For better or worse Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg over time has seemed to make an active decision to distance himself from the kind of psychological body horror that forged his reputation as an innovative transgressive filmmaker. As a result some of his later career films have lacked the danger and bite (pardon the pun) of his earlier genre work. Yet to some extent he has done this all along the way, where films like M.Butterfly, Fast Company and a History of Violence have existed somewhat uncomfortably alongside the likes of Videodrome, The Fly and Naked Lunch.
This collection is not so different, gathering 1975’s Shivers, and 1977’s Rabid with the anomaly, 1983’s Dead Zone. Whilst Shivers and Rabid exist in the same world, at the same time, he made four subsequent features, including Scanners and The Brood before he would get to the Dead Zone.
Shivers is Cronenberg’s first feature, made for just $170,000 in fifteen days. If you want to get a sense of what to expect, its original title, ‘Orgy of the Blood Parasites,’ pretty much tells you everything you need to know. This is true body horror, where Cronenberg was interested in the horror coming from within, a novel concept for 1975 horror. Featuring B-movie siren Barbra Steele, we’re dealing with a parasitic creature that looks like a cross between a penis and a turd. With buckets of blood, Shivers provides plenty of vicarious pleasure for horror fans. Yet despite its crudeness and some at times wooden acting, there’s a humour and intelligence pervading this debut.
It begins with a brutal sex crime, where a young girl is attacked and dismembered by a crazed madman who subsequently kills himself in a modern Ballardian apartment block. Soon an infection spreads, with the infected displaying violent, highly sexualised behaviour. What could go wrong? In the extra features Cronenberg suggests it was his attempt to be as commercial as possible whilst still focussing on things that interested him. Looking back at this retrospectively it’s hard not to see links to the aids epidemic in the subject matter. And there is no doubt the chest-bursting scene from Alien was directly stolen from this film.
1977’s Rabid is simultaneously utterly ridiculous and kind’ve scary. It also begins Cronenberg’s continuing relationship with creepy institutes in his films. It’s a curious premise, with a motorcyclist, injured in an accident outside a medical institute having a radical new emergency skin grafting technique that somehow causes an orifice (a puckered anus) to appear under her arm from which a stinger comes out to infect her victims and allow her to suck their blood, causing them to turn into blood sucking zombies. It’s weird it’s sexual, it’s body horror, yep it’s Cronenberg, and you can see the links to Shivers though the palette (and budget) is expanded somewhat. Cronenberg cast ex porn actress Marilyn Chambers (Behind The Green Door) in the lead role, making her debut in straight films, wandering the streets of Montreal looking for victims to feed her habit. This comes with a director’s commentary, which is pretty much worth the price of admission alone, particularly where he discusses his fascination with sequestered institutes and the strange communities that develop within. He also reveals he initially wanted Sissy Spacek for the role, after he had seen her in Badlands. Cronenberg’s financers didn’t like her accent and freckles and instead they got Chambers. Midway through shooting Carrie came out and Spacek was the hottest name in horror.
“I’ve always been drawn to scenes of medical intrigue,” he offers at one point. “I think that’s because we have never accepted the world as it is, or even our bodies as they are and are constantly trying to not just understand them, but trying to understand how to change them, modify them, improve them. That’s why medical procedures have a kind of primal potency for me…”
The Dead Zone is of course an anomaly in early Cronenberg. He’d just completed Videodrome and jumped at the chance to direct a film he hadn’t written. It’s also the biggest cast he’d worked with, featuring the likes of Tom Skerrit, Herbert Lom (Inspector Clouseau’s boss), Martin Sheen as a smarmy politician and of course Christopher Walken in a suitably creepy role. It comes from the Stephen King book, where he was trying to get away from the more schlocky supernatural horror, and so too was Cronenberg.
Whilst it doesn’t feature the typical Cronenberg proclivities for body horror, you could suggest that like Shivers and Rabid, it features an innocent man attempting to curtail a disease outbreak. Yet it’s not transmission through the body, rather it’s through the mind, as a smooth politician infects the minds of voters. Walken plays Johnny Smith who having woken up from a coma after 5 years finds his girlfriend has married someone else and he has inherited the ability to see the future. What’s curious about Dead Zone is that it begins as a film about a thwarted romance and the pain of separation then takes an abrupt left turn and becomes a thriller, with Smith teaming up with the police to catch a serial killer, and inevitably a sociopath on the campaign trail, yet with each premonition he becomes increasingly crippled with debilitating headaches. Shot in Ontario, standing in for Maine, there’s lots of snow and ice, and the Canadian locations are in keeping with the look and feel of Cronenberg’s prior films. It is however very much a departure for Cronenberg. It’s not particularly bloody and a world away from the cold clinical approach he took with the predecessors. In fact it’s quite emotional, particularly initially, where it’s significantly closer to Douglas Sirk melodrama than Shivers or Rabid.
There are some highlights, such as Walken lapsing into what would become his King of New York persona, screaming “the ice is gonna break,” whilst smashing the crockery off a table, when his prophecies aren’t taken seriously. There’s also a witty commentary from the screenplay writer Stephen Jones and film critic Kim Newman who discuss Cronenberg’s visual aesthetics, Walken’s performance as well as the curious amalgamation of Stephen King meeting David Cronenberg. In fact think about this for a second. They are very odd bedfellows, even odder than King and Kubrick.
They discuss how Cronenberg had just come off a very personal film, Videodrome, that hadn’t done very well. “It shows David Cronenberg is a professional director as well as a crazed visionary,” they suggest, “it’s almost an advert for his skills, I can make a proper film.”
If you haven’t seen early Cronenberg, then this collection will surprise and challenge, as these are films are dangerous and transgressive, brimming with ideas and promise, penetrations and blood. If you have seen them, the extra features, such as numerous Cronenberg interviews, making of features, and features commentaries provide a viable reason to return, if only to be reminded of a time when Cronenberg still has the capacity to genuinely creep you out.