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Sunday, Oct 22, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, how Tobe Hooper, one of post-modern horror’s most promising filmmakers, became a monster movie pariah.


How did it happen? Where did he go wrong? In a perfect world, Tobe Hooper wouldn’t be a fright film pariah. He’d be considering his next creative decision, mulling over dozens of derivative Hollywood scripts in a coy cat and mouse game that he, naturally would end up winning. He would have taken the success of his amazing 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and parlayed it into a non-stop stream of genre defining and redefining efforts. There’d be no question about who directed Poltergeist (screw a certain Steven S.), and past films like The Funhouse and Eaten Alive would be seen as minor missteps instead of the last likeable efforts from one of the medium’s most misbegotten masters. Sadly, this is not a perfect world, and as anyone who’s tried to sit through many of Hooper’s more recent efforts, he is definitely not a perfect filmmaker.


So how did it happen, actually? Where indeed did Tobe Hooper go wrong? There are some rather ardent supporters who still believe in his ability to scare people, holding out hope that he’ll eventually right his derailed directorial canon. They will overlook outright junk like Spontaneous Combustion, Night Terrors, Crocodile, The Mangler, and his most recent reject, Mortuary and still claim that prior to becoming a Hollywood hack for hire, Hooper was still a vital filmmaker. They may have a point. Looking over the films he’s made in the 12 years between the two signature Saw films argues for an artist still trying to be viable in a filmic category that was slowly swallowing its own soul. As the Devil gave way to the slasher, Hooper helmed unique and uncompromising movies that said more about who he was as an idealistic individual than the current state of macabre.


No one could have predicted that a little slapdash exploitation film made to grind some bucks out of the still viable drive-in demographic, based loosely on the life of Wisconsin’s notorious Ed Gein mythos, would end up being one of terror’s tent pole experiences. Through a combination of inspiration, invention and outright karmic happenstance, what could have been a minor monster movie became an unsettling work of art. Take away all of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s violence and brutality – the final shot of Leatherface dancing in the rising sun of a new day is one of the most compelling images ever captured on celluloid. It made Hooper an instant icon, and secured his place as one of the pioneers of terror. It also opened doors for the former college professor and documentary cameraman that perhaps he shouldn’t have passed through.


There were also signs early on that all was not well in Hooperville. Right after his killer alligator epic Eaten Alive, the filmmaker was hired to helm The Dark, an oddball extraterrestrial invasion film that looked and felt like an attempt to jump on the about to be hot Alien bandwagon. At some point in the production, Hooper went head to head with the producers, and was fired. John Cardos was brought in to finish the project. It wouldn’t be the last time that Hooper was removed from a movie. Aside from the rumors surrounding Poltergeist, he quit the British snake thriller Venom, sighting “creative differences” with the main moneymen. Among the many reasons a filmmaker can fall in the tripwire town of Tinsel, failing at the box office is creative crime number one. But standing right besides said fiscal flopping is the “difficult reputation”. Whether or not his reasons for rejection were viable, Hooper had been labeled. And after his next three films, he’d more or less cemented his professional unacceptability.


After that notorious suburban spook show hit, Hooper was handed a number of possible projects. Unfortunately, he fell in with the infamous meddlers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan of Canon Films. While they promised financial support, they delivered no guarantees when it came to final cut, or eventual distribution. Three years came and went before Hooper’s adaptation of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires arrived in theaters, minus 15 of its original 116 minute running time, and with the lamentable title change to Lifeforce. More sci-fi than scary, and missing much of its internal logic thanks to the editing, the film was viewed as a failure by even the most ardent Chainsaw supporter. Even those who came to appreciate the movie in later years were mainly responding to the recovered “director’s cut”. It was a stunning blow for a man that, up until this UK jive, was considered a fabulous fright master.


His next step didn’t endear himself to anyone. Hooper had always loved 1953’s Invaders from Mars, and wanted to modernize the cheesy matinee classic. Unfortunately, while the situation looked new, the effects were as retro as a trip back to the Eisenhower era. The decision to maintain the look and limits of the old b-movie style of monster made this intended update more funny than fresh, and fans just didn’t get the rationale behind revisiting what appeared to be a standard shoddy creature feature from the past. Lost for a novel next step, Hooper appeared to become desperate. His next move would baffle even his heretofore strongest followers.


