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A collage image of five examples of body horror in David Cronenberg’s films. Graphic: Pete Volk/Polygon

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Body is reality: tracing David Cronenberg’s history with body horror

The body horror master returns to the genre with Crimes of the Future

David Cronenberg’s name is synonymous with body horror. There were examples of it in cinema prior to his arrival, like the Val Lewton picture Cat People (1942) or Ishiro Honda’s Matango (1963), both of which transformed the human body into something irregular. But the visual language that is now associated with body horror only comes into clear focus with Cronenberg.

In the time since Cronenberg made pictures like Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), and The Fly (1986), body horror has become its own subsection of horror filmmaking, with examples like Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and Ginger Snaps (2000) following in the footsteps of the great Canadian director. Cronenberg’s last genuine foray into the subgenre was 1999’s eXistenZ, which used video games as a foundation for ideas like umbilical USB cords. But with his latest feature, Crimes of the Future, he has once again stepped into the pulsating subgenre that he made famous.

Body horror seems to be on Cronenberg’s mind, and in the press notes for Crimes of the Future given to critics, the director states, “At this critical junction in human history, one wonders — can the human body evolve to solve problems we have created? Can the human body evolve a process to digest plastics and artificial materials not only as part of a solution to the climate crisis, but also, to grow, thrive, and survive?” Cronenberg’s application of body horror has always run parallel to technological concerns as an extension of the human body, and with Crimes of the Future, he is wondering if the human body is capable of growing new organs, new identities, and a radical new definition of what it means to have a body in perilous times.

Cronenberg’s reputation as a great filmmaker is pinned to body horror, but he very nearly stopped making films entirely in 1970. At the end of the 1960s, Cronenberg shot two speculative science fiction pictures at the University of Toronto, titled Stereo and Crimes of the Future. They were not as visually adept as we have come to expect from Cronenberg, but they are near bursting with philosophical scenarios of the evolving human body that take the mind further than he can conjure with his camera. Cronenberg seemed to be more invested in the scripting process, and around this same time he was considering an early retirement as a director to become a novelist.

A woman in Shivers comforts a man stricken with blood parasites, which appear on his tongue Image: Cinépix Film Properties
A woman screams in the bathtub in Shivers Image: Cinépix Film Properties

In the late 1960s, there was no real precedent in the Canadian film industry for genre filmmaking. Most of the directors from Canada either ended up working in the documentary field for the CBC or the National Film Board of Canada, and neither of these were of particular interest to David Cronenberg. But in 1971, he began scripting a new idea he was dubbing Orgy of the Blood Parasites. Like a parasite, he was infected with a need to continue directing, and he found his voice in horror.

Orgy of the Blood Parasites would become Shivers, and it would cause shockwaves all through Canada because of its “dreadful”, “perverse” content. Due to Canada’s tax-shelter policy for filmmaking, the country suddenly found itself leading the way for horror in the mid-’70s with the likes of Black Christmas gaining popularity. This was a boon for Cronenberg and many other filmmakers of the period, but the controversy surrounding Shivers was national news. Canadian journalist Robert Fulford, writing under a pseudonym, took Shivers to task. He wrote in the pages of the popular magazine Saturday Night, and he penned the rather damaging and now legendary headline, “You should know how bad this film is. After all, you paid for it.” David Cronenberg was suddenly a controversial household name in his home country.

A person infected with blood parasites in Shivers Image: Cinépix Film Properties

The cause for alarm was, of course, body horror. It’s important to remember that in the mid-1970s, horror films were beginning to be overwhelmed with stabbing, bloodletting and murder. The slasher film was bearing fruit, and in comparison Shivers looks startlingly different. With the help of special effects artist Joe Blasco, Cronenberg created something brand new that was rooted in medical realism. The parasitic infections of Shivers were puffy, slippery, breathing, and had a texture not dissimilar from organ tissue. Shivers was essentially a zombie film, and at the breach of infection, the parasites went to work, transforming human bodies into conduits for reproduction of more parasites through sexual ejaculate. Cronenberg’s original title, Orgy of the Blood Parasites, is all the plot description one needs.

