I first learned about David Cronenberg when I received a nice Criterion DVD of his film from 1983, Videodrome, as a gift. My high school pals and I were in the habit of watching B-Horror films like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive or the assorted Roger Corman productions like Piranha or Deathstalker. That was around the time I discovered the value of appreciating certain horror films for their camp value. I realized that I could experience a detached, ironic form of pleasure in watching such crap. But there was something special about Videodrome. It left us with a what the fuck just happened kind of feeling. We delighted in its special effects and its copious amounts of gore and other bodily fluids, but there was definitely something else going on. Not long after that Cronenberg released A History of Violence (2005), which was a box office success and unmistakably a fine film, even if it didn’t really seem like it was made by the same person who made Videodrome.
Then in my first year of college I was taking a class on media studies and another class on consumer culture. We were assigned Marshall MCluhan and Jean Baudrillard, among other things. It hit me why Cronenberg, with Videodrome and his other films like it, was a complete genius. When professor Brian O’Blivian says, “television is reality and reality is less than television,” it was like he was quoting from Baudrillard’s “Precession of the Simulacra” from Simulacra and Simulation (1981). I realized that it was really fun to theorize about Cronenberg, and I did my final presentation for the consumer culture course on Videodrome. When I showed the ending sequence to the class, they also had a what the fuck kind of look on their faces.
That summer, I visited my friend Mariel at the University of Chicago. Her friends were really hip and they made me feel like I wasn’t as cool as I thought I was. What was even worse about it was that we were at the Pitchfork Music Festival and there were trendy-looking people all around us. One of Mariel’s friend started talking about “videodroming” and finally I was able to relate to their esoteric conversation. It dawned on me just how hip Cronenberg was.
Why is Cronenberg so hip? Because there are so many different ways to experience his films. His early features – Shivers (’75), Rabid (’77), The Brood (’79), Scanners (’81), and Videodrome are all surface level gross-out body horror films. As such, they’re immensely enjoyable even if you don’t care about media theory or social theory. But these films also make startling comments about the evolution of humans, culture, and technology. They’re what I sometimes call “sweet” movies, because they have awesome blood and gore and explosions but at the same time are remarkably intelligent and insightful. Watching B-Horror movies from that era and appreciating them ironically is kind of played out by now – no one is going to make jokes about the Evil Dead series any more, even if they are an amusing series of horror flicks. But one can endlessly discuss the early Cronenberg films.
Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood fall more in the genre of horror, though they still offer up interesting comments about technology and the body. In Shivers, for example, a botched medical experiment releases a parasite into a luxury apartment complex. The parasite causes all of the infected residents to turn into sex-crazed maniacs bent on engaging in intercourse with the uninfected inhabitants by whatever means possible. Oddly enough, once they’re infected the inhabitants actually seem happier and far more uninhibited than they were before. In the guise of a gross-out horror flick, Cronenberg made a comment about suppressed desire and what he saw as the natural evolution of humans. Cronenberg explains it himself in Cronenberg on Cronenberg:
I don’t think natural selection, as Darwin understood it, is really at work any more as far as human evolution is concerned. I think something more along the lines of nuclear disaster is perhaps a natural part of our evolution. It may be a strange philosophy, I’m not sure. But my instincts seem to suggest that we were meant to tamper with everything – and have done – and that this will reflect back on us and change us.
The Brood is not so much about technology and it is not as culturally insightful as the films that followed it, but it undoubtedly has a special place in the realm of subcultural capital if nothing else for its ridiculous story involving the psychotherapeutic method known as “psychoplasmics,” in which patients form bodily growths that are related to their mental health problems. Cronenberg is surely a trendy name to drop in large part due to the different phrases he invented, such as this one and “the New Flesh” in Videodrome.
Scanners is Cronenberg’s first comment on the media and like other artists such as Gary Numan, it anticipates the technology we live with today in an uncanny way. In this film, there is a group of people known as “scanners,” all connected with each other because their mothers were put on an experimental drug that was ultimately dangerous. Scanners can read the minds of others and even blow up heads if they’re pissed. In one sequence, the main character literally hooks up his mind to the telephone line and infiltrates the computer system of the evil corporation. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this scene; it was like Cronenberg was predicting not just the internet, but the direction the internet is now heading, as it becomes easier and easier to connect to it in different ways. In regards to Scanners and a later film, eXistenZ (’99), Cronenberg said, “Technology is us. There is no separation. It’s a pure expression of human creative will. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the universe…., technology wants to be in our bodies, because it sort of came out of our bodies” (Slant Magazine – Cronenberg also said in the same interview, when asked why he became interested in the body and in the organic form, “I got bored. That was traumatic”).
As far as social commentary is concerned, Cronenberg’s next film, Videodrome, might be the most significant. James Woods plays Max Renn, a television producer who scouts out new programming that appeals to an appetite for sleaze and smut. When he stumbles across a program called “Videodrome,” which features violent sex and brutal murder, he’s intrigued. Unfortunately, watching the program causes brain tumors, hallucinations that may or may not be real, and bodily transformation. In a very literal sense, television becomes reality, and Max embarks on a horrific, erotic journey, and ends up transformed into an assassin working for different media forces. After watching Videodrome over and over again, I found that the only way to really understand it was to apply Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacra, as if Cronenberg had based his script on that text – this was almost ten years before The Matrix quoted Baudrillard in a bastardizing kind of way, I might add. This is to say that the program “Videodrome” actually creates a reality for its viewers that alters their realities and even their bodies, to the point where they have no control over themselves. Clearly a comment on culture, society, and television, Videodrome is like a prophetic vision of a future in which media and technology are completely inseparable from reality.
Cronenberg’s other films are equally compelling, if not more, than these early works, but with the exception of eXistenZ, which seems like it was written by someone who played a lot of Playstation RPGs, the media theory component is less pronounced. But again, this speaks to the diversity and range of his films. The Dead Zone (’83) is far more conservative than anything that he made before, but it’s still a compelling film and easily the best adaptation of Stephen King put to celluloid. The Fly (’86) is often considered Cronenberg’s best horror film, perhaps because it’s not at all campy in the way the earlier films are. It uses similar special gore effects, but the results are images that provoke a serious response from the viewer. Dead Ringers (’88) is yet another classic which might make the viewer a little queasy, but more than that it’s a tragically depressing tale of twin gynecologists, played by Jeremy Irons, who fall in love with the same woman, become addicted to drugs, and in general embark on a downward spiral – one result of which is the invention of gynecological surgical tools for mutant women. Other notable titles include Naked Lunch (’91), an adaptation of the Burroughs novel, and Crash (’96) – which featured the always-creepy James Spader as a man initiated into a odd group of people interested in combining sex with car crashes.
With A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), Cronenberg became far more commercially successful, but hardly a sell-out. Both of these fine thrillers show that Hollywood is capable of making great films when its projects are given to talented filmmakers.
Cronenberg continues to come up in conversation because his early films remain salient and his new films are consistently critical and commercial successes. A remake of Videodrome is being made, apparently. He’s just one of those directors who continues to put out compelling work – he’s what my roommate would call a “cool older bro” – in the music world, Brian Eno, David Byrne, and David Bowie fall into this category, and in the film world Steven Soderberg and David Lynch are also cool older bros. Next time you’re at a party where the music is low enough that you can hear people talk, drop the term “videodroming,” “psychoplasmics,” or the “New Flesh” – or better yet, if Pittsburgh is mentioned, make sure to note that that city is home of the Videodrome – and see what happens.