Click here for Part 1 A BODY IN TRANSFORMATION: CRONENBERG’S BODY HORROR AS TRANSGENDER CINEMA
Let’s Get Clinical:
Cronenberg under the knife.
Dead Ringers (1988)
Along with themes of bodily transformation and sexuality, biological infection is perhaps the most recurring motif in Cronenberg’s cinema. From the director’s early features, Shivers (1975, original title Orgy of the Blood Parasites) and 1977’s Rabid to 1999’s videogame-gone-wrong Existenz, Cronenberg explored the notion of bodily transformation in a number of ways, including through the combination of man and machine, of the physical and the psychological, and of course of transformation through infection. But beyond this, the director has long had a cerebral obsession with the subversion of clinical sterility; one that has manifested itself throughout his oeuvre.
Criticism of Shivers, Cronenberg’s 3rd film (after his 1969 directorial debut, Stereo, and the following year’s Crimes of the Future) usually focuses on the theme of sexually transmitted disease, which is of course apparent throughout the movie, as the parasite is passed from person to person via frenzied sexual activity and results in a mob of aggressive fuck-zombies pouncing upon protagonist St Luc (Paul Hampton) in the swimming pool of the Starliner apartment complex. During the film, it is revealed that Hobbes' (Doctor St Luc’s former medical partner, who commits suicide at the film’s opening) nefarious ambition with his parasitic invention was to reassert humanity's unbridled, sexually aggressive instincts, using the residents of the complex as his guinea pigs.
Here is another notion explored by the director in Shivers; one that would continue throughout Cronenberg’s works. This is the theme of medicine and of clinical practice gone wrong. St Luc admits in one scene that his original interest lay in creating a more useful parasite – one that could enter a host and take over the role of a malfunctioning human organ. The creature that infects the film’s characters may do so via sexual activity, but it is borne via medical malractice. The medical theme in Shivers is, in fact, ubiquitous. Just like the film’s parasite, it finds its way into every aspect of the film, using every aspect of the mise en scene as host. The Starliner Apartment complex is itself a clinical place: this self-contained, modern apartment complex is characterised by blank, white, sterile surfaces, a sterility that ultimately can do nothing to stop the onslaught of the vicious parasite and its growing army of hosts. The finale takes place in a swimming pool – the water of which, of course, is heavily chlorinated in order to sanitize, to kill bacteria and viruses and oxidize the skin oils, lotions and urine of swimmers. Here, there is a very deliberate irony that the swimming pool is where Dr St Luc finally meets his fate. No amount of cleanliness can stop this infection from spreading.
Cronenberg’s focus on clinical practice would continue over the next few years and films. Where it is perhaps most overt is in 1988’s Dead Ringers, the adapted tale of twin gynaecologists Elliot and Beverley Mantle. It is the doctors, not their patients, who succumb to infection - not one of the flesh, but of the psyche, as their identities become fractured by neuroses, obsessions and addictions, and slowly the brothers’ minds unravel, leading to Beverley's attempt to break the psychic bond via physical surgery - a method which, of course, fails; causes the death of them both.
While Elliot’s own journey is a relatively simplistic one (he is toxic masculinity personified, indulging himself in malpractice by using his position as a means to take sexual advantage of women), Beverley's own downward spiral also sees his clinical professionalism subverted, but in a much more visceral way - as he commissions and then attempts to use the nightmarish instruments he has designed (for use on women with mutant reproductive systems). These instruments are surgical aberrations, causing severe pain to the first woman Beverley tries them on. Here, we see the corruption of the clinical once more. The bond of Trust between doctor and patient has been broken, this time through gross malpractice rather than predatory seduction and sexual exploitation. Beverley's patient is caused a great deal of physical (and no doubt mental) trauma. Even Beverley doesn't get off scot free, further traumatised as he is, the incident plays a significant part in his breakdown.
Like Hobbs and St Luc before them, the Mantle twins’ medical obsessions make victims of their patients, and ultimately prove their own undoing.
In Crash (1996), the director’s adaptation of the subversive Ballard novel, we once more see the clinical and the psychosexual hand in hand. Here, Cronenberg allows us a peek into an often necessary but nonetheless macabre surgical practice - amputation. Crash once again ticks the usual Cronenbergian boxes: bodily transformation (this time through traffic accidents and resultant surgery); macabre melodrama (a kink-driven love affair); the analysis of the psychosexual (this time a sexual obsession with the scene of accidents).
But once again there is an additional element.
Following the car crash that injures James Spader and 'introduces' him to Holly Hunter, Cronenberg hard cuts to the hospital, to visceral close ups of Spader's injuries. Here, we once more see the mise en scene as host to Cronenberg’s clinical subversion. The way the director lights his hospitals is deliberately drab and murky, always giving the impression that the sterile surfaces here are vulnerable, forever on the verge of being consumed. Here, Spader sees Hunter once more, and meets intimidating culty weirdo Elias Koteas, who takes a very close look at his injured leg.
