6WH: Week 6 - David Cronenberg

A fortuitous confluence of events lead to a mini-Cronenberg marathon this weekend. It started with the Criterion Collection having a sale and then a long out-of-print film popped up on streaming. What's a Cronenberg fan to do? Snag a third film and make it a weekend. There's nothing quite like Cronenberg's early work. Famous for Body Horror, but a very specific brand of body horror. Few imitators come close to what Cronenberg was doing in the late 70s and early 80s, and quite frankly, Cronenberg himself hasn't done much in this realm himself lately. Like fellow horror auteur Wes Craven, Cronenberg almost always manages to tap into something deeper, almost primal in his work, such that even missteps and failures wind up pretty interesting. Oddly, for someone who often portrays graphic gore on screen, it's what's not shown that really gets under your skin. As Matt Singer noted during a recent episode of the Filmspotting: SVU podcast, Cronenberg has a large number of tropes that he sorta mixes and matches in his movies. Things like "deep distrust of doctors", "completely invented wings of medical science", "mega-grossout climaxes", and the phrase "collapsed fleshy sack". My kinda director. This wound up being a highly entertaining week, perhaps my favorite of the year, but then, I'd already seen two of these movies and the third was one I'd wanted to see for quite a while (and it lived up to expectations). Let's get this party started...
  • Rabid (trailer)
  • Horror Movie Daycare (short)
  • The Exorcist (amazing unreleased trailer)
  • Shivers (aka They Came from Within) - While not Cronenberg's first film, it is his breakout film. It has long been out-of-print, but a recent restoration by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has appeared on both Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming. The film opens with a sorta slideshow presentation of the ultra-modern (modern for the 1970s, that is) apartment complex, complete with all the amenities. Soon, we take a quick tour around the grounds, and meet the charming residents, like the old guy who strangles a much younger woman, cuts her open, and pours some sort of acid inside her. Oh, and then he cuts his throat with a scalpel. Finally, we meet our protagonist, a doctor who has set up his practice right there in the building. He starts to find people with strange growths in their gut, and once he finds out about the murder/suicide, he starts to find an explanation for all the mysterious happenings. It's an effective setup, and there's plenty in the way of creepy doctors, "completely invented wings of medical science", little crawly parasites (akin to those from Night of the Creeps or the more recent Slither), not to mention parasites of the more bulgy kind. The parasites spread through sexual contact, and they seem to increase libido in order to speed things along. This eventually turns the movie into a sorta zombie-like picture, though to my mind, much more effective than your typical zombie. There are plenty of Cronenbergian body horror gross out sequences, like one parasite who enters during a bath, or the guy who speaks almost soothingly to the bulging parasite in his gut. The ending is kinda one-note and lacks a bit of pizazz, but it works well enough. Definitely worth a watch for Cronenberg fans as it contains a lot of his themes (even if they're not fully developed just yet), and probably worth it for regular fans of creepy movies. Also makes a good companion to the Clive Barker story "The Age Of Desire", part of the collection I read recently. ***
  • The Brood (trailer)
  • Nightbreed (trailer)
  • Videodrome (trailer)
  • Scanners - This might be my favorite Cronenberg movie. Though perhaps not the best or most influential (see below), it's probably the most fun. There really aren't a lot of movies that really chronicle mind readers or people with mental powers. What's more, when they do, it seems so easy (think Professor X putting a couple fingers to his temple and closing his eyes). Not so here. Scanning seems like an incredibly painful activity for all involved, and when you've got an actor like Michael Ironside hamming it up and chewing scenery, you really see it on his face. The scanning scenes are genuinely effective, and with a couple of notable exceptions, most of it is portrayed by the actors and some excellent sound design (a sorta high pitch pulsing that slowly intensifies as the scan proceeds).
    Scanning
    For the most part, this is a pretty straightforward thriller, but as per usual, Cronenberg taps into something deeper here, and while his general tendencies towards body horror are toned down a bit, we do get some rather exceptional set pieces. The most famous one at the beginning culminates in a head exploding (truly a splendid example, rivaled only by Savini exemplars like Dawn of the Dead or Maniac), and the one towards the end, well, we won't go into too much detail here. Let's just say that throbbing veins play a role. Lead actor Stephen Lack comes across as a little on the bland side, especially since he's playing opposite of Ironside, who is just fully committed to the more ridiculous aspects of this world. As a story, Lack's character also seems kinda like a blank slate. There's something interesting going on here, and in a more action packed movie, there might be more of a training montage or something. As it is, Lack's character is just sorta thrust into things, and we have to buy that he's suddenly learned to control his powers. Still, the movie is a lot of fun, and has a lot of great set pieces. The scanning bits, as previously mentioned, are very well portrayed. One of the more memorable things is when a character scans a computer system via a phone line. Pretty advanced stuff for a 1981 movie. Overall, it's a ton of fun, and the Criterion Blu-Ray looks fantastic. ***1/2
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VIII: Fly Vs. Fly
  • The Dead Zone (trailer)
  • The Fly (1958 trailer)
  • The Fly - This remake of the hokey 1958 classic marks the culmination of all of Cronenberg's talents. He's firing on all cylinders here, tackling all of his tropes with gusto and executing nearly flawlessly. The skeleton of the original story is here (scientist messes with teleportation technology), but Cronenberg fleshes (pun intended!) it out considerably, and obviously the makeup and practical special effects here are top notch. Of Cronenberg's movies, this one is probably the absolute grossest, with a fair amount of gore and viscera, and one of the most horrific body transformations - made all the more effective because it happens slowly, and to a character who knows what's happening and yet, cannot stop it. The previous two movies we covered today had lackluster leading men, but Cronenberg eventually caught on and starting casting fantastic actors in the lead roles, and here Jeff Goldblum is perfect as the slightly awkward scientist, he can play the manic crazy scientist when needed, and he can also do the sad, decaying creature we see towards the end of the film.
    Goldblum in The Fly
    I've obviously seen this a few times before, and it's funny what scenes I actually remember, and which always seem to surprise me. For instance, I always remember the scene where he explains why he has 7 identical outfits in his closet, and I always remember Geena Davis' dream sequence (who doesn't?), but I always forget about stuff involving the ex-boyfriend (and the dissolvey hands, etc...) It's a big improvement over the original, and stands as one of the best remakes of all time, if not one of the best horror movies in general. Sadly, while Cronenberg has done lots of good work since this movie, he's never quite returned to this sort of horror, which is a real shame... ****
So there you have it. I'm debating on whether Wednesday's post will be the last 6WH, or if I'll extend it out to next Sunday. Time will tell! It's hard to believe we're already this far along, but it's been a fun 6 weeks...