He’s been called the King of Venereal Horror, the Baron of Blood, a chilly, analytical formalist with a fascination for the grotesque. He’s synonymous with the genre of body horror, its foremost practitioner, whose films Rabid, Scanners, and The Brood helped define it. He’s made every woman squirm mutely with the deranged disintegration of Jeremy Irons’ twin gynecologists in Dead Ringers, and he ripped your heart out when Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly begged for death at the end of The Fly. But one thing a lot of people don’t appreciate is his dark sense of humour. Underneath the blood and the ooze and the weird sexuality and the techno-fetishism, David Cronenberg is a funny guy.
From Within: The Films of David Cronenberg is TIFF’s encompassing retrospective of the great director’s work. They’re all here, the early body horror classics with their gory guignol, the middle-period mind(fuck)-body masterpieces, and the deep social-character studies of his latest movies.
I got to preview two Cronenberg classics, each paired with a very early short film from his student days. The shorts were pretty basic black and white efforts from the sixties, but they show Cronenberg’s fascinations started early, as did his urge for coolly absurd satire. In Transfer, a patient has stalked his analyst to the middle of nowhere. Their stilted conversation takes place at a dinner table in the middle of a wide snowy field. The patient reveals that the psychiatrist has been his only meaningful relationship, that he’s fabricated stories to pique the psychiatrist’s interest, but his efforts have gone unappreciated. Its weird and awkward and captures how uncomfortable an obsession can be. The incongruity of the setting makes it all the more surreal, and the power dynamics between the patient and the psychiatrist are an unstable morass.
Transfer pairs beautifully with Dead Ringers, Cronenberg’s masterful exploration of two seriously co-dependent twins whose gynecological practice descends into addiction and degradation when one twin falls for an actress. Jeremy Irons is mesmerizing as Beverly and Elliot Mantle, and Cronenberg works wonders with the split-screen technology of the time, as Irons and Irons interact with one another. The two twins do have distinctive personalities, and Irons is assuredly nuanced in portraying them. The movie opens with the twins as children, nonchalantly discussing sex and reproduction. Humans are different from fish, Elliot reasons, as they don’t lay eggs in the water. Sex compensates by internalizing the water. If humans lived in the water, they’d still have a kind of sex, but without touching. “I’d like that,” nine-year-old Beverly says. They proceed to ask a neighbourhood girl to have sex with them in the bathtub, and she bluntly tells them where to go.
It’s a dryly hilarious exchange, and sets up Elliot and Bev perfectly. They’re smart kids, but completely oblivious to emotions in the real world. As adults, their cluelessness becomes an aloof identity game. Elliot is the outgoing, dominant twin. He picks up women, often patients in their clinic, then passes them off to Beverly once he’s tired of them. The women are none the wiser, as the twins swap identities with ease. Given Beverly’s more retiring nature, it’s a workable arrangement, for them at least. But when successful actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) appears at the clinic, the brothers’ standard tactics go awry. She’s what they call a trifurcate, meaning her uterus has three separate chambers each with its own cervix, which makes her an object of fascination for them. The Mantle brothers specialize in fertility, which is why she’s come to them, but Beverly tells her having children will be impossible. Elliot picks her up for a little kinky sex, then gives her over to Beverly. While Claire is unaware of their ruse, Bev discovers that for the first time he has feelings for a human being that isn’t his brother. The brothers’ symbiotic relationship becomes completely unmoored, leading to drug addiction, tragic misunderstanding and the most disturbing set of gynecological instruments/medieval torture devices ever conceived by man. The film’s shocking turns as the twins’ psyches unravel are emotionally gripping, and there’s a relentless logic to their dissolution.
I first saw Dead Ringers at its Festival of Festivals debut in 1988, and I remember its deep psychological unease, Jeremy Irons’s brilliant performance and the way my girlfriend at the time kept shifting in her seat. Seeing it again, the film struck the same chords, but I was surprised by its mordant wit. As creepy as it often is, there’s an arch delivery to the characters’ interactions. Claire’s confrontation with the brothers in a restaurant has a train-wreck humour to it, as she vents her well-justified umbrage. Later, when Bev phones Claire, who is out of town on a movie shoot, he turns his jilted anger on her gay assistant. Bev misconstrues the poor man for Claire’s new lover. It’s both funny and tragic, setting in motion the movie’s unsettling climax. There’s nothing amusing about how it ends, finishing ineffably sad, the twins’ dependence complete.
Videodrome (1983), Cronenberg’s first masterpiece, also blends chilly horror and clever humour, with a healthy dose of prescience for good measure. James Woods stars as Max Renn, a sleazy cable programmer eager to push the boundaries of good taste and win his station more viewers. (The character is loosely modeled on Moses Znaimer, the founding exec of City-TV, a winking in-joke for Torontonians.) With the assistance of a tech, he stumbles onto a pirate satellite program called Videodrome, where people are tortured and executed on a live feed. He thinks it’s a brilliant fake, and desperately wants to broadcast it on his station. He investigates through his connections, but can’t believe it when told the feed is real.
Meanwhile, he finds himself getting deep into S&M with Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), a woman he met on a talk-show where he had to defend his station’s dubious programming. She’s turned on when he shows her a tape of Videodrome, and their games together escalate (decades before the breathless bondage of 50 Shades of Grey). Max learns that Videodrome is connected to another guest from his talk-show appearance, the eccentric pop culture prophet Professor Brian O’Blivion. Only willing to appear anywhere via videotape, O’Blivion believes television will supplant real life. He is the founder of the Church of the Cathode Ray Tube, a mission where people have individual cubicles where they can tune into the message on their own televisions. He talks of how each of us will have our own made up identities, for this new media world. The ideas prefigure the internet perfectly. It’s a tongue-in-cheek media fantasy that just happens to be exactly the way our society has evolved. From torture porn to bondage to virtual sex to avatars to reality TV, they’ve all entered mainstream culture in the past ten years. And Cronenberg brought them together in 1983.
The freakiest parts of Videodrome are the elements that are just on the cusp of becoming reality today. Max becomes infected with the Videodrome virus, a physically altering signal beneath the broadcast that affects the mind, distorting perceptions of reality. Max drifts through stunning hallucinations, trying to get closer to Videodrome’s source. He gets to wear a personal broadcast helmet, one of the first virtual reality units to ever appear in film, to experience the unadulterated Videodrome signal. And Cronenberg being Cronenberg, Max’s body changes, a disturbingly vaginal hidey-hole opening up in his solar plexus. That and a gun that fuses into the flesh of his right hand make for striking distortions of reality and the physical imposition of the mind on the body. Pretty out there right? Not at all like gene therapy, 3D printing and cybernetic implants. Cronenberg would revisit many of these ideas again in 1999’s eXistenZ, in the context of video games and virtual reality. But Videodrome just nails it. As Max succumbs to “the new flesh”, its prophetic vision is so on-the-money you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
From Within: The Films of David Cronenberg opens at TIFF in Toronto on Thursday, October 31st, with Dead Ringers introduced by David Cronenberg and Jeremy Irons. Cronenberg will also be present with producer Jeremy Thomas for a discussion of Naked Lunch at a screening on Friday, November 1st, and many other Cronenberg collaborators will be present to discuss screenings (costume designer Denise Cronenberg, special effects and prosthetics designer Stephan Dupuis, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and Academy Award-winning composer Howard Shore among them). The entire Cronenberg filmography will be showing over the next two-and-a-half months. For full schedule and ticket information head over to TIFF.