Inevitably, infection creeps into Crash, and once more it is an infection of the psyche, as Spader and his wife, Deborah Unger become sexually obsessed with the idea of car crashes. They become acolytes of Koteas, get horny watching crash test dummy videos, have lots of sex and their lives soon spiral out of control. It his here, in Crash, that we see the nexus of Cronenberg’s thematic multistrand in all its glory.
Benedict (no date) cites Cronenberg’s auteur “manifesto”, explaining that “In one degree or another, Cronenberg’s films have been exploring sex and identity ever since (Shivers)”. This is of course true, but it focuses only on the strands of sex and identity. Cronenberg’s obsession with the clinical is very much a third strand of his manifesto, as it is interwoven into most of his works. Whether supplying us with sexual parasites, bodily infection or the collapse of the psyche, the Canadian director ensures the medical and clinical is intrinsically linked to his themes of sex and identity/transformation.
In 1999’s Existenz, Cronenberg chooses gaming and virtual reality as his arena for a mind-warping thriller. Once again, themes of identity are inherent, and sex is explored in the Canadian’s (un)usual way. Sex and the clinical are intertwined once more. The way Allegra Gellar’s gaming machine – her ‘bio-port’ – works is via penetration, plugging directly into the lower spine of the user, and connecting to gaming hardware via un umbilical cord or ‘umbrycord’. As Benedict (no date) suggests:
“eXistenZ even has one of the drawbacks of sex, in so far as it can be infected with communicable diseases—envisioned by the film as a literal infection of Allegra Geller’s game pod. When the narrative of the film moves out into its shell-narrative, the game pods in that reality become technological (the main narrative of eXistenZ has a noticeable lack of technology, or, rather, non-biological technology).”
Ebert (1999) also points out that Cronenberg frequently presents what look like distant, alien sexual activities, with the combination of man and machine (television in Videodrome; the teleportation chamber in The Fly; surgical appliances in Dead Ringers and Crash) in a distinctly “unhealthy” way. And that’s what the fleshy gaming ports in Existenz are: unhealthy. They resemble diseased, mutated body parts: from the umbrycord to the gaming pods themselves, which are designed to look not dissimilar to an excised tumour, there is already a distinctly medical/clinical feel to the symbiosis of man and machine. That this distinctly Cronenbergian gametech contains a ‘virus’ is of course a further clinical link. These fleshy devices, which attach to the body via a ‘port’ created by surgical procedure, deliver a virus that affects both the body (presenting us with infection imagery) and the psyche (the titular game is a sort of virtual reality, but one that takes place by directly manipulating the brain into accepting an alternate ‘reality’ while in what appears to be a deep, anaesthetized slumber).
Cronenberg takes the notion further, and in doing so reaches something of a logical conclusion with regard to his clinical themes. Co-protagonist Pikel (Jude Law, playing second fiddle to Jennifer Jason Leigh in typical fashion: Cronenberg’s female leads are, almost without exception, more rounded and interesting characters than their male counterparts) has his own bio-port created via lumbar puncture. However, this most clinical of procedures takes place not in a hospital but in a backwoods gas station run by a sleazy and treacherous mechanic (Willem Dafoe in typically terrifying form).
Given what we have already witnessed, particularly in Dead Ringers, Existenz offers an incredibly interesting take on the clinical setting. Dafoe’s workshop is lit in the same washed out fashion as Cronenberg’s sterile settings, but it is anything but. This is a greasy, oily workshop, a place caked in filth and bacteria, sure to lead to infection and disease (which, of course, it does). Here, the director entirely presents the clinical and surgical as unsafe. The sterility is gone; replaced by an entirely compromised environment. This is still a ‘hospital’ in Cronenberg’s warped world, as it still performs surgery, but it is presented as the most unsafe environment possible.
It can be generally accepted that surgical, medical and clinical themes are as intrinsic to Cronenberg’s oeuvre as explorations of sex, and treatise on bodily transformation and identity. What is not easy to determine, in each of the above cases, is the why.
In each film, Cronenberg mixes the physical with the psychosexual in his usual brutal, matter-of-fact style. But beneath it, once again, is an apparently negative portrayal of the medical setting. Nobody leaves a Cronenberg hospital intact. Cures fail, wounds infect, the flesh becomes necrotic as does the mind. In Crash, Spader has his leg in traction, and comes home with wounds that take time to heal (and some that never do). In Dead Ringers, it is the brothers Mantle's profession as much as their relationship that damages their psyches so irrevocably. In Shivers, the obsessions of Drs Hobbes and St Luc lead to the creation of the parasites, and their patients are hapless victims. In Existenz, Law’s surgical procedure was deliberately botched by the treacherous Dafoe, and this leads to a reality-warping infection. Shivers’ Hobbes and Dead Ringers’ Mantle brothers are doctors with God complex, something that is often claimed of members of the profession. Defoe’s gas station ‘surgeon’ is an agent of evil. In Crash, Elias Koteas' Vaughan presents himself to James Spader as though he is a medical professional. Even the director’s 2014 novel, Consumed, involves the nefarious practice of organ trafficking. Cronenberg's doctors range from the obsessed to the exploitative via the charlatan.
