Dead Ringers (1988)

Dead Ringers (1988) movie poster

director David Cronenberg
viewed: 01/06/2017

Dead Ringers and its predecessor 1986’s The Fly have struck me on rewatching as two of David Cronenberg’s most emotionally evocative films. That is far from the most common epithet thrown his way, and my weekend watch of Dead Ringers quite surprised me.

Both films deal with a love affair between and man and a woman that is brought to ultimate tragedy by the dissolution of the male lead. The devolution of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly is mostly physical and resultingly psychological. For Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, it’s a deep psychosis released through a drug-induced mental dissolution, complicated by the fractured selfs that Irons plays in the roles of twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle. The tragedy is doubled.

Back when I first saw this, on cable, probably a year after it came out, I remember wondering if this was at all a true story or where the idea had come from. In the pre-internet, knowledge was not a click away. Interestingly it was adapted from a novel titled Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland which was inspired by the strange deaths of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, with a lot of artistic license employed, especially since it seems very little was known about their deaths.

Geneviève Bujold is herself very evocative, a somewhat tortured soul used to personal pleasures and pain. It’s her openness that initially frees Beverly from the constraints of his fraternal prison, but as she turns him on to drugs, he has no strength to fight against the downrush of addiction or the vast ruptures in his psyche.

Though I’d seen it before, I found the final scene amazingly effective and emotionally gutting, as the twins are dead in a grotesque Pietà, with one eviscerated and the other collapsed upon him.

Cronenberg’s films, if anything, are often cold to the touch. Is it strange that these two from the late 1980’s are so strikingly emotional?

Maps to the Stars (2014)

Maps to the Stars (2014) movie poster

director David Cronenberg
viewed: 05/10/2015

You had me at “David Cronenberg”.  I’ll still watch any new David Cronenberg film.  Doesn’t really matter what it’s about.  Well, actually, after Cosmopolis (2012), maybe I should temper that.

And, that said, Maps to the Stars is the second feature in a row for Cronenberg to feature Robert Pattinson, largely ensconced yet again inside a limo.  This time, though, he’s the driver and the subject isn’t Wall Street but Hollywood.  Cronenberg’s first film ever shot in the United States also features Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, and Olivia Williams.

It’s a funny, sordid affair.  I’d argue that the film’s ability to skewer Hollywood and Hollywood types is a bit more tin eared than other aspects of it.  Mainly, it’s a very dysfunctional family horror show, with a heart in Mia Wasikowska, who plays the scarred mystery girl who hunts the celebrities like a world-class stalker, but whose motives are more mysterious and bizarre.

It’s kind of weird but I liked it.  In fact, I think I liked it more than I expected I would.

The Dead Zone (1983)

The Dead Zone (1983) movie poster

director David Cronenberg
viewed: 03/09/2014

Of all the films I watch and all the filmmakers I focus on, I’ve only two directors that I’ve been intentionally working through all of their films: David Cronenberg and John Waters.  Frankly, it’s slightly arbitrary, but it’s a fact.

The Dead Zone is not one of Cronenberg’s best.  It’s an okay film, but it lacks any of the real weirdness of his early work and winds up being somewhat bland in comparison.  It is, of course, an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name.  And for me, it coincided with my teenage interest in King and his work.  And oddly enough, 1983 was quite a tipping point for King.  He had three feature films come out in that year alone: Cujo (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), and Christine (1983) and I think I read each of those books and saw each of those movies that year (or somewhere around then).

The film stars Christopher Walken as a man who develops the ability to glimpse the future or other psychic visions when he touches someone.  He only gets these powers after getting into a bad car crash that leaves him in a coma for five years.  Herbert Lom plays his doctor and Martin Sheen plays a lunatic political candidate who would lead the world to utter destruction if Walken doesn’t assassinate him.

Like I said, it’s not a bad movie, but it’s not a very good one either.

Shivers (1976)

Shviers (1976) movie poster

director David Cronenberg
viewed: 11/28/2013

Shivers, whether you’ve seen it or not, is the kind of movie that one thinks about when one thinks about David Cronenberg’s “body terror” period.  It is, of course, Cronenberg’s first feature film, interestingly, produced as was Rabid (1977) by Ivan Reitman.  It’s about sexually transmitted lust parasites and the 1970’s monoculture that they infect.

