For better or for worse, the horror genre has been slapped with the reputation that it is somehow a “low” form of art, or that it is even thoroughly artless, which is perhaps why you often overhear surprised remarks that a certain horror film is “smart” (gosh, wow!). Among the Jasons, Freddies, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, and, well… more Jasons (and his mom) of the late 1970s and 1980s, David Cronenberg somehow managed to marry a remarkably intellectual and allegorical approach to horror with enough blood, guts, creatures, and screams to play with the best of ’em (see, for example, the penis/turd-shaped blood-splattered worm-parasite that turns everyone into a rape zombie in 1975’s Shivers — a.k.a. They Came From Within ). I’d argue that Cronenberg’s early oeuvre (say, mid-’70s to mid-’80s) admirably elevated the complexity and serious ambition of horror while simultaneously leaving in all the entertaining excess and gore that makes horror films what they are. Cronenberg was reaching from “low” to “high” art, and back again. And again. Perhaps even more significantly, the “media impact” to which this column refers was doubled by the fact that Cronenberg’s films often commented on the horrifying aspects of the very media in whose cultural landscape they exist.
Frequently credited as advancing the notion of “body horror“, Cronenberg’s early films typified the term perfectly: the chilling The Brood (1979) offers a portrait of a mother’s womb-facilitated psychic connection to her little brats, whose murderous tendencies she can activate telekinetically. The threatening and horrifying nature of the human body is accentuated by the fact that the monstrous children are filmed from behind wearing adorable, brightly-coloured snowsuits of just the kind you’d expect a child’s body to wear. Our expectations of the child’s body (docile, cute, soft, helpless, innocent) are overturned by the eventual revelation of the kids’ violent nature (seriously, one of them will smash your face in with a hammer). Ditto in Shivers (1975) and The Fly (1986): the former turns the placid, well-dressed, upper-middle class (and mostly white) bodies of its characters into a ravenous band of rape zombies, while the latter recounts the decay into monstrosity of the handsome and charming Jeff Goldblum as his character experiments with, well, becoming a fly (no spoiler there).
While some of these early films are hardly mainstream or respectable ones (in fact, the inexperienced acting in Shivers is so bad that it threatens to distract from the film’s admirably complex and thought-stirring themes), they introduced brand new ways of thinking about horror, and especially the horror of the body and its bodily functions, in an era in which the physical perfection of a young and virginal Jamie Lee Curtis is unproblematically represented as a clean slate for Michael Myers’ deadly appetite. While Cronenberg certainly didn’t invent the “smart”/”allegorical” horror (there was, of course, Rosemary’s Baby , The Shining , and The Exorcist , to name only a few), his stimulation of deep thought about the excesses of our bodies, and especially our sexual desires, married the horror genre with a kind of latent Freudianism and, at the same time, a pathological curiousity about the natural sciences (Cronenberg himself studied science at the University of Toronto before switching to a degree in literature). On a much more measurable (that is to say, financial) scale, the media impact of these early films goes down in history as a seminal moment in the continual struggles of the Canadian film industry: Shivers, produced for $380 000, grossed close to five million Canadian dollars. The film certainly doesn’t lack longevity, either; for a film with so much overt and seemingly crass blood, sex, and violence, Shivers brings up curious new intellectual questions with every re-viewing: how do you know that your desires are your own? From whence do they come and what animates them? When it comes to desire, and acting on it, who can you trust?
Cronenberg’s “body horror” isn’t only limited to the blood and guts out of which we’re made: in films like Scanners (1981) and the consistently critically-admired Videodrome (1983), the abject, diseased, and decaying human body is married with the supposedly sharp cleanliness of technology (the theme is revisited in Cronenberg’s later works too, like 1999’s eXistenZ and 1996’s Crash). It is here that the media impact of Cronenberg’s early and mid-career horror films doubles over on itself: what secret, ominous intentions lie behind the ostensibly “neutral” cameras, projectors, videotapes, television screens, and computers we use to view, and indulge in, films? (Is the computer you’re staring at right now going to attack you?) The stakes are especially high when the films in question are full of the delicious kinds of gore from which we cannot look away. In addition to the overtly threatening nature of technology, and the mysterious ways in which it invades the body (James Woods’ body meshes with both a videotape and a handgun in Videodrome , while the telekinetic and telepathic characters in Scanners are themselves used as technologies by en evil weapons manufacturing corporation), these films comment on the very same cultural and media landscape that allows them to exist. The character of Max Renn in Videodrome is speculated to be modeled on self-proclaimed “media innovator” (!) and corporate mogul Moses Znaimer. No doubt, the role of the evil corporation in the media-cultural landscape has been a central, and influential, Cronenberg trope (ahem, Antiviral ).
On one hand, Cronenberg’s early horror films somehow managed to reach for the highest echelons of psychology and smart allegory while remaining true to the blood, guts, and monsters (and hammy acting) that populate horror films and make them fun. On the other, he also somehow managed to launch a scathing critique on the very apparatuses we use to experience cinema and other media themselves. It’s not only a talented filmmaker that can perform such intellectual acrobatics, but a gutsy one, too. The interest, controversy, and acclaim that surround Cronenberg’s most recent works (like the impressively original and theatrical Cosmopolis ) attests to the extent to which his work continues to impact the very media landscape which it feeds off like a bloodthirsty parasite.
Image from The Brood.
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