Depending on who you listen to, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 is either a wonderful cinematic satire, on par with the scathing social commentary found in George Romero’s work or the last bullet in the creative gun that helped Hooper commit career suicide. There’s no meaningful middle ground on the project – fright film mavens either love it or LOATHE it. Purposefully the polar opposite of everything he did in the 1974 original (tense atmosphere, documentary stylizing, maintenance of an air of authenticity) this full blown farce had our antihero Leatherface as a hyped up horndog. It presented the previous sinister Cook as a non-stop one liner dropping Bleak chorus. It even introduced a new clan member into the mix, the metal plate sporting Chop Top, whose sole purpose seemed to be egging on his power tool wielding brother while dropping deranged pop culture references.


Time has definitely treated this instantly dismissed title rather well. Even disparate elements like Dennis Hopper’s Method acting madness, or the entire Vietnam-based abandoned amusement park now seem like part of one artistic madman’s personal cinematic purgative. A great deal of the time, Chain Saw 2 plays like Hooper’s final statement on the entire Massacre phenomenon. He kids himself, and his fans, even adding a scene where Drive-In critic Joe Bob Briggs comments on the manner in which Leatherface slaughters some random babes. Golan and Globus had wanted another dark, disgusting exercise in dread. What they got was an aggressive, Airplane! like lampoon where the only thing taken seriously was Tom Savini’s autopsy-quality F/X.


It was apparently the straw that finally broke the fear fans’ benevolent back. The original movie is considered by most to be one of the best ever made. The revamp came and went without anyone much mentioning it afterward. Canon closed shop, leaving Hooper to wander through a few tame television efforts before trying his hand again at the big screen. Spontaneous Combustion was certifiable proof that his outright genre rejection shown in Chain Saw 2 was not just some one-time Hooper experiment. A stupid story involving nuclear weapons, genetic defects, and one man’s ability to immolate people made absolutely no sense when it finally found its direct to video home, and the disdain and contempt for the audience was obvious. Hooper no longer wanted to connect with viewers. He was merely going to give them what he saw fit. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take his fright.


It has been all downhill from there. When the best thing you can say about a recent Hooper effort is that it had some pretty good gore effects (the only interesting element in his otherwise pointless Toolbox Murders remake), you know you’re dredging the bottom of the boo barrel. Having long since given up on this journeyman turned joke, most fans find his current canon to be as laughable as it is lamentable. His production credit on the two new Chainsaw updates also causes the faithful to cringe, again considering the status the first film has in the annals of the genre. And yet, none of this really explains why he’s now such a non-entity. Scholars could compile as much research as possible and still not be able to figure out how or why Hooper finally fell.


It’s possible that, like Chain Saw 2, or Eaten Alive, the movies that many consider to be horrid examples of Hooper’s oeuvre will find solid support upon future reevaluation. After all, his masterpiece was considered quite the abomination at the time of its release. It is conceivable that something like Night Terrors will be hailed as a classic, or Invaders from Mars seen as something of a sci-fi highlight decades from now. His career could also be a clear case of the almost unavoidable horror one hit wonder paradigm. Maybe Hooper only had one good movie in him, and the original Black and Decker epic was it. It could also be that Hooper was stereotyped by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Perhaps he saw himself as a far more varied filmmaker, capable of dabbling in any and all cinematic categories. Unlike Sam Raimi who found a way out, Hooper got stuck being a terror titan – and it effected everything he did thereafter.


Of course, one can’t discount the Poltergeist factor. The 1982 film was such a huge hit that individuals on both sides of the situation obviously understood the power of being linked to such a box office behemoth. The power play against Hooper – the persistent if still unproven rumors that, once again, he had been replaced and that the end result was more a Spielberg style scare film – hounds him to this very day. It leaves people with questions, allowing them to think that there is more truth than professional sour grapes behind the undying creative control gossip. And maybe it became too much. Maybe playing the Hollywood game and getting your otherwise appreciated name dragged through the meaningless motion picture mud has scarred Hooper forever.


