The iconic director may be best known for his gruesome brand of ‘body horror’, but if you look closer, the instability of identity is what he finds truly frightening.
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18 Nov 2014 - 12:04 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:30 AM

David Cronenberg’s latest film, Maps to the Stars, is a corrosive satire on Hollywood neurosis starring Julianne Moore as a star undergoing a late career crisis, as well as John Cusack as a cynical new age therapist and Mia Wasikowska as a physically scarred young woman with an interesting past. Moore’s emotionally fragile character is obsessed with the psychic damage she feels her late movie diva mother has inflicted on her. (The performance won Moore the best actress prize at Cannes 2014.)

Many critics who admire the film and/or its two immediate predecessors, the Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung psychodrama A Dangerous Mind (2012, adapted from a Christopher Hampton play), and the Don DeLillo-derived Cosmopolis (2013), have tended to cast these films as major shifts away from the director’s core concern with “body horror”. Defined by Wikipedia as horror “principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body”, it’s a term that long ago should have been laid to rest in relation to this unique Canadian filmmaker.

Even the erudite British critic, The Observer’s Philip French, fell into the trap when he wrote in his review of A Dangerous Mind shortly before his retirement, that the filmmaker had long been recognised as a prime exponent of body horror movies [my italics], which he described as “stories of terror involving parasites, metamorphoses, diseases, decomposition and physical wounds, such as Shivers, Videodrome, Naked Lunch and his version of The Fly.” But now, “as he approaches 70,” wrote the veteran critic, the director “has stood back from the visceral fray.”


The link between physical affect and mental disturbance is clear enough from the clip above depicting Jung’s patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). As the filmmaker told a German interviewer at the Toronto Film Festival while promoting Cosmopolis, critics who harped on about the supposedly un-Cronenbergian nature of A Dangerous Mind had missed that an interest with psychology had been present from the very start of his career. His first film as a young man had been a short called Transfer about a psychiatrist and his patient, “so my interest in psychology was deep”. This interest gave rise to one of the central themes of his movies: the instability of identity.

That 1966 short neatly predicted a concern that would haunt his films over the ensuing five decades. If anything defines his oeuvre, which has feet planted in several genres – horror, science fiction, thriller and drama, often in combination – it’s the idea of transformation. That process of metamorphosis can be mental, physical or technological, usually in tandem.

Horrific body modification – scarring, injuries, human bodies fused with insects, stomachs with slots for videotapes – has clearly been a regular part of Cronenberg’s aesthetic. But if this were all there was to his work, we could probably safely cast him aside as a torture porn merchant like Eli Roth (Hostel and its sequel).
Look more closely and it becomes clear his films have long cleaved more closely to the psychological and identity disturbance of Roman Polanski titles such as Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976), or the science fiction-horror of Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its remakes, than to the ‘body horror’ of the slasher sub-genre, or Ridley Scott’s gore-laden Hannibal.

Even the term ‘psychological thriller’ hardly explains the uniqueness of Cronenberg’s work. Perhaps the film that predates his aesthetic the closest is the 1966 John Frankenheimer film Seconds, in which a man who wants to disappear and change his identity undergoes radical surgery run by a sinister underground organisation, only to find that he’s living in a nightmare from which he can not awake. Here was the classic blend of mind and body transformation that would later be found in most of the Toronto-born filmmaker’s work.

What makes Cronenberg’s films live on in the imagination is their director’s unique interest in the fusion of the disturbed or neurotic mind with the physical world of sex, technology and the body, three supposedly discrete concepts he sees as being extensions of one another. As he told Crikey in 2012, “I don’t think there is any difference between the mind and the body.”

Scanners (1981)

The most famous moment in the director’s early work remains the exploding head scene near the beginning of Scanners. Any horror hack could come up with that. Here, however, we had a group of men and women – known as “scanners” – who could interfere with other people’s minds and bodies using extra-sensory mental powers alone. That, not the gore, is what made this a classic Cronenbergian moment.

The Fly (1986)

There’s plenty of oozily repellant special effects in The Fly, adapted from a short story by George Langelaan, about a scientist (Jeff Goldblum) whose DNA is fused with an insect’s. Crucially, the film complicates its physical horror with empathy for the mental and emotional suffering of Goldblum’s character. Its concern with transformation is classically Cronenbergian, but the horror is not from fear of this monster. The horror comes from understanding the monster’s plight. (Echoes here of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its various film adaptations.)

Naked Lunch (1991)

William Burroughs’s conception of the human body as a “soft machine” lies at the heart of much of Cronenberg's work. That the Canadian would make a film inspired by the experimental novelist’s most unfilmable work, Naked Lunch, was fitting. He wisely approached the project not as a literal remake of the novel but as a free-flowing fantasia about its author’s imagination. The result is a weird blend of psycho-biography and drug-induced hallucinations populated by, among other things, the alien creatures Burroughs dubbed “mugwumps” –and let’s not forget the talking anus. (Let it not be said Cronenberg lacks a sense of humour.)

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Crash (1996)

This adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel about people who get their sexual jollies from car crashes and find the metal surfaces of automobiles and callipers to be as sensuous as human skin, was considered so outrageous it was banned from central London cinemas. It does feature plenty of perverse imagery – inevitable, given its story – yet what disturbs most is not the imagery of flesh-meeting-metal in an erotic embrace so much as the perversity behind it. The true horror is its characters’ psychopathology. Ballard is considered one of the key authors of the “inner space” movement in 1960s science fiction (a reaction against outer space adventures that instead imagined future societies and ways of thinking). Cronenberg, with his exploration of inner space and inner horror, might be usefully considered a cinematic heir.

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eXistenZ (1999)

Wikipedia, with thudding predictably, calls this science fiction thriller a “body horror film”, completely missing that it’s a story about existential crisis in which characters played by Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh get lost in the vortex of a virtual reality game (plugged into their bodies via “bioports” and umbilical-style “umbycords”) to the point where they are unable to tell where external reality begins and inner world of the game ends.

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Spider (2002)

One of the most unfairly overlooked examples of Cronenberg’s jones for psychological disturbance is this film adapted from a novel by Patrick McGrath. Ralph Fiennes plays a schizophrenic, freshly released from a mental institution, who wanders the grimy streets of working class London while haunted by a traumatic childhood incident. In its own way, it’s as expressionistic a depiction of a psychological illness as Robert Wiene’s German silent classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, in which the angular sets reflected the delusions of an asylum inmate.

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