Check out Part 1 & 2 of Matt’s Cronenberg pieces.
A BODY IN TRANSFORMATION: CRONENBERG’S BODY HORROR AS TRANSGENDER CINEMA
LET’S GET CLINICAL: CRONENBERG UNDER THE KNIFE
Cronenberg goes to the source.
The Dead Zone (1983)
The Fly (1986)
Dead Ringers (1988)
Naked Lunch (1991)
M Butterfly (1993)
While the name Cronenberg usually brings to mind Body Horror and Canuxploitation, the director has had three very definite periods in his career, and his output varied quite substantially from one to the next. While his early period (1969 – 1983) was primarily concerned with self-penned, low-budget, visceral horror and science fiction nightmares (with the exception of 1979’s Fast Company), the Canadian would soon move into a very different arena for the second phase of his directorial career.
Following the likes of The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome, an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone at first seems an odd choice for Cronenberg. In fact, it would herald a rich period of adaptations – no fewer than six films in succession. The Dead Zone would be followed by: The Fly (based loosely on George Langelaan’s short story); Dead Ringers (from the book Twins, by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland); Naked Lunch (William Burroughs); M Butterfly (from David Henry Hwang’s play); Crash (J G Ballard). The director would also direct adaptations of Patrick McGrath’s 1990 novel Spider and the 2005 big screen version of John Wagner’s acclaimed 1997 graphic novel, A History of Violence. Cronenberg would work almost exclusively in adaptations for two decades (1999’s Existenz proving the only exception during this period).
Stephen King’s early career reads like a rags to riches tale. A struggling teacher and writer of murky fiction for men’s magazines such as Cavalier sells his first novel (Carrie, in 1973) and is instantly hailed a new horror master. This isn’t quite the case, of course – like most writers, his ‘first novel’ was in fact his fourth, having failed to find a home for the first three. He made enough money from the sale of Carrie to buy a Ford Pinto, and followed his first major sale up with Salem’s Lot (published 1975), The Shining (published 1977) Rage (also 1977, the first novel under King’s Richard Bachman pseudonym) and The Stand (published 1978). By his tenth year as a published novelist, King had seen no fewer than lucky thirteen novels on the newsstands and bookshelves, and his blend of the supernatural with rich, down to earth characterisations and a generous streak of Americana saw him hailed as the modern master of the horror novel. Film adaptations followed fast, and saw both cult genre directors and revered auteurs drawn to bringing King’s novels to the silver screen. Carrie would, of course, be the first, directed by macabre psychodrama auteur Brian De Palma, while none other than Stanley Kubrick, perhaps the most celebrated filmmaker on the planet at the time, would put his stamp on The Shining, creating a claustrophobic epic that regularly features on ‘All Time Best’ lists despite being disavowed by King.
Horror directors would subsequently be earmarked for King adaptations thick and fast: George A Romero (Creepshow); John Carpenter (Christine); Lewis Teague (Cujo; Cat’s Eye); Tobe Hooper (Salem’s Lot) and, of course, David Cronenberg. The Canadian had recently completed Scanners, his tale of people with dangerous telepathic and telekinetic powers, when Dino De Laurentiis paired him with Producer extraordinaire Debra Hill (Halloween and its sequels, The Fog, Escape from New York) to bring King’s tale of a schoolteacher who develops clairvoyance and precognitive powers and uses them to bring down a ruthless politician fated to preside over nuclear Armageddon.
It is in the adaptation of King’s novel that Cronenberg begins to develop a curious skill for adapting source materials. In most if not all of his subsequent adaptation exercises, the Canadian director has managed to mine the literary material for its most important functions. Translating another writer’s words for the screen does offer someone a form of freedom: the freedom to deviate from the source in order to create a more visually compelling narrative. In The Dead Zone, Cronenberg (with Jeffrey Boam) plots a fairly simple alternate course (after earlier screenplays by Boam, Andrei Konchalovski and King himself were rejected by De Laurentiis) that works to the film’s advantage. The parallel story structure of the book was jettisoned, with Cronenberg instead embracing the episodic nature of written fiction to create a film that, in some ways, feels like a short television serial. Cronenberg listened to Boam, who considered that “The novel…is episodic. What I did was use that episodic quality, because I saw the Dead Zone as a triptych” (Lucas, 1984). The director stripped the script back to its most substantial plot points, but retained the episodic structure. What remained was a lean three-story arc: Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) recovering from his accident and discovering his powers; Johnny helping to track down the Castle Rock Killer; Johnny going after Martin Sheen’s would-be Senator Stillson. The structure was unusual for a feature film, but not unusual for the director, who had already seen some success in using atypical narrative structures and would so again (Lally, 2018).
The film was a success, with a domestic gross of almost $21 million. Roger Ebert (1983) commented that “No other King novel has been filmed better…and Cronenberg, who knows how to handle terror, now also knows how to create three-dimensional, fascinating characters.”
