Heads Will Be Shrunk
Baker’s guide to the best of David Cronenberg.
by Eric J Baker
There aren’t enough exploding heads in movies these days.
In the glory years of splatter films (1978-87), an exploding head was the grand slam of horror set-pieces, worth at least three ax murders. With all the flesh eating and wall-to-wall zombie mayhem that unspooled in Dawn of the Dead (1978), for example, it was the scene of the SWAT team member kicking the door open and blowing the guy’s head off with a shotgun that made audiences holler the loudest. The grimy Joe Spinell vehicle (?) Maniac (1980) had a similar, even nastier sequence, as did an Alien rip-off flick from 1985, Creature (starring Klaus Kinski, whose head had its own problems).
But the crème de la crème in exploding-head scenes belongs to David Cronenberg’s telekinetic terror flick Scanners (1981), in which Michael Ironside blows up some bald dude’s melon just by thinking at him! That sucker went up like Mount Vesuvius (had Vesuvius been filled with blood, brains, and skull instead of volcanic ash). If you were a scrawny, socially awkward, wanna-be rocker/horror-buff adolescent back then (and who wasn’t), Scanners was the shit.
Cronenberg has evolved considerably as a filmmaker since then. In fact, the Canadian auteur’s latest film, A Dangerous Method, is a period piece about the birth of psychoanalytic theory. Life comes with few guarantees, but one is that any head-reconfiguring done in this story will likely be on the synaptic rather than the pyrotechnic level. We’ll just have to content ourselves with watching Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightly, and Viggo Mortensen shrink a few of them.
This director’s journey from obsessing about the flesh to obsessing about the mind is an interesting one, and each stop along the way is worth a visit. If you haven’t had the twisted pleasure of letting Cronenberg’s dark visions crawl across your retinas, here’s some recommended viewing:
Whereas his earlier titles like Rabid (1977) dealt with literal distortion of the flesh, Videodrome’s horrors were surreal, leaving the viewer to wonder how much of the horror was generated in the characters’ minds. After the strangely sexless Scanners two years before, Cronenberg amped up the perversion in a tale about Max Renn (James Woods), a broadcaster of soft-core erotica who happens upon a mysterious TV signal that, among other things, makes a vagina grow on his abdomen. He keeps a gun in there, by the way, which seriously confuses the penis-envy discussion.
Woods was the most accomplished actor to carry a Cronenberg film at the time, a benchmark that elevated the quality – and the status – of the director’s work. Sure, former porn star Marilyn Chambers rocked her part as a girl with a killer penis in Rabid, but Woods’ overall body of work edges hers in a photo finish. Side note: I’d say that Videodrome is Croneberg’s first mature film, but I doubt he would name a character “Brian O’Blivion” today.
The Fly (1986)
People bitch about remakes of brilliant films, often calling them unnecessary and crass attempts to cash in on gullible audiences’ willingness to part with money. Well, this might be the only case on record where the original is unnecessary and crass and the remake is brilliant. The 1958 version of The Fly is a mediocre B movie notable solely for the closing scene in which the fly with the tiny human head screams “Help me!” as a hungry spider bears down on him. Cronenberg’s remake is essentially a three-character play that examines the effects of degenerative disease, including the inevitable physical change and its effects on a person’s sense of identity, as well as the accompanying resentment of accelerated mortality. If you don’t buy any of that BS, then it’s a kick-ass splatter film that is, incidentally, the single most enjoyable movie-going experience I’ve had, thanks to a packed theater full of underage viewers in a very urban neighborhood. To quote the young man who literally leapt over his chair and ran to the lobby about 2/3 of the way into the picture: “When a motherfuckah ear fall off, I’m outta here!”
The Fly also features cinema’s most heartbreaking ending that involves a deformed monster, a shotgun, teleportation, and corrosive vomit. Nice work by Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, and John Getz.
Naked Lunch (1991)
This semi-adaptation of William Burroughs’ 1959 novel is either a stunning, surreal masterpiece or a nonsensical, indulgent mess, depending on who you ask. Since I’m someone who tends to hate nonsensical, indulgent messes, I can happily confirm that Naked Lunch belongs in the former category.
The film defies description, so we’ll have to suffice with explaining that it combines surreal imagery from Burroughs’ disjointed novel about drug addiction with actual biographical details from the author’s life, including the accidental killing (or murder?) of his wife. Judy Davis is superb as main character William Lee’s spouse and, later, her doppelganger, and Peter Weller delivers a subtle and nuanced performance in the lead. With Ian Holm, Roy Scheider, and Julian Sands in supporting roles, you can’t go wrong. One caveat: You have to watch it ten times before you have the slightest clue what the hell is going on. Oh yeah, the score by frequent Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore is pure genius, even better than the theme song for Greatest American Hero.
No, Howard Shore did not write that theme song. Come on, do I really have to explain my jokes?
A History of Violence (2005)
You can actually understand what this movie was about by the trailer, which is a first for a Cronenberg film. It also means there are probably 11 or 12 Internet nerds out there who are still angry he “sold out” by making a movie that casual viewers can follow. Damn, he’s practically Brett Ratner.
In this film, Viggo Mortensen makes his first of several recent appearances for Cronenberg as Tom Stall, a small-town businessman who, after spectacularly killing two would-be robbers in his diner, draws the attention of some gangsters who are convinced he is someone else. His family and friends rally around him, but seeds of doubt are planted when the head bad guy, played by Ed Harris, poignantly asks if anyone wonders why aw-shucks Tom is “so good at killing people.” Much excitement and uncomfortable-looking stairway sex ensue.
One professional reviewer complained of this film that Cronenberg can’t decide if violence is repulsive or alluring. Here’s a tip: Replace the word “Cronenberg” with “people,” and you’ve discovered the theme of the movie! Not every idea comes neatly wrapped with a bow, and they never do in Cronenberg films.
If you want to dive into some really impenetrable, abstruse, very possibly frustrating Cronenberg, take a gander at Spider (2002), which is a disjointed tour through the mind and memories of a schizophrenic who barely speaks. It’s a great flick for getting rid of houseguests who have overstayed their visit. If naked Viggo Mortensen is more up your alley (uh, maybe I should rephrase that), watch Eastern Promises (2007) with its notorious nude shower fight. I’d rather have seen Viggo’s co-star, Naomi Watts, in a naked shower fight, but we’re talking about Cronenberg here, not Jess Franco. Ah well, maybe next time.
You may ask, “Hey, Baker, how can someone who enjoys garbage like Friday the 13th movies have the gall to write about a respected artist and visionary such as David Cronenberg?”
For an answer, I direct you toward Jason X, the 10th film in the long-running slasher series, in which the man himself plays a key role as a greedy scientist. Cronenberg’s character is impaled by the hockey-masked killer, and we all know what that means. It means Sigmund Freud would have loved this shit.
A Dangerous Method, the latest film in the Friday the 13th franchise, is in theaters on Friday, November 25.