The Creative Genius of Director David Cronenberg, the Avant-garde Master of the Body Horror Cinema Genre
David Cronenberg has always been a bit of an outlier in the film industry. Fiercely independent, his art is wound around the inexorable connection between the mind and body. Many of his best known works blur the lines between the two, with psychological stresses often manifesting into physical changes. And I’m not talking about the theory of psychosomatic illness: that stress can cause one to feel like they have a physical problem that does not necessarily exist.
Cronenberg instead gives us a visceral, oftentimes horrific manifestation of the phenomenon, where the physical body changes in new and strange ways. In Cronenberg’s films fear, paranoia, lust, greed, anger, and a myriad of other feelings can and do cause the body to mutate. He also blurs the lines between reality and madness at the same time, causing the audience to wonder if the changes being seen on the screen are really happening, or is it simply all in the head of the afflicted character.
Critics have dubbed the genre Cronenberg essentially created as “Body Horror,” which echoes his take on the deep seeded fears of infection, disease, and the inevitable deterioration of the human body ingrained in all of us. He has repeatedly said his most well known movie, The Fly, is a pointed metaphor for the AIDS epidemic, which was at its height at the time of the film’s release.
Cronenberg has a much more pragmatic reason for how he came to use “Body Horror” as such an integral part of his filmmaking process. Here is what he said in an Q&A with Interview Magazine:
”You know, they talk about me as the inventor of body horror. But I’ve never thought of it as being horrific. Of course, you’re being a showman, and if you’re making a low-budget horror film—there were a lot of those around at the time—how do you get yourself noticed? Certainly I was in the world, and not an abstractionist. I was trying to make movies and continue to make movies. But there’s the philosophical underpinning for all of it. If neurology is reality, that’s an incredible theme—how to structure a narrative that will discuss that? Immediately you’re into changing the body to change the reality, and that’s what led me to all of those things like Videodrome.”
Most of his earlier works involved evil men or corporations essentially playing God, making changes to the human body, and how that disrupts the social order.
A searing take on paranoia, sexual mores, and the isolationist society we were slowly becoming at the time, Shivers begins with an misguided scientist attempting to engineer a parasitic organism in hopes of creating a new form of tissue to aid in organ transplants. Unfortunately (as always) it goes terribly wrong. The parasite spreads among the population in the super secure apartment building, causing the infected to become sex crazed maniacs, desperate to spread the infection. The takeaway: there was no way to escape the fear of the outside world that was sweeping the country at that time, which caused citizens to essentially imprison themselves in high rises or gated communities. The characters thought they were safe, but something can always get in. No one was truly safe, no matter how many locks are on your doors.
Melding the horror of exploding heads (yes, that famous scene) with corporate dirty dealings, Cronenberg taps into the post Watergate distrust of the government and other seats of power and influence in a surprisingly cerebral way.
Our hero Cameron is a homeless man, primarily because he is a very powerful psychic (AKA a “scanner”), who cannot control the deluge of thoughts coming in from those around him, flooding his brain to the breaking point. He can also control people, you see, by making them do his bidding, but does not use the power as he is a good guy. He gets abducted by the minions of a scientist named Dr. Ruth, played with smoldering intensity by Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner).
Ruth gives Cameron an injection of Ephemerol, a drug which allows Cameron to control and focus his psychic energies. Ruth works for the evil corporation ConSec, that wants to use the scanners to take over the world. One renegade scanner named Revok, intent on bringing down ConSec, tries to win Cameron over to his side. It turns out ConSec injected pregnant mothers with Ephemerol back in the day, including Cameron’s mother. The big reveal in the final act is that Revok and Cameron are in fact brothers, and Ruth is their papa. Not creepy at all.
A climactic telepathic smackdown occurs between Cameron and Revok. Revok destroys Cameron’s body, but Cameron transfers his consciousness into Revok, taking over his body for all time.
The plotline is a variation of the real life thalidomide tragedy in the ‘60s, where the drug was marketed as a safe sleep aid for pregnant women, only to have thousands of babies die, with many more thousands born with horrific birth defects. Cronenberg taps into that lizard brain sense of dread in all of us, using a real world horror as an effective way to scare the hell out of us.
In possibly his most subversive work, Cronenberg’s Videodrome touches on how media, sex, politics, technology, paranoia, and entertainment can all have a potentially fatal effect on humanity. James Woods plays Max, the sleazy owner of a low rent cable TV station, who is always on the lookout for the “next thing,” preferably the type of fringe entertainment that would make your mother blush. He gets turned on to a pirated show from an unknown location, which trades in torture porn with a snuff film ending.
Unknown to Max, there is a hidden signal in the Videodrome feed, which causes nasty hallucinations and, quite possibly, grotesque physical changes.
Max eventually becomes the physical manifestation of Videodrome, assassinating the leader of a corporate conspiracy, whose goal is to have Max broadcast the Videodrome signal over the airwaves, infecting and killing the weak minded among us obsessed with sex and violence.
The scariest part of the film for me was the pop culture analyst Brian O’Blivion, who insisted on only being seen through a TV set, never in person. His prophetic predictions about how the media will eventually control our minds are particularly prescient today.
The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind's eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.
Pretty trippy stuff, right? It might be a bit hard to digest all the themes in one viewing, but it is well worth your time to absorb Cronenberg’s acute ruminations on the media and our role in it as consumers.
The Fly (1986)
This is Cronenberg’s masterpiece: a tale of science gone wrong melded with a tragic love story. While the gore and effects are at the forefront, the story is really about two people in love, one of whom contracts a deadly disease, and how both deal with the inevitable deterioration of the dying partner.
Brundle, played magnificently by Jeff Goldblum, is a certified genius who makes a drunken mistake after a spat with his (in real life) girlfriend Geena Davis. The fallout from the teleportation accident, and Brundle’s gradual genetic assimilation into a fly, is heartbreaking to see. Much like a patient with a fatal disease, Brundle records the events in his life for as long as he is able to. Not unlike a cancer patient keeping a journal, the videotapes left by Brundle are hard to watch.
Even when he becomes almost 100% fly, there is still enough humanity left in him to silently plead with Davis’ character to put him out of his misery, which she tearfully does. Cronenberg makes the horrific monster a sympathetic figure, which gives the film a layer of depth and heart you don’t see in most horror movies.
His later works delve more into the pure psychological, but David Cronenberg will be forever known as the “Master of Body Horror.” A true auteur.