It sure does appear that, after the Poltergeist poisoning and his inability thereafter to reproduce it’s success, Hooper simply gave up. Nothing post-Chain Saw 2 has had the pure horror chutzpah of the movies he made in the ‘70s. Even his TV miniseries version of Salem’s Lot and the carnival as killing floor fiendishness of The Funhouse can’t find a comparative contemporary equivalent. It’s as if this director just stopped trying once 1986 ended, and the last 20 years have been an endless ramble toward complete cinematic insignificance. It’s already working. Many younger film fans think the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a meek, mild effort when compared to Marcus Nispel’s balls to the wall reimagining, That a true horror milestone can be made unimportant reflects very poorly on the man who made it. If he’s not careful, Tobe Hooper may discover that it’s too late to save his already addled legacy. And that’s more terrifying than anything he’s done in decades. 


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Saturday, Oct 21, 2006


While cruising the sun stroked byways of Retirement Territory, U.S.A (a.k.a. Florida) on his mega-machined chopper, wounded Vietnam veteran Herschel runs into Jesus’ personal P.R. representative, Angel. She lives with her dope fiend sister Ann in a house frequented by several prime examples of why American ingenuity and productivity was so poor in the ‘70s. While Angel preaches the psalms to Herschel, Ann tries to get to “know” him in the true Biblical sense. Realizing that the only begetting old Hersch is interested in is of the platonic variety, Ann seeks her revenge by making the beefy buffoon smoke some oregano doobies laced with pure smack. One puff, and Herschel is hooked, painfully craving more spiked smoke to calm his horrible overacting.


But instead he gets a job on a local turkey farm where the inbred cousins of Bartles and James feed him free bird pumped full of Adolph’s meat tenderizer, overly salty chicken broth, and the magic ingredient Polyplotpoint 80. Instead of copping a buzz off the L-tryptophan, however, Herschel turns into a half-man/half bird beast, complete with papier-mâché turkey head and overdubbed gobble. Hungry like the hen, he goes out looking for drug addicts to kill for their rich, chemically enhanced blood. And while Ann feels guilt for getting Herschel hooked, and Angel memorizes the last few Beatitudes, the foul feathered fiend roams the streets of Sun City Center, looking for supermodels, rock stars and grade schoolers to supply him with the opium rich artery juice he so desperately needs.


What do you get when you cross some retread reefer madness, accidental drug addiction, religious fundamentalism, body building and processed turkey loaf? Well, if you’re oddball director Brad Grinter, you end up with Blood Freak, the only film in the entire exploitation canon to be endorsed by The Southern Baptist Convention, the Betty Ford Clinic, and the Butterball Thanksgiving Hotline. There is probably no other movie in the long lineage of monster/maniac/heroin related filmography that centers on a brawny European muscleman getting addicted to Chinese Rock-enhanced wacky weed while working as the subject of some warped experiments at the local subsidiary of the Perdue poultry empire. Only Godmonster of Indian Flats can boast a more bizarre cinematic universe, and yet its Old West weirdness just cannot compare to Freak‘s Vietnam vet in a fowl mood madness.


It’s hard to fathom what Grinter was hoping to achieve with this movie. Was he mad at drugs? Irritated by religion? Longing for the invention of Stovetop Stuffing? The motivation is unclear. But the method used to achieve it is downright demented. Grinter is of the old cinematic school that feels a movie doesn’t have to make a great deal of linear sense as long as it contains frequent shots of the director smoking. That’s right, about every eight minutes or so, our swarthy South Florida celluloid sod appears on camera, eyes blurry from too many Tom Collins, fingers and breath stained yellow from endless Marlboros, hair swirled with a combination of Alberto VO5 and dried vomit, and proceeds to narrate the film by blatantly reading from the script. His Grecian Formula 16 chorus adds an inebriated pseudo-philosophy to the entire pissed off psycho pullet shenanigans.


But these drunken monotonous-logues by Mr. Grinter, with their non-sensical segues and his pre-throat cancerous croak are not the only unhinged things about Blood Freak. The whole religious, Jesus saves subplot is hilariously out of place here. It’s as if some cast member ran across a copy of The Watchtower on the craft services table and wouldn’t let the production finish until there was a little holy hollering added to the sex, drugs, and turkey murders. The cast gives off the aura of being perplexed by their own performances, with the forced child confession emoting of the actress playing Ann as plastic as the elaborate layers of eye paint she wears—Tammy Faye must be spinning in her vanity chair.


