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Retrospective: The Films Of David Cronenberg

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 22, 2011 at 11:50AM

It’s been a long journey to “respectability” for David Cronenberg. In the early days of his career, the helmer was a favorite of the Fangoria crowd, crafting genre entertainment that relied heavily on nightmarish prosthetics to sugar (or rather, gore) -coat the elemental, sometimes philosophical ideas he was preoccupied with. Many of these ideas are captured succinctly in early-year masterpiece “Videodrome”: we are but slaves to our outer sheaths, mutation is the only real evolution and matters of the heart are merely an illusion, while the mind's fragility and propensity to conflate reality with dreams or hallucinations will always make it ultimately subservient to the desires of the flesh. Pit logic against the darker recesses of human nature, he suggests, and logic, control and intellectualism will always fail.
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Rabid

"Rabid" (1977)
This early, low-budget, but quite effective fourth film from Cronenberg is notable for several reasons, mainly as a blueprint, of sorts, for better films he’d go on to make in the near future (it could be said to feature the balance of the micro/macro apocalypse of “Scanners,” leading to the weird sexual politics of “Videodrome” and then to the genre and makeup/gore of “The Fly”). His take on the vampire and zombie genres (a year before Romero would return to zombies with “Dawn of the Dead”) is unique, and pure, bizarre Cronenberg: a woman (Marilyn Chambers, serviceable in the role) receives life-saving/altering skin grafts at a pseudo-idyllic plastic surgery clinic, which also creates a phallic stinger under her armpit (why not, right?) that lives off blood and turns her victims in to rabid zombies whose bites spread the disease. It’s the second film of Cronenberg's produced by a pre-“Animal HouseIvan Reitman, who, legend has it, had the idea to cast porn star Chambers after the studio shot down Cronenberg’s first choice for the role, Sissy Spacek. While by no means a great film, “Rabid” is still pretty damn good. Its subversive, satirical take on plastic surgery and its effects on a lazy, quick-fix society, is pointed and ahead of its time (it’s pretty amazing how common this is in the Canadian director’s oeuvre, especially his ‘70s and ‘80s period) and the ending is a satisfying, tragic and totally earned downer. [B]

Fast Company

"Fast Company" (1979)
While "Fast Company" remains--as a brightly colored action-drama about professional drag racers--an anomaly in the Cronenberg canon, it's still a key text for any devotee of the auteur. For one thing, it united Cronenberg with a number of people who would go on to become frequent creative collaborators (most notably cinematographer Mark Irwin and production designer Carol Spier), and for another, because it's the first exploration of Cronenberg's personal love for automobiles and car culture. You can feel the director's fascination with the material in his almost documentary-like approach to capturing these vehicles on the screen--the crackle of the engine and the tremble of the cockpit; it borders on obsessive. Cronenberg, who, on the commentary track, describes the film loosely as a "tone piece," plays up its archetypal western imagery despite its Canadian setting. "Fast Company" is an essential oddity for fans, fun and breezy and filled with B-movie actors (including John Saxon) and one Playboy Playmate of the Year (Claudia Jennings, who died tragically in a car accident a few months after filming the movie); its charming banality makes it all the more bizarre. [B+]


Brood

"The Brood" (1979)
Cronenberg has never been as personal (or as brutal) as he is in the squishy-squirmy allegory "The Brood," which he made during a prolonged and painful child custody battle following his divorce from his first wife. The movie concerns an experimental psychotherapy technique that Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed, mercifully light on the ham) is pioneering. His primary client is Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) who is going through a divorce from her husband Frank (Art Hindle) and struggling for custody of their young daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds). When Candice shows up with bruises, Frank suspects Nola and Raglan of something untoward. But what's more untoward is the band of dwarfish creatures that skitters onto the screen and quickly dispenses with Candice's grandmother (among others). These creatures, less than knee-high and absolutely vicious, are some of the most terrifying and often-overlooked creatures Cronenberg has ever dreamed (nightmared?) up, a batch of demons literally born from rage. Like all of the director's most uncanny creations, they work both metaphorically and viscerally – there's an emotional gut-punch that accompanies the sheer terror. The finale, which features (spoiler – and vomit – alert) Eggar birthing one of the creatures, tearing open its embryonic sack, and licking the little creature clean, is an operatic high in the outré Cronenberg oeuvre. [A-] 

Scanners

"Scanners" (1981)
Even in more of a blockbuster mode, Cronenberg remains distinctly Cronenbergian. “Scanners,” a genuine full-throttle b-thriller, deals with an underground society of telepaths developing the ability to alter the world through the mutation of their own minds. While there are plenty of pyrotechnics saved for the special effects sequences (including a head-exploding scene that has, in some ways, outlived the movie), Cronenberg seems less frightened and more fascinated by this twisted take on the potential next phase of evolution. Being the earlier iteration of Cronenberg, he also can't resist the lure of a good prosthetic, leading to a number of visual freakouts. "Scanners" never focuses its curiosity into a coherent idea about evolution, making the picture more of a tantalizing what-if for ideas that would skew in a more academic direction with Cronenberg's next film ("Videodrome"), but as far as cheap schlock thrills go, it was matched by very few in the early '80s, mostly thanks to a career-defining performance by Michael Ironside as the villainous Darryl Revok. It's an often intense experience, but the film's lasting impact stems from the superficial absurdities of the project more than from any particular directorial thesis. [B-]

This article is related to: The Essentials, David Cronenberg, Features


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