Body horror has been around since Greek mythology. Yet, only in the last two hundred years has it been used to really push the boundaries of what we consider acceptable and how we view our own bodies. Whether it’s disease, technology or sex there’s body horror of it. The foremost auteur in body horror, even though he hasn’t worked in the genre since the late 90s, is David Cronenberg.
Beginning with Shivers in 1975 and ending with eXistenZ in 1999 Cronenberg has touched on everything. From the end of the sexual revolution to the fear children can produce right up to the AIDS crisis and beyond it’s all in that 24 year period of David Cronenberg’s nastiest work. Of course Cronenberg has worked in numerous other genres but they all feature characters that change either psychologically or physiologically. The body horror might have disappeared but the transformations remain similar.
Sex is often the driving point of fear in horror movies. Whether it’s the final girl in slasher films or ham-fisted psychosexual imagery in Dracula sex has always been there. No wonder then that in Shivers, Cronenberg’s first feature, sex came to the fore. An apartment block is driven sex-mad by turd shaped parasites and it’s up to a doctor with a bad dye job to save the day. The film opens with an old man strangling a schoolgirl before undressing her, gutting the corpse and pouring acid into her stomach. Canadian journalist Robert Fulford ran a review with the headline: “You should know how bad this film is. After all, you paid for it.”
Shivers was Canada’s most controversial film in 1975 but it was also it’s most profitable. Years before the AIDS crisis would devastate North America and the rest of the world David Cronenberg was filming warnings but he never saw them that way. Cronenberg always wrote and directed his films from the point of view of it’s supposed villains. It’s hard to understand when you’re so invested in his often kind heroes getting out alive but it makes sense in the psychological examination of his work. His work is transgressive but that’s what gives it merit.
The Brood is perhaps the easiest of David Cronenberg’s horror movies to watch in this transgressive psychological frame. It’s a more personal story compared to Shivers which is about the breakdown of social order. When he wrote The Brood Cronenberg was in the middle of a nasty divorce from his first wife and was embroiled in a custody battle over his daughter, Cassandra. That’s probably why The Brood features a divorce, a daughter and a brood of angry mutant children.
The Brood is probably the only film Cronenberg doesn’t shoot from the villain’s perspective. Instead the hero, Frank (Art Hindle), is a determined, confident man caught between a rock and a hard place. Or rather a rock and a gang of evil children. It’s a deep dive into trauma and the way it can manifest itself both psychologically and physically. Towards the end of the film as Frank is driving away having rescued his daughter she starts to develop strange lumps on her arm. They’re similar in appearance to the ones her mother had that eventually grew into the external womb that birthed her brood. Cronenberg’s worry for his daughter is palpable as the camera fixates on the future problems his desire to protect her wellbeing might have caused.
From there David Cronenberg’s films began to become more and more personal though not necessarily for him. In Scanners and Videodrome he began to look closely at technology and how it affected us at psychic and physical levels. Scanners features a private security company using people with psychokinetic powers for their own ends. When one of these ‘Scanners’ breaks out the results are mind-melting and head-exploding, literally.
Videodrome delves deeper into our connection with TV at a far more base and primal level. Returning again to sex and violence Cronenberg shows a TV executive, Max Renn (James Woods), descending into madness caused by the signal from a renegade TV station. Renn’s hallucinations become more violent and disturbing as the film goes on. A mouth replaces the screen of his TV, his hand becomes a pulsing, fleshy gun and a VCR is embedded in his stomach. Man and machine become one. We become the media we consume. As Renn says at the film’s end: “Long live the new flesh.”
Speaking of new flesh David Cronenberg’s most popular and praised movie The Fly has heaps of new, distorted flesh. Filmed and released in 1986 as the AIDS Crisis began reaching its peak The Fly showed a nation’s fear on screen. Although Cronenberg never saw the film as an allegory for ant one disease he understood why the two were so closely connected. Beginning with Jeff Goldblum playing Seth Brundle the film shows the degradation of the handsome, suave and intelligent scientist after his DNA is combined with that of a fly.
Goldblum, then a well respected dramatic actor, plays Brundle as only Jeff Goldblum can. All hems and haws and intense eye contact it only makes it worse to see this good looking guy rot and come apart before our eyes. His hair falls out, sores develop, chunks of his flesh slough off the bone and he vomits onto his food so he can eat it. It did not accurately depict AIDS as we now know it but it let audiences in 1986 understand that this was a disease that would ravage the world if left unchecked. It’s impossible now to quantify how much or how little The Fly did for public interest in the disease but it makes for something to think about beyond the Oscar winning make-up.
What offers just as much to think about is Dead Ringers. Though not Cronenberg’s final body horror film it would be 11 years before he’d make another in 1999. Jeremy Irons plays twin gynaecologists that descend into drug addiction and depravity after their equilibrium is upset by the meeker of the twins dating a patient. This prescription drug abuse has one twin hallucinate women with mutant genitals. As creepy as all the unreal mutations and eventual disembowelment is it’s just downright uncanny to have two Jeremy Irons that act completely different from one another. It might not be Cronenberg’s scariest feature but it is the one that’s the most unsettling.
David Cronenberg has focussed more on the psychological since eXistenZ in 1999. His films Crash, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and Maps to the Stars have all delved deep into their characters’ minds and found plenty of disturbing content not so far removed from his early work. Still it is his early work that remains the most thought-provoking, at least to those with strong stomachs.
At 75 David Cronenberg may never make another film but the audacity and taboo-shattering strength of his work will remain.