American society. Mortensen’s clan is based in a quaint little town in the USA heartland, where, even there, there is no escaping his lineage or the specter of brutality from the past.  As the film shows, it even seeps into a sexual liaison between husband and wife.

Extreme force is also at the center of the filmmaker’s next project, 2007’s Eastern Promises. Mortensen was again recruited to star, and he earned a Best Actor Nomination from the AMPAS as a sunglasses-wearing Russian driver/fixer/mortician who gets embroiled in a search to find those tied to a teenage prostitute who dies during childbirth. Mortensen joins forces with obsessive midwife Naomi Watts and discovers that his elderly boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Russian mobster living in London, and his vicious son (Vincent Cassel) are somehow involved in the mystery.

Eastern Promises resembles an old-fashioned haunted house where every door that opens reveals a new frightening surprise, all taking place in modern-day London. Like most of Cronenberg’s previous films, the atmosphere is quiet, serene almost, which makes the violent outbursts even more powerful and disturbing. And in addition to a straight razor slashing, a slit throat and a bloody delivery scene, we witness a fully nude, heavily tattooed Mortensen taking on two clothed thugs in a bathhouse fight sequence that is a classic brouhaha for its choreography and plasma-spurting.  Oh, yeah: This is a movie set at Christmas time.

Cronenberg’s latest, A Dangerous Method, now in theaters, seems like a marked change in yet another direction for the helmer. While it boasts some of his regular collaborators like producer Jeremy Thomas, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, composer Howard Shore and actor Mortensen, it treads into new genre territory by tackling real-life people in an historical drama.

Adapted from a noted book and his own play by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), the film tells the true story of the often uneasy relationship of Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Mortensen), the Austrian father of psychiatry, and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the brilliant but troubled Russian psychiatric patient who comes between them.

Even though there are no pulsating phallic symbols or blood-soaked altercations in A Dangerous Method, it’s easy to see what attracted Cronenberg to the material.  After all, he’s been delving into warped psyches and playing mind games with audiences for decades.