A lot of Cronenberg’s early work in body terror has been considered prescient of things like the AIDS virus, medical experimentation, and other societal events that have given further interpretation to his films.  And it’s fair enough to make that jump.

Really, Shivers has within it a critique of the free swinging 1970’s, some orgiastic culture, falling victim to a new disease attached to its transmission and intersections.  What seems especially interesting is that where the zombie film and in general, the zombie concept that some disease that transforms a living being into a dying, undead thing, has become such a pop culture staple, here we have disease that doesn’t kill but creates lust.  You don’t eat people.  You rape them.

It’s seriously a much more perverse scenario.

In the film, it all takes place in a modern mega-building, a self-contained world on an island in Montreal, a fancy high-rise with its own grocery, restaurants and physicians.  Only it’s also got the mad scientist who does vivisection on his student, creating this parasitic aphrodisiac organism that starts getting all over the place.  No doubt the constraint of limiting the story to a single structure offered some cost-effectiveness, but the setting seems yet another critique of modern urban life.  That said, the people of the building are all quite nice and normal, not monsters at all, until they are infected.

The film features two notable, gorgeous actresses.  The beautiful Barbara Steele, of so many great horror films of the 1960’s.  And Lynn Lowry, less well-known, but unique-looking, she appeared in Radley Metzger’s Score (1973), George A. Romero’s The Crazies (1973), and even Paul Schraeder’s Cat People (1982).

Between Shivers and Rabid, you’ve got vintage Cronenberg.  Movies of the Canadian horror auteur that are films that only he could have made, weirder and more compelling than most anything from the period.

The Fly (1986)

The Fly (1986) movie poster

director David Cronenberg
viewed: 06/29/2013

Thing thing that I didn’t really grasp the first time I saw David Cronenberg’s The Fly back in 1986, when it first came out was that it’s a tragic love story.  My girlfriend of the time, she got it.  She emerged from the theater near tears, very moved by the gory science fiction re-make.  I recall being perplexed.

While some might chalk that up to a classic gender split in interpretive cinema-going, I have to say, these many years later, that she was right.  It is a tragic love story.  And more than likely, it is the success of the love story angle that really makes the movie so successful and such a classic in its own right.  It’s a huge part of the reason the film works so well, the relationship between Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum, and the tragic crash and burn of an inspired genius.

In modernizing The Fly from its 1958 Vincent Price film, the fusion of a human and a housefly at the genetic level is an inspired revamp of a somewhat campy classic featuring a man with the hand and head for a fly, looking for the fly with the hand and head of a man.  The 1986 version is a key film in what’s been termed Cronenberg’s “body horror” work, and while Cronenberg deemed it a metaphor for disease in general, it became a timely metaphor for AIDS, which rose to such public prominence at the time.  After fusing with the housefly, Goldblum goes from quirky scientist nerd to superhuman to an eroding, gruesome mess, all before the eyes of his love, Davis, as the journalist covering his discoveries in transportation.

The visual effects of the putrefaction process are gross-out moments and wonderfully realized.  But they are also extremely effective.  When Goldblum loses an ear (it just falls off), bites off his fingernail (entirely), squirts pus from his rotting finger all over the bathroom mirror, pukes acid on his food to eat it, all of that is as shocking and effective as those types of moments and effects have ever been.  And the gross-out isn’t quite like later “torture porn”.  The story is about a healthy, happy adult dissolving, dissipating into horrific decay before his own eyes and the eyes of his lover.

Goldblum is terrific in the film.  His twitchy, quirky scientist Seth Brundle is deftly defined, emphasizing aspects of Goldblum’s natural quirkiness.  But as his person becomes less and less recognizable, his twitches, quirks, and humanness are communicated so well that the constancy of his character through his arc of dissolution remains very palpable.

