Director Spotlight: David Cronenberg

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Welcome everyone, to the first installment in my new director series. I will periodically choose a director that I feel deserves to be thrown into the spotlight. Then I will give you a little background on him/her, a short discussion of their filmography, and tell you why I feel they belong here. I have chosen David Cronenberg to be my first victim. In my opinion he is and will remain one of the most influential and visually powerful directors in the history of horror film making.

David Cronenberg was born in 1943 in Toronto, Canada and he lives there today. He began his college career with a focus on science but ended it with a degree in literature. You can spot both of these interests in his films.

Known primarily for his “body horror” or “venereal horror” themes, he explores in visceral detail the fears people hold of bodily transformation and infection. Basically these films describe what happens in different cases when your own body is the weapon used against you. If you follow his filmography you should notice a definite progression within his movies. Let’s take the first couple of feature length films for instance. Beginning with Shivers (1975) and continuing with Rabid (1977), Cronenberg explores what happens when scientists hold influence over the human body.

Shivers begins with a doctor searching for a way to cure all the illnesses that we can fathom. He began to introduce alien (as in foreign to the body not extraterrestrial) organisms to aid in transplants but he had a little more in mind than that. Dr. Hobbs has decided that Man has lost touch with his fleshy side and requires an aphrodisiac so he concocts a parasite that will do both jobs at once. The result is an apartment building gone mad with desire and murderous intentions. We then watch helplessly as the society within the walls of the isolated complex breaks down, slowly at first then building to a crescendo of orgies and death. Shivers was Cronenberg’s first feature length film and was so successful that it became the highest profit making film in Canada up to that point. It’s unflinching social satire and brazen displays of mass sexual hysteria raised quite a few conservative eyebrows and caused quite a stir within the community. But from that film it became obvious that Cronenberg would not succumb so easily to societal pressures. If he had something to say, he would say it without apology. The moment I saw this film, this man earned my respect. He is not afraid to tap into taboos such as killing children graphically on screen or even reaching across the fundamental walls to stretch the power of sexual imagery coupled with horrific themes. He fully understands that these are two perfect examples of what makes humans squirm and he capitalizes on those ideas whenever possible.

Once again with Rabid, Cronenberg wades through familiar waters and the theme is very similar to that of his former picture. After a injury a woman is taken to the hospital where her tissue is treated (science) to allow it to be used anywhere necessary within her body for repair. But when the outcome is an unexpected reaction causing the growth of a bizarre sphincter with a phallic stinger (body), she goes on a bloodsucking spree which in turn infects the people of the city one by one until once again we are headed for a complete breakdown of civilization if something cannot be done to stop the spread. The sexual tones are still present here as well. Apart from the phallic symbol mentioned earlier, this film also boasts Marilyn Chambers in the lead fresh from porn and ready to do a mainstream film. Even though Chambers was not his first choice for the role, her inclusion lends to the prevailing theme if only by chance.

Moving on to the next batch in the progression we come to those movies that showcase the horrors more personally rather than as full scale epidemics. The examples I will use here are two more of my personal favorites, Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983) but you could also include The Brood if you desire.

Scanners is one of those movies that sticks in everyone's brain. I intended no pun here but looky what I got. Just about every horror fan will recognize the amazing head explosion that a scanner demonstrator suffers at Michael Ironside's (Revok) superior powers. I even placed it as the number one Head Shot on my Top Ten list of the same. But beyond the eerily realistic effects and vomit inducing wave of brain matter, this film once again pits man against body or more specifically the mind in this case. Scanners are people who possess telepathic powers. There is of course a company, ConSec, who wishes to exploit those powers for their own gain. Throw Ironside into the mix as a renegade scanner intent on killing everyone who refuses to follow his plan and you have an all out mind war going on. As the plot thickens we realize that Cameron Vale, our sensitive protagonist, and Revok have more in common than we know. The real testament to Cronenberg's style comes in the realization that the power of scanners is man made. Borrowing heavily from the true life stories of the negative results of the teratogen drug, Thalidomide, Scanners proves once again that Man's impact on human life through science is often greater than we bargain.

Now we have come to Videodrome. This James Woods / Deborah Harry vehicle moves from the powers of drugs to the power of technology. Woods is the president of an unconventional television channel that prides itself on showing us all those things from the deepest parts of our desires. He is constantly searching for the next thing to please the raw tastes of his viewers. In the process they receive a transmission of a show that has no merit of plot or storyline. The only thing highlighted is torture and murder. Intrigued by this enigma, Renn (Woods) attempts to uncover the origin of the programming in order to gain it for his own station. His obsession grows until he discovers that the program is inducing hallucinations. But that is not the entirety of the sinister plot. It also creates brain tumors in its viewers. In true Cronenberg fashion, the film is chock full of disturbing images, bizarre special effects and themes that leave you contemplating for hours what exactly was on his mind. But the most astounding aspect of Videodrome is the degree of its prophecy. At the time of its release in 1983, Cronenberg had no way of knowing just how close he would come to the world we live in today. In one motion picture he captured the future of the Internet as well as virtual reality. He would further discuss these themes in his much later feature, eXistenZ. In one particular scene where Renn goes to investigate the creator of the program, we walk through a room of cubicles filled with television sets and the homeless who are attached to them. Simply replace those TVs with computer terminals and we are looking at the first Internet cafe. I urge you to watch this film with today's technology in mind. “Long Live the New Flesh.”

The next stage of David Cronenberg's progression takes us to an even more personal level as the film I will discuss next previews what happens when the scientist himself is overtaken by his creation. Of course I am referring to his critically acclaimed remake of The Fly (1986). We all know the story and are familiar with the concept. Dr Seth Brundle has invented a way to teleport from one place to the next. His one difficulty is that the machine fails to recognize “the flesh.” He triumphantly solves this issue only to discover that a common housefly entered the chamber during his test. The computer is confused by this added organism and logically fuses them together. Brundle's slow descent from man into Brundlefly is painful to watch and extremely sympathetic. Seth is not an evil genius looking for ways to take over the world. He is simply a scientist in search of ways to improve it. But science becomes his downfall.

With these film examples it is easy to decipher how Cronenberg masterfully taps into one of the most devouring fears of mankind, the loss of identity and the power to control your own body. While the majority of his films base this fear in science and technology, they resonate throughout our psyches as we are forced to face the personification of our nightmares. Where most horror films rely on supernatural influences to demonstrate the same effect as with zombies, werewolves and vampires, these films drag those fears from the netherworld and into the real world proving that we can encounter true horrors in every day life.

The recent movies of David Cronenberg such as A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) have shifted in theme but the characteristics of the film maker are heavily present just the same. Even with A History of Violence, his strong Darwinian principles remain evident. He has always been unflinching in his visions and continues to display exactly what he wishes us to see with no regrets. It is this doctrine that has allowed him to become and remain one of the most substantial film makers of our time.

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