Filmmaker David Cronenberg established a signature style of body horror very early in his career, thanks to a pair of films that changed the face of genre cinema. Cronenberg continued to carve out new terrain in horror, grotesquely morphing and mutilating the physical human body to examine human nature and society with a calculating intellect. When the filmmaker felt he’d explored every corner of the flesh, he moved on to other genres. After decades, the body horror provocateur finally returns to the subgenre he innovated with Crimes of the Future, releasing in theaters on June 3.
Before embarking on a film career, Cronenberg enrolled in college as a science major but emerged as an English major with honors. Both significant interests- science and literature- contribute to the filmmaker’s distinct approach to filmmaking. Each new sci-fi or horror movie in Cronenberg’s oeuvre would present a poignant and elegant undercurrent beneath the grotesque. He didn’t approach his films in terms of body horror but terms of human emotions or connections.
His 1975 feature debut, Shivers, see a luxury apartment high rise under siege by parasites that turn their hosts into sexually violent deviants driven by the parasite’s need to spread and populate. It hits the ground running with a shocking scene of a man attacking and killing a schoolgirl, cutting her open and pouring acid in her abdomen before committing suicide. That man happens to be responsible for engineering the slug-like parasites causing the chaos that ensues. Interestingly, Cronenberg frames the characters almost entirely post-outbreak. Shivers seems to highlight the banality of respectable society and its barely hidden dark side with pitch-black humor. Residents’ infidelities and sexual secrets get violently thrust to the surface with nowhere to hide. It was the sexual violence that proved quite controversial upon release.
Cronenberg followed his debut with Rabid, another outbreak tale with a much larger scope. Rose (Marilyn Chambers) becomes ground zero of a pandemic when an experimental surgical procedure causes a mutation. A phallic stinger sprouts from a new orifice in Rose’s armpit used to satiate her newfound thirst for human blood. If that’s not icky enough, her surviving victims develop a rabid-like infection that quickly spreads across the country. Cronenberg uses Rose to explore the physical spread of the affliction; he gives a face to it through her intimate story and close contact with victims. He highlights society’s breakdown in their lack of preparedness to combat the outbreak on a broader scale.
While Shivers and Rabid used body horror and shocking violence elements to examine society, Cronenberg got profoundly personal with The Brood. The filmmaker made the raw pain and anger from a bitter divorce and custody battle the film’s centerpiece. The Brood introduces us to Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) and his soft-spoken 5-year-old daughter Candice. Frank is in the midst of an embittered separation process from his estranged wife Nola (Samantha Eggar), a disturbed woman currently sequestered in the Somafree Institute and undergoing extensive therapy in the form of “Psychoplasmics.” Nola’s therapy goes awry when she physically manifests her emotions through mutant children, who then murder those that hurt her or pose a threat. Her licking her brood clean like a kitten may repulse and distract, but the true horror is how young Candice can’t escape the destructive nature of her parent’s separation.
Videodrome dialed up the intensity of the body horror and surrealistic imagery as Cronenberg explored our relationship with media consumption. It follows James Woods as a sleazy cable TV programmer whose life begins to spiral out of control once he stumbles about a broadcast signal featuring extreme torture. The concept stemmed from Cronenberg’s childhood when he used to pick up television signals from Buffalo, New York, after Canadian channels had gone off air and his childhood worry of seeing something not meant for public eyes. The surreal imagery created one of the strangest yet prescient horror films. The way Cronenberg distorts and mutates the human body to examine how we can let media dictate or shape our lives is wholly unique.
Perhaps the pinnacle of his body horror work is 1986’s The Fly. The only film directed by Cronenberg to win an Oscar (for Best Makeup), this magnum opus is a tragic love story that plays out like an opera. Seth Brundle’s (Jeff Goldblum) transformation into a grotesque human fly while his lover, Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), helplessly watches on was made more compelling by Cronenberg’s revisions to Charles Pogue’s original screenplay. He kept the basic concepts the same but injected his trademark themes of sexuality, personal identity crisis, and body horror. For all the visceral, gruesome deteriorations happening to Seth, it’s rendered empathetic through the universal theme of watching a loved one transform into something unrecognizable as disease ravages their body.
The last of Cronenberg’s horror films, Dead Ringers, follow twin gynecologists who spiral out of control once a new woman enters their life. Jeremy Irons played the dual role of twin brothers Elliot and Beverly Mantle. Checking off all the requisite Cronenberg boxes, from intimacy, sexuality, and downbeat tone, Dead Ringers is more subdued than previous efforts in that the director delves more into the psychological over shocking imagery- though there is that here too. As Beverly descends into drug-induced, paranoid delusions, he frequently finds himself horrified by “mutated” vaginas on the surgical table. Cronenberg withholds these images from the viewer and instead fixates on the mutated, archaic surgical tools Beverly uses to “correct” the mutations. It’s an effective means of letting the audience’s imagination run wild with body horror possibilities.
Cronenberg’s body horror bow came with 1999’s sci-fi thriller eXistenZ. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a game designer on the run from assassins, who must play her latest VR game with a marketing trainee to test if competitors have tampered with the game. A mind-bending psychological examination of how humans interact with surrounding technology, or in this case, video games, Cronenberg delivers on the weird and surreal. The body horror factors the way humans undergo surgery to install biological gaming ports into their bodies to connect to the VR games through fleshy controls and ports. Like Videodrome, it’s an ever-prescient examination of media consumption and the blurring of reality.
With Crimes of the Future, we can expect Cronenberg to use the human body once again to reflect on the flesh, whether it’s observing its limitations or mortality or its inhibiting nature. Strip away the oozing orifices, bulbous tumors, mutated offspring, and phallic armpit stingers of it all, and you’ll find elegant meditations on society, intimate relationships, and human nature. The way the filmmaker uses sex, violence, and body horror to encapsulate it is what makes his work in body horror so boundary-pushing and groundbreaking; long live the new flesh.
Crimes of the Future releases in theaters on June 3. Get your tickets now!
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