1. Dead Ringers
Two Jeremy Irons doing anything would be scary: his turn in 1988’s Dead Ringers as good gynaecologist, bad gynaecologist is truly terrifying. Irons plays identical twin doctors Beverly and Eliot Mantle with dizzying ease and effect: you give up looking for the special effects, because you forget there are any. Genevieve Bujold’s Claire gets far more than she bargained for: sinister is heaped upon tragic when she goes to their clinic because of her infertility and is drawn darkly downhill into the brothers’ world of women-sharing, paranoid delusions, assault against patients and an abundance of prescription drugs. Beverly and Eliot’s souls are so close that they have grown interdependent and tangled, like the branches of trees planted too close together. Body horror is given a stark slant when Beverly attacks a patient with a specially-made medical tool, and the spectre of partly hidden female genitalia hangs around the film like the memory of an uneasy dream. Howard Shore’s score meshes with the action perhaps more than during any other Cronenberg film, giving the creeping doctors dark deeds a deep, Hitchcockian menace. Dead Ringers is sex and medicine’s bad dream.
“It has what you don’t have, Max, it has a philosophy, and that’s what makes it dangerous…” In much the same way that The Fly isn’t all about Jeff Goldblum vomiting everywhere, Videodrome is much more than James Woods being coaxed into a television screen by Deborah Harry and disappearing into her lips, or his torso turning into an ungodly video cassette player. But these are perhaps some of the scenes that we associate the film with: a film which suffered from much censorship on its release in movie theatres, and had Roger Ebert hiding behind the couch in disgust. Strikingly enough, the idea of a beastly broadcast television station (the actual “Videodrome” of the film) had its roots in Cronenberg’s childhood, when he found his family television picked up signals from New York state, after his own Torontonian station had retired for the night. Main character Max Renn is the CEO of a Toronto-based television station which turns out salacious content – he goes looking for more trouble and finds it in Videodrome. He meets Deborah Harry’s sadomasochistic Nicki Brand on a talk show, when he attempts to defend his work. He picks his way through the social and psychological land-mines of the plot; mind control, brain disease, and are-they-or-aren’t-they-hallucinations. The film has the heady feel of stumbling to the bathroom in the middle of the night, soaked with sweat and nightmares, and the brain’s small-hours short-circuitry of not knowing what is real, or dream. As with 1996’s Crash, the arrow is tipped with poison: it’s only a movie, but both are surprisingly firmly bound by Cronenberg’s views on censorship and moral relativity. He said in the 1990’s that, in his films and more widely, “there are no absolute morals, we create them” and that he is “completely opposed to adults censoring adults”.1 He was, of course, almost clairvoyant in noting that with new technologies come new freedoms, and he noted the freeing up of imagery from the sole arena of the cinema, and thought the newly extreme difficulty of policing its images a good thing. Like an insect preserved in amber, the film is beautifully suspended within its own time – the use of the nascent videotape as a symbol of future terror, and Rick Baker’s wonderful make-up effects, where today computer-generated effects would airbrush out the truly visceral splodge and join. Videodrome is a whirling vortex of television, greed, power and dangerous new freedoms – and the viewer is made to decide what they think of it all.
3. The Fly
“What am I working on? I’m working on something that will change the world, and human life as we know it.” Both old and modern horror futurism in films, books and the popular imagination often involve weird science: science gone wrong, science gone nasty, gone sour. George Langelaan’s short story from 1957 was re-imagined by David Cronenberg in 1986. For the viewer in 2014, there’s an extra jolt in the 80’s hair, the clunky, whirring teleportation machine (any eccentric scientist-inventor now would surely use lots of Apple products strung together), and the alarming beep and fizz of the shockingly retro digital messages and countdowns on its computerised display. Jeff Goldblum is strange scientist Seth Brundle, immersed in his project of constructing “telepods”, devices which teleport items from one port to another. (In the true style of a boy’s dream of being an inventor, he combines his work place with his living quarters – a massive warehouse.) Much of The Fly is surprisingly evergreen: the special effects and make-up, and the relationship between Brundle and Geena Davis’s journalist character Veronica Quaife. It’s the human interest aspect which is at the heart of the story; the troubled romance between Quaife and Brundle, and Brundle’s ambition overreaching his common sense when he gets cocky with the telepod by putting living things inside it. Most affecting of all is Brundle’s head-spinning pronouncement “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man, and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake.” Who said The Fly was just Jeff Goldblum vomiting goo?
4. Maps To The Stars
There is horror of a curious order in 2014’s film Maps To The Stars: less detached eyes and gore and more of a detached eyed satire on present day Hollywood. Robert Pattinson, fresh from limousine life in Cronenberg’s 2012 film Cosmopolis, is back in luxury cars as a chauffeur. Mia Wasikowska is the physically and psychologically scarred Agatha, and Olivia Williams is splendid as the reserved but beleaguered mother to Evan Bird’s godawful, brattish child star. John Cusack turns up as – naturallement – an equally disturbed, fame-hungry TV psychologist and flim-flam merchant therapist. Julianne Moore’s character Havana Segrand is the dark heart of the film, a brash, desperate actress, who draws most of the film’s characters into her whirlpool of neurosis. The whole film is a nightmareish, 3D chessboard with characters moving in reaction to one another injured psyches. Cronenberg’s films usually deal with the cobwebs of the human mind – he has forged from the dark side of Hollywood a haunting psychodrama in more than one sense of the word. For him, autre temps seem to involve autre mores: he deftly binds the climate of the wider world to the darkness of his films, as in the imagined dark sides of videos and videogames in 1983’s Videodrome and 1999’s eXistenZ. In Maps To The Stars, there is plenty of black humour in the half-fictionalised depiction of contemporary Hollywood, with its breakneck modern pace, lust for fame and up to the minute touches (Agatha finds her job as aide to Havana through Carrie Fisher on social media). It’s the sound of LOLs in the dark.
5. The Brood
David Cronenberg called 1979’s The Brood his Kramer vs Kramer – no questionable psychological techniques, parthenogenically borne children or psychotherapist-induced lymphoma in Robert Benton’s film of the same year. But The Brood’s has extreme marital dysfunction and tooth-and-nail fights over children: the cross-hatching of this and the body horror, like Samantha Eggar’s disturbed character Nola giving birth to a child in an external womb, gives us a mesh of real interest and terror. An extra dimension of darkness arises when children are the disturbed, destructive parties in horror films. Cronenberg’s splattering the camera with ideas and forms from the subconscious is given a literal twist: the brood are figments of Nola’s suppressed rage made manifest. There might be no more classically Cronenbergian idea than psychoplasmics – a way in which people with unresolved trauma come to terms with and shape their demons through spooky developments in their bodies. This practice is meted out by Oliver Reed’s Hal Raglan, who, at one point in the film, is wearing a cream polo neck, and looks like the world’s most sinister U-boat captain. Perhaps the most disturbing thing of all is that the original dark urge to make The Brood came from Cronenberg exorcising his divorce demons, and the film’s production became a tangle of Oliver Reed’s off-screen drunkenness, Samantha Eggar’s idea to lick her screen foetus being viewed with appalled faces off-set, and her character, in other ways, containing slight shades of Cronenberg’s ex-wife. Curiously measured, intelligent horror, with Oliver Reed’s direct, sincere performance at the centre.