His following film, Rabid, worked similarly, with a restructuring of that plot and a new lead in porn star Marilyn Chambers, who gives a fine performance. Rose (Chambers) undergoes a transformation after a motorcycle accident forces her to undergo an experimental skin-grafting procedure, which leaves her infected with a contagion and unable to process any food except blood. As the host body, she feeds like a vampire, but spreads something highly contagious that renders all who come into contact with her a rabid husk of a person. Those infected discharge a milky pus and crave the flesh of others. This melding of zombie and vampire film is made all the more disquieting by the cold grey skies of Montreal and the looming pandemic reality brought about by Rose’s skin graft gone wrong. Even with the short time between these two pictures, Cronenberg’s understanding of body horror evolves. In Shivers it is applied in a basic manner, meant to elicit shock, disgust, and bile, but Rabid’s understanding of such matters is personal, isolated, and lonely for Rose, who is struggling to adapt to her new body.

James Woods caresses a television with lips in Videodrome Image: Universal Pictures
James Woods in an orange room, behind a TV depicting a tied-up woman, in Videodrome. Image: Universal Pictures

In the 1980s, Cronenberg’s body horror became philosophically intertwined with technological advancements, and that was never more provocative than in Videodrome (1983). In Videodrome, television executive Max Renn (James Woods) is looking for something tough to air on his controversial new station, and he finds it in a crackly snuff recording of hooded men whipping nude participants half to death in a fit of sexual frenzy. It doesn’t matter too much to Max if it’s staged or real because it turns him on, and he figures if it works for him, it’ll work for his audience. But after viewing this program, Max begins to experience hallucinations like a surgical opening in his chest that resembles a vulva, and his television screen begins to breathe like a lung rising and falling. With Videodrome, Cronenberg was playing devil’s advocate with the whining conservatives who were clutching pearls about violent media. He took them for their word that it would in fact change a person if certain images were viewed, and he ran with it.

On the commentary track released by the Criterion Collection, Cronenberg goes even further and wonders about that technological fulcrum and the human body.

Technology doesn’t really expose its true meaning, I feel, until it has been incorporated into the human body. [...] It’s really quite incredible what we’ve been able to do to the human body, and really take it to someplace where evolution, on its own, could not take it. We have seized control of evolution ourselves without really being conscious of it.

James Woods puts a gun inside the vaginal slit of his stomach in Videodrome Image: Universal Pictures
Another man takes a video cassette out of James Woods’s stomach slit in Videodrome Image: Universal Pictures
James Woods holds a gun attached to his hand in Videodrome Image: Universal Pictures
A television bleeds from its torso in Videodrome Image: Universal Pictures

In Videodrome this is manifested through technology becoming its own organ inside the human anatomy. Max Renn has a Betamax tape inserted into the vaginal slit in his chest in one scene. In another he pulls a gun out of that same opening and it has fused with his hand. Through these applications the technology has essentially become organic, rotting, transcendent, and beautiful. In the 1980s this was all done with the work of practical effects, and there’s a tactile quality to this particular era of Cronenberg’s filmmaking that is unmatched by the vast majority of his peers. He was expressly interested in dosing these fantastic elements with a human touch — veins, breathing sacks, and so on. In his films prior to this one, like Scanners and The Brood, body horror was tumorous, inside, and expanding outward, but with Videodrome, fusion appears, and objects become human and we become more like those objects.

Following Videodrome was The Fly, and it is a masterpiece of decomposition. When Cronenberg was a child he was obsessed with the inner workings of insects (this reappears later in his great William Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch, complete with insectoid typewriters). When he saw the original 1958 version of The Fly in his youth, he was dissatisfied with the integration of insect genealogy with its human host and took particular umbrage with David Hedison’s character suddenly finding himself with a human body and a fly head. He believed that it would be far more grotesque a procedure to adapt to the behavior and instincts of an insect, and life had a funny way of allowing him the opportunity to paint with his own proboscis fluids years later.