But it’s the whole murderous doped up turkey-man idea that shoots this movie into the surreal stratosphere. The scenes of our strung out strongman, big bullem bird head in place, attacking victims and letting blood have an unworldly, downright disturbing quality. You will be laughing, mind you, but some of the gore is fairly nasty. Especially effective is an elongated torture scene near the end of the film. Lets just say it involves our insane roaster, a table saw, and a drug dealer’s leg (Lucio Fulci would be proud). The kinetic, freestyle editing, the endless shots of Grinter babbling like an improvising, smut peddling Criswell, and actors who play dead by wincing and wiggling as all the while effects gore F/X across their face makes Blood Freak a first rate crazed capon caper.


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Friday, Oct 20, 2006


The Frighteners is Peter Jackson’s lost masterpiece, an important cinematic cog linking his genre work of the past with the monumental achievements in fantasy filmmaking he would attain with the Lord of the Rings. Coming right after the personal, praised Heavenly Creatures, Jackson had wanted to make a more mainstream film. Robert Zemeckis stepped in and offered the director a chance to make a full-blown Hollywood hit. With longtime partner Fran Walsh, Jackson had been kicking around the idea of a Ghostbusters-style psychic who conned people out of money by pretending to purge spirits from their home. The only catch was that Frank Bannister could actually see specters, and was using the otherworldly agents as his grifting partners. Agreeing to let the director film in his native New Zealand (which more or less passes for the Pacific Northwest) and also allowing all the post-production work to be done by Kiwi craftsman, The Frighteners suddenly had full U.S. studio support.


Though it failed to become the blockbuster everyone had hoped for, The Frighteners still became a real stepping-stone in its creator’s canon. Beyond its import to his career, Jackson’s film is also important in the ongoing evolution of CGI. Before WETA’s work in The Frighteners (they also helmed a few scenes in Creatures), computer-generated imagery was seen as the exclusive domain of the Americans—and ILM in particular. While Jurassic Park will always be seen as a monumental step forward, The Frighteners was a formidable attempt at the seamless incorporation of motherboard rendered visuals into a narrative. The main monster here, a wonderfully fluid and fierce figure known as The Reaper, may seem a tad dated in light of our post-millennial management of CGI elements, but for its time, the callous cloak with a deadly sickle was quite a quantum leap.


Jackson also pushed the basic boundaries of the new effects format in his film. For him, it wasn’t just eye candy or a visual set piece. The CGI characters in The Frighteners had to live and breath, acting with emotional resonance and believable authenticity. Though he would have much more success in this department with Rings (and now King Kong), the ghosts created for the film really do live up to their spectral specifics. Thanks to the added footage included in the new director’s cut, we get to see Jackson having more fun with his phantoms, putting them through their physics-defying paces to increase the crazy cartoon-like anarchy of the film. Jackson enjoys giving the Judge character a less-than-complete corpse, and has fun fooling with some attempted splatter effects as well. The entire movie feels like a resume reel for a man who would one day create the most consistently artistic and accomplished trilogy in the history of motion pictures.


But it’s the amazing acting that really sells The Frighteners. Michael J. Fox—near the end of his reign as a box-office champ and ready to challenge himself with different, difficult roles—finds a lot of heart and horror in the backstory of his bogus psychic detective. Frank Bannister is supposed to be a scarred man, more figuratively than literally, and Fox wears such wounding across his still cherubic face. But when asked to dig deep and play the depths of despair, he really delivers the goods. Trini Alvardo, Dee Wallace Stone, Jake Busey, and the ghostly trio of John Astin, Jim Fyfe, and Chi McBride are all excellent. But if the movie truly belongs to one individual, it would have to be everyone’s favorite Re-Animator, Jeffrey Combs. As messed-up FBI flatfoot Milton Dammers, Combs creates a character so unique, so unbelievably idiosyncratic and iconic that he truly deserved Oscar recognition for this work. Every line reading is like an adventure, every reaction a study in sensational strangeness. By the time he’s reduced to a near-routine villain, spitting out his threats with varying vileness, we want as much Milton as we can get.