Davis, who was Goldblum’s girlfriend at the time, is also very good.  She’s an interestingly physical match for Goldblum, with their slightly unusual good looks, height, and big dark 1980’s hair.  It’s such a cliche to talk about screen “chemistry” but indeed seems to be one of those alchemies that can make or ruin a film.  This is a case of it working and making it.

The film is a tragedy, a metaphor not just of biological disease but of psychological or addiction.  Because Brundlefly (Goldblum’s computer name for his new self) is not simply withering into death, he’s metamorphosing into some new being. There is the radical identity crisis to embrace or abhor himself, one in which he wants to drag others down with him, most particularly his beloved girlfriend.  It is a very effecting story.  Why it didn’t effect me as so much at the time might have had more to do with who I was, what I focused on as a teenager, a lack of maturity perhaps sounds a bit derisive.

My girlfriend got it.  I get it now.  It’s a tragic love story.  A gruesome one.  And an excellent movie.

Scanners (1981)

Scanners (1981) movie poster

director David Cronenberg
viewed: 05/08/2013

This is the one where the guy’s head blows up.  And it blows up real good.

There is this new race of humans, “scanners” they calls them.  See, they are psychic but generally don’t know it, so they run around society like schizophrenics, homeless, and troubled.  Except for one, one played by Michael Ironside with grotesque aplomb.  And then our hero, played by Stephen Lack, who is picked up by a scientist who is looking to help (a.k.a. “weaponize”) the scanners for a biomedical firm.  The doctor is played by Patrick McGoohan, and *spoilers alert* turns out to be their dad.

It’s all a rather convoluted plot in which a drug was administered to babies in utero to bring about these new skills, but which they then need to continue to take to keep the voices of the masses at bay.  But better than that, they have other psychic abilities including being able to connect to someone’s internal biochemical network and run it as their own.

And explode heads.  Of even other scanners.

Scanners is vintage Cronenberg and perhaps up until that point his most successful film.  It was another of the ones that I grew up with without having seen but knowing (or hearing) a lot about the exploding head.  So much so, you’d think that more than one head exploded in the movie, but it is just one.  And perhaps why it is so shocking and successful (besides the brilliant FX work) is timing it early in the film before much else has happened.  It sort of comes out of nowhere.  And boom.  Big bloody mess.

The finale between the brothers, a showdown of scanner skills, is the film’s other FX specialty.  It’s good too.  But the film lacks a bit which I think oddly enough falls mostly on star Stephen Lack who really is missing something in a movie star.  I much preferred Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977), an earlier “body horror” film from the Canadian horror maven turned intellectual auteur.

Cosmopolis (2012)

Cosmopolis (2012) movie poster

director David Cronenbergm
viewed: 03/24/2013

David Cronenberg is probably one of the great living, still producing filmmakers.  And his films of recent years, A Dangerous Method (2011), Eastern Promises (2007), and A History of Violence (2005) have all been respectable, if not quite good films.  His style has evolved far away from his early work that earned him such notoriety for creepy, visceral horror films with a somewhat twisted science fiction bent.

Frankly, I’d like to see him go there again.  eXistenZ (1999) was the last film that he made that was anything of his earlier style.  And while that film (it’s been more than a decade since I saw it) seemed out of step with modern science fiction, he’s been making these more polished art house dramas, while they still have psychological violence and subversive aspects, are very much different inherently.

Cosmopolis is a disappointment.  Adapted from a novel by Don DeLillo, it sounds on the surface to be quite a timely bit of filmmaking.  It’s set in a near future, in a New York City limousine, which moves in heavy traffic, taking a wealthy, though quickly bankrupted billionaire (Robert Pattinson) across town to get a haircut.  The people are rioting/protesting (a la the Occupy movement).  The president is in town, slowing up traffic, and the stock market is going to hell.  All the while the billionaire philanders, gets his asymmetrical prostate checked, and talks technology, money, aesthetics, philosophy and everything as the world slowly burns.

It sounds like a prime commentary on the world of 2012 (or 2013) but Cronenberg’s style, a slick detachment reflecting the billionaire’s emotionless disconnect plus some rather high-minded dialogues between the billionaire and his visitors ends up feeling like an exercise  in “theater”, something meant to appeal to the intellect or an intellect.  And it’s somewhat bloodless (in the more metaphorical sense).

