As TIFF celebrates David Cronenberg over the next few months, there is ample time to reflect on how important he was to the horror genre. He emerged at a time when American horror films were undergoing a major renovation in style and content, and he managed to single-handedly create a sub-genre of his own: the body horror movie. While fright flicks dealing with the fears of body transformation and inner destruction had been present previously in various forms, no one had portrayed it quite as explicitly before, resulting in many critics deeming subsequent body horror films “Cronenbergian”. So as a bonus, alongside the plethora of Cronenberg events this upcoming winter, TIFF is screening a sidebar series called Psychoplasmic Panic! Cronenberg and the Rise of Body Horror. Curated by Midnight Madness guru Colin Geddes, the program illustrates how Cronenberg blazed a trail for other filmmakers to explore and have fun with all sorts of bodily ickiness and the psychology behind it.
The series kicked off this past Saturday with Ken Russell’s Altered States, a landmark psychedelic trip out, written by legendary scribe Paddy Chayefsky. William Hurt stars in his first movie role as Eddie Jessup, a brilliant scientist driven to experience different states of consciousness in search of the ultimate truth. Using an isolation tank and taking mystical hallucinogens from Mexico, Jessup begins sliding back to primordial states of human development, which eventually start manifesting physically. Altered States gave Russell the chance to experiment with his weirdness on a large budget. The early-CGI hallucination sequences, which see Russell indulging in his trademark obsessions with sex and religion, still impress today. It’s also inspiring that a film this strange was put into production by a major studio, even if a Hollywood career for Russell never materialized afterwards.
A couple of Cronenberg’s contemporaries, Brian De Palma and John Carpenter, had their own flirtations with body horror. De Palma’s Sisters actually preceded Cronenberg’s rise to prominence by a couple of years, but would focus on the twin theme that would go on to be the focus of Dead Ringers. The first of numerous Hitchcock homage’s, De Palma’s stylish film employs a Bernard Herrmann score and various visual tricks for a potboiler about a reporter trying to uncover the truth behind a pair of identical twins after witnessing one of them commit murder. John Carpenter’s The Thing, meanwhile, is the ultimate ‘80s sci-fi horror movie, an intense mix of paranoia and shocking gore, where an alien that takes the appearance of the people it kills rips through a colony of scientists in the Antarctic. Carpenter, in what is arguably his best film, always keeps you on your toes about whether anybody is actually who they say they are. Rob Bottin’s special effects work is still eye-popping and repulsive.
The body horror film would spread to other parts of the world as well. If you’re a fan of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, you may want to check out Possession, which feels like somewhat of a precursor in terms of the horrific examination of a married couple breaking apart. It was made by controversial Polish director Andrzej Zulawski and shot in Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, an evocative backdrop for the fantastical elements that slowly dominate the story. Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani play a couple on the verge of separation. He wants her to stay, but she has begun an affair with someone (or something) else. Zulawski’s films are all pretty high-pitched, and this is no exception, with moments like Neill rocking back and forth psychotically in a chair as he talks to his wife, or Adjani having a complete mental, physical and spiritually meltdown in a subway tunnel. The actors give ferocious, bug-eyed performances and the arguments between them get more and more heated and insane. Inspired by Zulawski’s rocky divorce, you can clearly see he’s working through some issues here. And he fits in one of the most disgusting sex scenes you’ll ever witness, involving a slimy creature created by the dude who brought E.T. to life. It’s a moment that Cronenberg actually pays homage to in Naked Lunch.
Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto was originally part of a theatre group in Tokyo until he made Tetsuo: The Iron Man and immediately became a cult icon. Shot on 16mm film in black-and-white around industrial locations, Tetsuo has a distinct Eraserhead vibe to it. Storywise, all you need to know is that it’s about an everyday businessman who starts turning into a scrap metal-human hybrid, eventually even having his penis replaced by a drill. As you can surmise, Tetsuo is some crazy shit. Marina de Van’s In My Skin, on the other hand, is the most naturalistic film in the series, which makes it an even queasier watch. After cutting her leg at a party, a Parisian woman becomes obsessed with cutting and scraping her own skin. Obviously this does not go to happy places, becoming a highly disturbing study of self-mutilation featuring a committed lead performance from the director herself. Expect to cringe… a lot.
Then there are the filmmakers who decided to take the body horror genre a little less seriously. More a black comedy than anything else, Society (which was the directorial debut of Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna) concerns a rich and popular teenager growing up in Beverly Hills who begins to feel out of place with his family. As he investigates, he starts to uncover that the upper class might just be feeding off the lower class in surprisingly gruesome ways, which culminates in a finale that will make sure you never think about an orgy in the same way again; courtesy of the insane special makeup effects of Screamin’ Mad George.
Body Melt is really just an excuse to see nasty things happen to people’s bodies. It was the only feature directed by experimental Australian musician Philip Brophy and boy, did he make it a doozy. Blood, snot and pus oozes at record levels, skin melts off, a penis explodes, and a birth goes monstrously awry. The plot, about suburbanites that consume experimental vitamin supplements mailed to them by a nearby health clinic, doesn’t even really try to make any sense. At the same time, you get the feeling that Brophy is well aware of this and just doesn’t care, and I can respect that in a way. If you’re looking for pure gross out horror-comedy, this is the apex. More recently, James Gunn treated us to his own nauseating spectacle with Slither. A throwback to B-movie creature features but containing all kinds of CGI gore, Slither shows us alien parasites taking over a small country town, attaching and worming their way inside people to turn them into zombies. It’s over-the-top fun and certainly brings to mind Cronenberg’s memorable foray into parasitism, Shivers. It’s probably best to go see these on an empty stomach.
The series brings itself full circle with the most recent entry, Panos Cosmatos’s Beyond the Black Rainbow. It’s Canadian and feels distinctly like Cronenberg’s early features, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, in its depiction of a futuristically baroque research facility. Cosmatos is a little too slavish to his influences (besides Cronenberg, there are homages to Carpenter, Kubrick, Tarkovsky and many more) but he creates a hypnotic audiovisual experience nonetheless. There is also a full-blown seething performance from relative unknown Michael Rogers as the head doctor of the clinic, a man who has undergone some form of radical physical transformation. Beyond the Black Rainbow is certainly one of the most exciting debut Canadian films for some time, proving that Cronenberg’s legacy continues to inspire new generations of filmmakers.
Psychoplasmic Panic! Cronenberg and the Rise of Body Horror runs from November 2, 2013 to December 21, 2013 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check their website for details and showtimes.