The Fly is the story of the brilliant scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum). He is on the cusp of inventing a teleportation system that is not unlike the transporters in Star Trek. The journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) is penning her next book about this unfathomable breakthrough, and along the way the two fall into deep lust with one another. The only hitch in their plans comes along when Brundle is working out the kinks in his experiment, and a fly gets trapped in one of the pods when he attempts to teleport himself for the first time. The teleportation works. He’s a genius. He’s going to change the world for the better. He just has to figure out why the hell he’s transforming into an insect first. But as they say, science is a process of evolution, and things do change with new information. It’s probably good to know that it’s possible for DNA of two species to combine if placed in separate pods.

Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum lock eyes in The Fly Image: 20th Century Fox
Jeff Goldblum pulls of his fingernails in The Fly Image: 20th Century Fox
Jeff Goldblum is all messed up in The Fly Image: 20th Century Fox

The Fly is beautifully intoxicated with images of rot and decay. There are numerous sequences in The Fly that would send weaker viewers running up the aisles, like when Brundlefly pukes on a doughnut in order to liquefy it for digestion because his teeth no longer function, or, perhaps, the moment when Seth reaches up to scratch his ear and it falls limply to the floor, because he has no more need for them if he is going to spend the rest of his days as a fly. Cronenberg spoke of mortality on the commentary track, for buried in the phenomenal effects work is a story of disease unsettling the future for two people in love. He compares it to someone discovering a lump in their breast. Through the long crawl toward his insectoid death sentence Seth tries very hard to hold onto his identity, but he knows it’s a losing battle. This is a film that is accidentally about the AIDS virus that was rampaging at the time, while also standing in as a strong metaphor for any disease that destroys the body. Cronenberg never really even attempts to shoot this as if it were a horror film, and instead opts for notes that are more common with melodrama. And much credit must be given to both Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum, who do a wonderful job centering everything that is at stake with Brundle’s deteriorating condition.

The way Cronenberg uses the human body has never been so simple as to suggest he was merely trying to rile up the audience. The destruction, transcendence, and evolution of the flesh always had a broader meaning, or interrogation, to be made about our place in any given time period. The body horror in Cronenberg’s pictures does not exist in a vacuum. He was also never interested in only using the body to suggest we’re all decomposing sacks of flesh who are always leaking fluids. Some of those fluids can be quite fun, after all. There’s a sexuality to Cronenberg’s films dating back to Shivers and Rabid and up through Videodrome and Crash, and a philosophy that combines the sensual, the technological, and the horrific where all those parts coalesce into one being.

James Spader and Holly Hunter in front of a totaled car in Crash Image: Alliance Communications
Holly Hunter’s gloved hand holds a cigarette and James Spader’s hand on the wheel of a car in Crash Image: Alliance Communications
A couple has sex underneath an overturned car in Crash Image: Alliance Communications

In Crash, Elias Koteas plays Bob Vaughan, the leader of a new group of car-crash enthusiasts who find the act of collision arousing. His character states that he is interested in the “reshaping of the human body through modern technology,” and it might as well be a thesis statement for Cronenberg at large. After ending up in a car accident, James Ballard (James Spader) finds himself bored with stable interpretations of sex and begins seeking out something a little more fun. Additionally, the scars that he now carries across his body are like sacraments for his new way of life, and Cronenberg gets a great deal of pleasure out of filming the mechanical and the organic intertwining. Close-ups of leg braces clasped around skin-tight leather, a dent in a driver’s side door in the shape of a vaginal slit, and a warranty sticker peeling off a dashboard window like a scab are just a few of the images he lingers upon. Ballard’s sex life becomes infested with the death-drive of the collision, and his chilly wife Catherine (Deborah K. Unger) gets her husband to climax when she talks dirty about scar tissue and the smell of dirty grease paint on skin. She’s on board with his new way of life, and, like her, Cronenberg feels emboldened with new possibilities of how to compose the body in the ’90s.