Indeed, Cronenberg did more than just that. In Johnny Smith, Cronenberg found a character he was comfortable with, one who could embody his usual themes in a more mainstream narrative. Johnny indeed undergoes a metamorphosis, albeit not a Kafkaesque one. At first, his new gifts cause him nothing but trauma, and he begins to question his own identity. As he learns to accept his new gifts, he learns to put them to good use and benefit the future of society (a Stephen King trait absorbed by the director). While Cronenberg’s biology-gone-wrong excesses and sexual currents are muted, his themes of the clinical (Johnny’s initial car crash and coma leaves him in hospital for five years, under the care of neurologist Dr Weizak (Herbert Lom). Weizak wants to ‘help’ Johnny but of course cannot) and of identity and transformation are clearly present in this first adaptation. Johnny’s first vision allows him to save the life of his nurse’s child from a fire.
All of the tools Cronenberg picked up in his first adaptation would serve him well over the middle period of his career. In 1985’s The Fly, Cronenberg jettisons most of the story from the original written fiction and focuses on the central portion: that of a brilliant research scientist who makes an amazing discovery (teleportation) and works obsessively on it. When the scientist tests the machine on himself, a tiny housefly enters the transmitter pod with him and their DNA is merged. While George Langelaan’s original story sees the researcher and the fly not only merged but split into. The fly now has a tiny human head and arm, while the researcher has a fly’s head and limb fused onto his own body. Having stripped back the story to its most interesting elements, Cronenberg concentrated on the Kafkaesque metamorphosis of his own scientist (Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle) and a doomed love story with Geena Davis’ Ronnie.
Cronenberg’s adaptations would continue. Dead Ringers would be based on the real life story of identical twin gynaecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus (or at least a fictionalised account, written by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland) and would feature a very Cronenbergian destruction of the psyche. For Naked Lunch, Cronenberg used elements of William Burroughs’ novel, and added autobiographical elements of Burroughs’ life, including the writing of Naked Lunch itself, and the tragic shooting of Burroughs’ wife, Joan Volmer, by Burroughs at a party in Mexico City. Burroughs is frequently mentioned as one of the director’s biggest influences, and in Naked Lunch Cronenberg treats the author with a surreal reverence while indulging his own themes of transformation (with a heavy body horror bent), sex and identity fully.
Cronenberg followed this up in 1993 with M. Butterfly’s tale of a French diplomat Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) infatuation with a transgender opera performer and spy Song Lilling (John Lone) would be adapted faithfully, but see the story undergo a significant transformation of its own: from theatre play to film (something Cronenberg had not attempted before). The presence of the camera was said to make Gallimard’s pursuit of Song “nocturnal and strange” (Maslin, 1993) and the finished film is said to sit uncomfortably in Cronenberg’s body of work. After several years of creating films with narratives that could be embraced by the transgender community, the Canadian makes a film that about a transgender person that appears to undo all his good work. John Lone is an ill fit in the role (he does not ‘pass’) and the love affair is cold-blooded and unnatural. We’ll look more closely at M Butterfly in next week’s instalment.
A silver screen version of Ballard’s Crash would follow in 1996, with Cronenberg an excellent fit for the novel’s perversions and graphic sexual acts consummated after acts of violence. Once more, the director played with the narrative structure of the source material, and created a well-rounded and complex film that embodies all of Cronenberg’s recurring themes: sex (fetishized and linked to violence), identity, the subversion of clinical practice and bodily transformation all feature heavily in the Canadian’s adaptation of the English novelist’s treatise on symphorophilia. Cronenberg’s most controversial film was also among his most acclaimed: winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes “for originality, for daring and for audacity (Maslin, 1996) while simultaneously subject to an aggressive campaign to ban the film in the United Kingdom, the sovereign country already known for its Video Nasties moral panic of the early 1980s and the furore around 1991’s Child’s Play 3, which the media tried to blame for the tragic and horrific murder of 3 year old James Bulger by 11 year old boys Robert Thompson and Jon Venables (Kirby, 1993).
Cronenberg’s adaptation period had lasted almost two decades, and produced a number of bizarre, singular visions that further cemented the Canadian’s reputation as an exploitation auteur. After a brief hiatus to film the self-penned Existenz, Cronenberg would return to adaptations once more, to produce arguably his most incongruous film.
In Spider (2002), the adaptation of Patrick McGrath's macabre tale of trauma and psychosis, Cronenberg directs a vividly bizarre re-creation of the source novel, and in doing so presents something that, at first, is quite alien to what fans of the Canadian had come to expect. The story of a paranoid schizophrenic, released from a mental institution after two decades, at first the film appears to be miles from Cronenberg’s usual fare.
In both McGrath’s novel and Cronenberg’s film, Dennis ‘Spider’ Cleg is aptly named: he is obsessed with tangles, from the web of steel surrounding the imposing gas-tanks on the London landscape to the intricate cobwebs he makes from string. However, as noted by Lavery (2017), Spider also weaves a narrative web of his childhood, told to us in something akin to flashback. The strands of Spider’s web intersect at oblique angles and soon there are knots and tangles, past intruding into present, with Spider powerless to separate the two. In the film, this is transferred to the screen remarkably well: Cronenberg allows past and present to intrude upon each other in every scene. Though the setting is 1980s London, little has changed from the heavily industrialized London of Spider’s childhood. Of course, in reality, this is impossible: London is already well on the way to becoming the metropolis we know today. Here, Cronenberg uses the expressionism birthed in Weimar Germany: the streets and the filth and the smog are those from Spider’s childhood. Because his mind cannot escape them, neither can his body. Every flashback intrudes rudely on the present, with Spider not just watching from the sidelines but almost participating. Cronenberg’s expressionism suggests these visions of the past are tangible – or at least as tangible as the central character’s grip on the present is. Spider’s psychosis means his (and our) grip on reality soon begins to unravel.