I didn’t really care for it.  It’s not that it’s terrible.  In fact, I think it’s made to do what it does and is quite polished and slick in its own way.  It just didn’t do anything for me.

I’d like to see Cronenberg go back to his gruesome, psychotic physical horror corpus and forgo the CGI and tap into the elements that made his name.  It might refresh him.

Rabid (1977)

Rabid (1977) movie poster

director David Cronenberg
viewed: 12/02/2012

Now, this is Cronenberg.

Or more specifically: this is early Cronenberg.  But since David Cronenberg’s reputation was built by his early “body horror” films and that you wouldn’t ever anticipate him doing anything like this today, it’s probably fair enough to say that Rabid is definitive Cronenberg.

When a man and a woman are injured in a motorcycle accident on the outskirts of Montreal, the woman is rushed into experimental surgery at a nearby plastic surgery resort, wherein “adaptive” tissue (a sort of stem cell for skin) is applied to her wounds.  But, wouldn’t you know it?  She develops an anus-shaped orifice in her armpit, out of which protrudes a dog-like penis projection with a long spike on the end of it.  And it craves only human flesh.  And if that weren’t enough, once she feeds on people, they go mad with a super-rabies and attack other people at random and then die.

Mad science with twisted and explicit Freudian imagery.  Just describing the “wound” she develops sounds provocative: “anus”, “dog”, “penis”, “spike”.  And while you only see the thing in brief flashes, it’s all you need to have that image in your head for days.

The woman is question is played by Marilyn Chambers, the famous pornographic actress, who at the time was just making an attempt to break into mainstream film-making.  While Cronenberg doesn’t dwell perhaps on this, it’s another level of suggestion below the perverse sex and death and violence of the film, a titillation beyond the anarchy and havoc wreaked on society by scientific development gone wrong.  Further commentary on the plastic surgery salon/resort that is the innocuous setting for the science gone astray pushes the societal critiques and inherent mass subversion therein.

David Cronenberg has been considered an auteur for probably at least 20 years, so saying that he’s most interesting when watching several of his film, or at least taking several in consideration together, is nothing new.  But Rabid, probably like many of his other films, is straight-up crazy 1970’s horror at its strange, psychologically shocking best.  Weirder and stranger than so much else out there.

Naked Lunch (1991)

Naked Lunch (1991) movie poster

director David Cronenberg
viewed: 06/09/2012

What brought me back to David Cronenberg’s 1991 film, Naked Lunch, was simply that I finally got around to reading the William S. Burroughs book earlier this year and was curious to see it again.  Cronenberg is one of a moderately small number of directors whose any work I would watch (or re-watch) because most anything they do (have done) is at the least interesting.  And the book itself, so far out, one of the “unfilmable” classics in American letters made me want to see what made it onscreen after all.

Of course, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch doesn’t try to render the novel Naked Lunch into film.  Actually, it’s a sort of meta-story, incorporating other Burroughs novels, stories, and ultimately his own real life biography into an essentially science fiction head-trip narrative that really is its own thing more than any element of its parts.  Cronenberg apparently consulted with Burroughs on this at the time, who deemed it appropriate.  And fair enough, if the unfilmable is unfilmable, why try to film it?  Why not make up some fantasy take on the period of the text’s creation and call that a movie?

It’s a bit confusing if you don’t know that or know enough to know what is “borrowed”, interpreted, or what-have-you, especially if you think that much of it was in Burroughs original writing.

Peter Weller plays Bill Lee (a common pseudonym for Burroughs in his and others’ books), an exterminator with a wife who gets hooked on the insecticide he uses to kill.  His own experiments with the drug (a metaphor or stand-in for his real heroin use) sets him off into a world populated by giant insects or insect/typewriters who speak through an anal “mouth” on their thoraxes.  There are also Mugwumps, strange oozy creatures and the world of Interzone, a version of Tangiers on a movie set.