Crash is likely Cronenberg’s greatest film because his images are so intertwined with a foreshadowing of total technological evolution with the human body. But like the human body transforming, he is also interested in the objects we have imbued with organic qualities and meaning. Crash is busy with vehicles, but none of them are new, and the failure of an engine, the scraping of metal, and destruction of a collision give these objects character and a life of their own. For Cronenberg the vehicle is another organ we have attached to ourselves for the sake of evolution and convenience.

Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh sit on a bed with the eXistenZ port in eXistenZ Image: Alliance Atlantis

Likewise, with his 1999 picture eXistenZ, he proposes a brand-new artificial future created out of virtual reality that is not unlike suggestions of a metaverse. The world has gotten too small for us, so we have created a new one. In eXistenZ a genius video game creator named Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her security guard Pikul (Jude Law) are on the run from assassins. In this version of the future, video games have become like organs, and players log into these games through a bioport incision made in their lower spine. Video game creators are now enemies of “Realists” who are protesting the deforming of reality, and all of it plays in league nicely with other pictures of the mid-to-late ’90s like The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, which considered identity in terms of destiny, reality, and a created fiction. Cronenberg makes a meal of this new concept and luxuriates in the new contraptions needed to play video games. He lingers on the tactile quality of Allegra rubbing her hands sensually on her game pod, which curves and vibrates in response. Pikul doesn’t have a bioport because the idea of his spine being stabbed freaks him out, but that too is given a great deal of sexual charge when he is later penetrated, and a new opening is made in his body to make way for a new reality. Cronenberg can’t help but give that particular image a close-up, and when touched, this new orifice widens slightly and leaks. It’s gross and hot at the same time, like much of Cronenberg’s imagery. eXistenZ is a little dated in some respects, in the way that a lot of work in the days before the omnipresence of the internet was, but what hasn’t aged at all are the effects and Cronenberg’s application of them in this particular scenario. At the very least, it must be said that he manages to achieve the rare feat of making gaming seem somewhat sexy.

In the years since eXistenZ, Cronenberg hasn’t been as absorbed with horror filmmaking, but questions regarding the body, and the ways in which we identify and react to our times, have never left his work. For Cronenberg, the flesh is the tree where all roots spring and definition arises. Even in more classical work like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method he has found avenues to communicate with the body, like the notorious nude sauna fight between gangsters in Promises or the evolution of psychology in Method. In Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s treatise of the inhuman qualities of lifestyle capitalists, the film comes to a stop so Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) can have a prostate exam. He’s told his prostate is asymmetrical and assumes with foreboding that this must mean the market is about to change.

The body has always remained for Cronenberg, and these days he seems to be taken with questions of his own mortality and is fascinated by the ways his body is failing in old age, like all bodies do. His short film The Death of David Cronenberg is startling in the blunt reality of its title, and he recently spent an entire interview with The Film Stage discussing his fascination with having recently passed a kidney stone. He is a one-of-a-kind intellectual and artist to say the very least, and now, in the twilight years of his career, with Crimes of the Future, he has come back to body horror wielding a scalpel and searching for the new flesh once again. The work of David Cronenberg is all of a piece with one another. He tells us in the director’s notes for his newest picture, “Fans will see key references and moments from my other films. There’s a continuity of my understanding of technology as connected to the human body.” It is for this very reason that it comes highly recommended that one indulge themselves in Cronenberg’s larger body of work leading up to Crimes of the Future. The body is reality for David Cronenberg. It always has been and it always will be, and this will hold true even when it eventually fails him, and all of us, in time.

Shivers is available to watch for free with ads on Tubi or to rent or purchase on digital platforms. Rabid is available to watch for free with ads on The Roku Channel, with a library card on Kanopy, or to rent or purchase on digital platforms. Videodrome, The Fly, and eXistenz are available to rent or purchase on digital platforms. Unfortunately, Crash is not available to watch digitally in the United States. Crimes of the Future is out in select theaters.