Frontlines

The horrifying David Cronenberg

Noah James July 9 1979
Frontlines

The horrifying David Cronenberg

Noah James July 9 1979

The horrifying David Cronenberg

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

Noah James

Alfred Hitchcock is dedicated to making audiences scream; Canadian director David Cronenberg loves making them squirm. His gruesome twosome, Shivers and Rabid, are Canadian box-office champs which have achieved cult status among those who desire to be both genuinely horrified and delightfully scared. The Brood, Cronenberg’s current excursion into the world of nightmare reality and dream

logic, promises to take audiences beyond fear, beyond terror, beyond the boundaries of the mind. That it also takes them beyond the valley of taste is a foregone conclusion. Says Cronenberg: “There is no such thing as a tasteful horror film. Taste kills.”

Cronenberg

knows his audience does not flock to his films in search of a message or a great performance. They come seeking thrills and chills, and he obliges by getting under their skin and making their flesh crawl. The star of his first feature film, Shivers, was a slimy, phallic-shaped parasite. Passed from victim to victim by French kissing, it made the inhabitants of a Montreal high-rise apartment complex into frenzied, sex-crazed killers. In Rabid, a bungled skin graft turned porn star Marilyn Chambers into a vampire when a bloodsucking organ suddenly sprouted from her armpit. “Fangs had been done to death,” says Cronenberg, wryly. “I was looking for something a little more off-beat.”

Physical transformations are featured in The Brood—which Cronenberg also scripted—as a city is thrown into panic by a series of bizarre murders committed by vengeful creatures that destroy anything that gets in their way. Filmed on location in Toronto at a cost of $1.4 million, it stars Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed and features a flock of young Ontario gymnasts as the creatures of the title.

Reed, who has appeared in 52 films and worked with such major directors as Richard Lester and Ken Russell, has

described The Brood as the most frightening movie he has ever made. “He accepted the role at considerably less than his usual fee,” says Cronenberg, “because he said it was the best script he’d been offered since The Devils.” Reed plays a psychotherapist who specializes in something called “psychoplasmics,” a treatment which results in patients being able to change the structure of the tissues of their bodies. One male patient grows breasts, while suffering Samantha, Reed’s prize patient, plays host to “the brood” by developing an eruptive skin disease which evolves into human embryos.

The Brood, confirms Cronenberg, “is as gory as Shivers and Rabid but much more sophisticated psychologically. It’s also an autobiography of a nightmare. Not necessarily a nightmare in the sense of something you dream while asleep but rather a combination of dreams and insane fears. Worrying, for instance, that your wife will go mad and kill your child, or that your child will be stricken with some horrendous disease.” To Cronenberg, the horror film is a nightmare presented as reality. “In real life, you open your eyes and the nightmare is over. In my movies, the nightmare begins when you awaken.” Twice married and devoted to his seven-year-old daughter, Cronenberg, 36, has been a fan of westerns, comics and horror movies since childhood. Given his repugnant personal visions, one might expect him to be slightly perverse

in appearance—afflicted with a hunchback and warts on his nose. However, his reputation belies his image. He may be the Baron of Blood but he looks more like a young college professor; clean-cut and soft-spoken. “People,” he says, “usually expect me to be as nasty as my movies.”

Possessing a keen sense of irony and a vivid imagination, Cronenberg turned to film-making while working toward a BA in English literature at the University of Toronto. In 1967, he wrote and directed two short films, Transfer and From the Drain. They were followed by two avant-garde science-fiction horror efforts, Stereo and Crimes of the Future. Running at 65 minutes each, both were highly original and visually stunning but too long for television and too short for theatrical release. Consequently, they were relegated to film festivals and college screenings where they generated rave reviews but little profit.

In 1973, Cronenberg went commercial by writing and directing Shivers. It won the Grand Prix at the International Festival of Horror and Fantasy Films in Sitges, Spain, but attracted the wrath of Toronto film critic Robert Fulford. Writing under the pseudonym of Marshall Delaney, Fulford described the film as the most repulsive movie he had ever seen, and blasted the Canadian Film Development Corporation for investing taxpayers’ money in schlock. Ironically, Shivers paid back its production costs when foreign rights were sold

before the film was released. Produced for a mere $185,000, it has been shown in 33 countries, in 14 languages, and grossed $3 million worldwide. Rabid, made for $530,000, has earned $7 million.

The Cronenberg touch is distinguished by a mixture in mood of the physically terrifying and the mentally unsettling. His films are not moralistic, allegorical or symbolic but exist to remind us that there are forces in the universe over which we have no control.

Ordinary people in ordinary situations are suddenly confronted by something monstrous. What makes the films disturbing is that they seem so plausible. Indeed, the mysterious epidemic of Legionnaires’ Disease has all the earmarks of a Cronenberg script.

Next to the western, no genre of screen entertainment has been as consistently successful as the horror film. Cronenberg’s analysis of the fascination of the frightful is that it’s therapeutic. “Horror films are not escapist, they are confrontations. They don’t take us away from anything, they put us right smack in the middle of the most

dreadful situations imaginable. They have a cathartic effect because they allow us to purge our fears and terrors in the cinema.”

Not one to rest on blood-clotted laurels, while completing The Brood, Cronenberg was also wrapping up postproduction on another feature, Fast Company. Starring William Smith, Claudia Jennings and John Saxon, it’s about champion drag racing and was shot on location in Calgary and at the Edmonton International Speedway last summer.

Cronenberg is not switching genres. Fast Company was actually filmed before The Brood and offered to Cronenberg because of his passion for collecting classic cars and motorcycles. He owns a Lancia, a 1969-model Dino Ferrari, and two Desmo Ducati motorbikes. “Fast Company’s a slick, better-than-B movie,” Cronenberg says. “Drag racing lends itself to ‘western’ mythology and that’s what makes the film work. It’s a shootout, really, between two guys on the drag strip.”

Cronenberg is the first to admit that his films are not moviemaking of the highest order. But he is quick to point out the artistic merits of genre films. “There is a creative process involved in these films,” he insists, quite rightfully. He is now able to write his own ticket in the Canadian film industry and despite offers from Hollywood, is staying put. “I’m making the kind of movies I want to make. I’m not slumming.”