On the page, McGrath welcomes us into the fractured psyche of an un-medicated madman with symbols of his inner decomposition. Maggots, spiders, and rats creep around the edges of Spider’s perceived reality. This does not fully translate to the screen, not even with a masterful hand such as Cronenberg, but it doesn’t need to. Cronenberg has a wealth of cinematic language and thematic mastery to draw upon to adapt the source into something that is very much his. The mutations and metamorphoses of Cronenberg’s oeuvre are present: It is not Spider’s body that mutates beyond his control but his mind and, more importantly, his memories. Just as in the novel, Spider is an unreliable narrator, his sanity fleeting, his memories fragmented, and he spends the entirety of the film in a vulnerable state as he tries to make sense of where he is and how he got there. While he may indeed have been traumatised by another’s cruelty, it turns out he was not as passive as he leads himself (and us) to believe. When it is revealed that Spider killed the cruel prostitute who took his mother’s place, it appears to offer us a resolution. It is the final piece of the puzzle of Spider’s fragmented psyche. However, as Spider looks down at the prostitute’s corpse and instead sees his mother, this sends a final shockwave.
It is here that Cronenberg’s themes of sex and identity come into play. Spider has, it is suggested, created two separate identities in his memory. His loving mother, almost angelic, and the prostitute who took her place are (we are expected to conclude) one and the same person. Somehow, Spider has separated the incongruent identities, his traumatized mind unable to reconcile his vision of his mother and her true persona. Spider’s father and his prostitute did not kill Spider’s mother, but they destroyed the boy’s perception of her. The prostitute is his mother (the superb Miranda Richardson plays dual roles, and embodies each so fully that there is no dramatic irony – we are as lost in the puzzle of Spider’s past just as he is), and Spider killed her, rather than face who she either had become, or was all along. This very Freudian crime has fractured Spider’s psyche beyond repair, and places him firmly in Cronenberg’s pantheon of characters, somewhere between Beverly and Elliot Mantle (of Dead Ringers) and Naked Lunch’s William Lee. Spider is as much a horror film as any of Cronenberg’s earlier genre efforts, described by Holden (2003) as “a British ‘American Psycho’”.
Perhaps the most fruitful period of his career (to date), Cronenberg’s years as a filmmaker adapting literary source materials and imbuing them with his own themes of the sexual and the clinical, of identity and transformation have shown him to be so much more than the purveyor of gory body horror known to some. Taking in the great American horror novelist and the enfant terrible of the dystopian new wave, theatre plays of doomed love affairs and murky psychological thrillers, Cronenberg made each his own and, over the course of two decades, turned from a director of interesting arthouse gore to one of the most fascinating directors of genre cinema and a true auteur.
Next week, in the final instalment, we look at what followed. Cronenberg’s third phase sees the director seemingly playing it straight for the first time in his unconventional career…or does it?
Ebert, R (1983) The Dead Zone [online] Available at: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-dead-zone-1983 [Accessed 23 June 2019]
Holden, S (2003) FILM REVIEW; Into Sinister Webs Of a Jumbled Mind [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/28/movies/film-review-into-sinister-webs-of-a-jumbled-mind.html [Accessed 20 June 2019]
Kirby, T (1993) Video link to Bulger murder disputed [online] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/video-link-to-bulger-murder-disputed-1506766.html [Accessed 23 June 2019]
Lally, R (2018) The Dead Zone (1983, Dir David Cronenberg) [online] Available at: https://medium.com/you-need-to-see-this/the-dead-zone-1983-dir-david-cronenberg-bc4bcea714c2 [Accessed 23 July 2019]
Lavery, S (2017) ‘Rain and mist and darkness’: Patrick McGrath, Spider [online] Available at: http://tredynasdays.co.uk/2017/06/1648/ [Accessed 20 June 2019]
Lucas, T (Dec 1983 – Jan 1984). The Dead Zone. Cinefantastique. 14 (2): 24–35
Maslin, J (1993) Seduction and the Impossible Dream [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/01/movies/seduction-and-the-impossible-dream.html [Accessed 23 June 2019]
Maslin, J (1996). Secrets and Lies' Wins the Top Prize at Cannes [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1996/05/21/movies/secrets-and-lies-wins-the-top-prize-at-cannes.html [Accessed 23 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 . We got a visit from Chucky himself on the podcast??!?! Yep. We give a spoiler free review of Child’s Play (2019). Then dive into our spoilers section to breakdown the scenes of the movie. It’s a big episode. Check it out! Listen/Subscribe on iTunes here!