While not having any medical qualifications as such, Cronenberg clearly has an academic interest in the field. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the director dissected foetal pigs at the University of Toronto (Lewis, 2014) and had an interest in cell biology prior to switching to the dramatic arts. He believes that a person should be educated in science if wanting to explore the subject in narrative ways (Northernstars.ca, no date). A self-described Atheist, Cronenberg finds religion “claustrophobic and oppressive” and considers atheism “an acceptance of what is real.” (Barnes, 2013). His fascination in the scientific has remained throughout his life and career, particularly in organic ‘inventions’. Discussing (with Barnes, 2013) the advent of artificially grown ‘micro-brains’ or cerebral organoids, Cronenberg states “The purest research is the stuff that seems abstract and useless, and then ends up being the thing that really does transform society. Each one of our discoveries is also actually a revelation about how cells work.”
Cronenberg of course made occasional sojourns into acting. He appeared in cameo in 1986’s The Fly as…you’ve guessed it, a doctor. Cronenberg was the obstetrician in Geena Davis’ nightmare birth scene. Apparently this was not so much out of fascination with the profession, but because filmmaker Martin Scorsese had commented upon how much Cronenberg resembled a Beverley Hills plastic surgeon (Hawkes, 2014).
Almost disappointingly, there appears to be nothing untoward about Cronenberg’s fascination with the medical profession and the clinical and surgical. There are no botched operations or medical malpractice in his available biographies, simply the ideas of an artist and auteur with an interest in biology and existentialism, and the creative flair to allow it to morph into some of the most wonderful creativity ever seen in genre cinema.
When bestowed a special lifetime achievement award at the 2nd Canadian Screen Awards, Cronenberg took to the stage not with a speech, but with a ‘Doctor’ joke:
“A man visits his doctor. He says ‘Doctor. I can’t pee.’ The doctor says ‘How old are you?’ He says ‘I’m 93.’ The doctor says ‘You’ve peed enough.’ When I was asked if I would accept this lovely award, it did occur to me that the Academy was sending a message that went: David, you’ve peed enough” (Northernstars.ca, no date)
Perhaps then, the source of Cronenberg’s repeating theme of the clinical, of hospitals filled with dangerous obsessives and miscreants masquerading as medical saviours, truly is no more sinister than the fascination of an auteur of transgressive cinema.
One thing is for sure. Just as no patient leaves a Cronenberg hospital intact, no viewer leaves a Cronenberg film unscathed.
Barnes, Henry (2013) Interview. David Cronenberg: 'I never thought of myself as a prophet' [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/sep/12/david-cronenberg-suicide-fantastic-exit?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2&et_cid=48826&et_rid=7107573&Linkid=http%3a%2f%2fwww.theguardian.com%2ffilm%2f2013%2fsep%2f12%2fdavid-cronenberg-suicide-fantastic-exit [Accessed 16 June 2019]
Benedict, Christianne (no date) The World Made Flesh: Sex and Identity in the Films of David Cronenberg [online] Available at: http://filmandfishnet.com/the-world-made-flesh-sex-and-identity-in-the-films-of-david-cronenberg [Accessed 15 June 2019]
Ebert, Roger (1999) Existenz [online] Available at: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/existenz-1999 [Accessed 16 June 2019]
Hawkes, Rebecca (2014) 10 things you never knew about David Cronenberg [online] Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/11123859/10-things-you-never-knew-about-David-Cronenberg.html [Accessed 16 June 2019]
Lewis, Tim (2014) Interview. David Cronenberg: ‘My imagination is not a place of horror’ [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/sep/14/david-cronenberg-interview-my-imagination-not-a-place-of-horror [Accessed 16 June 2019]
Northernstars.ca (no date) David Cronenberg – Biography [online] Available at: http://www.northernstars.ca/cronenberg_david_bio/ [Accessed 16 June 2019]
The son of a VHS pirate, Matt Rogerson became a horror fan at a tender young age. A student of the genre, he is currently writing his first book (about Italian horror and the Vatican) and he believes horror cinema is in the middle of a new golden age.
Have you listened to our HORROR Podcast? This week on Beyond The Void Horror Podcast . Patrick returns! We sit down have a few laughs, drinks and thoughts on the new Jim Jarmusch film “The Dead Don’t Die” (2019) w/ Bill Murray. It’s a fun episode. Spoiler free first and then we give you full warning when we get into the spoilers. Check it out! Listen/Subscribe on iTunes here!