Judy Davis plays Lee’s wife, who he shoots in the head during an attempt at shooting a glass off of her head (while stoned), which references a real event in Burroughs’ life, which triggered his journey into writing.  She also plays the wife of Ian Holm’s character, a stand-in for Paul Bowles, evoking more Kafkaesque weirdness and drugs.

The elephant in the room for the film is the way it skirts Burroughs’ sexuality.  Naked Lunch the book is replete with gruesomely detailed surrealist sex, but a huge aspect of the text and subtext is Burroughs’ homosexuality and his deranged relationship with his identities.  Nothing is straightforward but it’s there in deep, seething detail.  Cronenberg adheres more closely to Burroughs’ heterosexual life: his relationship with his wife Joan but also his attraction to her doppelgänger in Interzone.  While his ambivalence towards his homosexual life is on display, it feels very muted and buried.  Cronenberg stated that he did this to reflect the times and attitudes of the 1950’s and Burroughs’ own ambivalence, but it does seem to miss a significant point of the book and the reality.

All told, it’s almost better to consider the film as a science fiction fantasy first, pulling elements of history or reality in, rather than taking it the other way around, which is how I think I came to it before.  Thinking of it as a twisted take on the content of Burroughs work and life, it seems more bastardized and lacking.  But seen with the eyes of someone who is following Cronenberg’s work in genre, with consistent themes, his animatronic creatures, oozing beings, distortion and corruption of the body.  His ability to have gotten talking anuses on large insects getting rubbed with intoxicants while they moan past the censors…well, that’s an accomplishment in itself.  And the film is certainly connected to certain aspects of the Burroughsian cosmology or logic.  And it’s doubtlessly an interesting film.

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (2011) movie poster

(2011) director David Cronenberg
viewed: 12/22/2011 at Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA

I don’t know whether David Cronenberg has ever himself gone through Freudian analysis but it’s easy to assume much of his earliest film work was put through such by critics, analysts and film students.  In A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg turns the analysis back on Sigmund Freud and his colleague Carl Jung and their relationship around psychoanalysis and a patient of Jung’s with whom he had an affair, Sabina Spielrein.  Ostensibly, this is an historical drama, dramatized but based in fact.

The film stars Michael Fassbender as Jung, Keira Knightley as Spielrein, and Viggo Mortensen as Freud, with Vincent Cassel appearing in a cameo as another odd figure of the psychoanalysts, Otto Gross.  What’s true if nothing else is that there is a lot of interesting story here, originally documented in a non-fiction book called A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr and then into a stage play called “The Talking Cure” by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the screenplay. I have to say that I was almost immediately interested in reading up more on the subjects.

This is contemporary Cronenberg, not as overtly Freudian as in his earlier films of horror, science fiction, sex and violence.  But it’s also a lot more racy, say, than more typical historical dramas that are released during Oscar season like The King’s Speech (2010).  There is sex, sadism, masochism, though nowhere along the lines of Cronenberg’s earlier film Crash (1996), Dead Ringers (1988), or Rabid (1977).

Knightley, who I’ve always deemed rather lightly (sorry), is actually quite good as the hysterical Russian Spielrein.  For one thing, she acts and sounds distinctly different from other roles.  She appears at the beginning, a screaming, raving, uncontrollable basket case, in which Knightley is either quite good or good even in over-doing it.  But she’s good throughout the film, as a woman with crazy repression and a distinct genius of her own, who is “cured” by Jung’s “talking cure” and sexual relationship.

I liked the movie.  I like Fassbender, Mortensen and company and, as I said, the reality behind the story suggests even more fascinating truths in understanding it.  And a lot of the movie moves along quite well.  But at several points, it turns to the reading of one letter, say from Freud to Jung, then another in response from Jung to Freud, and back again.  And though this is no doubt the way much of their friendship, communication, and ultimate break with one another transpired, it’s a lot less dramatically effective.  The film doesn’t so much bog down as sort of just move slowly.

For my money, Cronenberg is always worth seeing and this film has a lot of interesting stuff to offer.  I might even find myself looking for the original non-fiction book from which this all arose to read more on the subject.

Interesting and recommended.