One of the best things about The Frighteners, though, is that Jackson never overstays his cinematic welcome. We receive just enough Dammers to satisfy our sentiments, not so much that we grow weary of his weirdness. The same with the spooks. Had Jackson turned them into the poltergeist version of the Three Stooges, all slapstick and joking jive, we’d want less of their ethereal lunacy. Indeed, everything about The Frighteners is measured and metered out in sly, successful segments. The film has the real feeling of a completed, complementary work, where narrative ends are tied up and tossed together with other cinematic specialness to create a solid, satisfying whole. There are those who believe that the film is still missing a key entertainment element (and they will probably feel the same after viewing the long-dormant director’s cut), but the truth is that, for its time, The Frighteners was one masterful movie. It deserved more credit than it got during its initial release


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Thursday, Oct 19, 2006

Just turn off the set. Skip it. Go out and get a life, or find a local book club that will actually accept your multimedia made illiteracy as a personality quirk, but don’t make a date with your beloved pay movie channels this weekend. With four films that stink like a dead skunk drowned in dung, it’s impossible to recommend anything that your hard earned premium cable dollars are paying for. Between the tepid tripe of another paranormal romance to a ridiculous remake of a fright film that didn’t get it right the first time around, you’d be better served by staying up late tonight and taking in a pair of Russ Meyer’s mammary-enhanced masterworks (see below). Or better yet, turn off the tube and simply settle in with a good DVD. Even something as hackneyed as a full on Friday the 13th marathon (from the original to Freddy vs. Jason) would provide more moviemaking acumen than the dire dregs being tossed out here. For those of you still not convinced, here is what’s showing this Saturday, 21 October:


HBOJust Like Heaven

Who knew the dead were so – spunky? In this tired retread of the ridiculous RomCom subsection – the supernatural love story, Reese Witherspoon is Legally Deceased, and yet still manages to woo and win the afterlife affection of her barely alive new beau, the ragged Mark Ruffalo. Though some might consider this approach to relationships (ghost of a dead doctor falls for the dude who rents out her now vacant apartment) as something quite novel, it’s just the same old superficial spook show. If you want real invention in the tired filmic format, avoid this frazzled fluff and check out Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Once you’ve seen how truly original and affecting a romantic comedy can be, you’ll never again settle for such syrupy, saccharine slop. Here’s hoping her recent Oscar win helps Ms. Witherspoon avoid such subpar product in the future. (Premieres Saturday 21 October, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxStay

What has happened to the science fiction film of late? With examples as appalling as the Robin Williams waste of time The Final Cut to that lame Michael Bay boogie The Island, it seems like the speculative side of genre cinema just can’t get no respect. Further proof is provided by this excruciating Ewan McGregor effort. Playing a psychiatrist trying to decipher the rationale behind a gifted artist’s recent declaration of suicidal intent, this failed future schlock is all the more stunning when you consider Mark Foster, responsible for Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, was behind this fiasco. Call it Imitation Vanilla Sky or a drab David Lynch daydream, but this meshing of fantasy with fact is just an excuse for more motion picture masturbation from what many consider to be a gifted filmmaker. (Premieres Saturday 21 October, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzShopgirl

Steve Martin needs to retire. Just look at the last five films this one time cutting edge comedian has made – Bringing Down the House, Cheaper by the Dozen (and it’s even dopier sequel), the pathetic Pink Panther revamp and this stab at middle aged male menopause passing itself off as a standard romantic comedy. Responsible for the script, as well as the source material at the center of this lame love triangle, Martin makes many of the same mistakes that other wannabe old coot Casanovas commit – he actually thinks people will care about his aged character’s need for human companionship. With relationships too difficult for the average viewer to navigate successfully, the interpersonal dynamics of fictional people better be fresh or fascinating. Otherwise, it’s all heartbreak and old hat. Sadly, Martin makes it seem rather rote as well. (Premieres Saturday 21 October, 9:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowtimeThe Amityville Horror (2005)

It was the book that spawned a dozen schoolyard debates. Hailed as a true, nonfiction account of one family’s battle with the forces of darkness, the legend of Amityville (and the bestseller that resulted) fueled many a ‘70s teen’s sleepless night. The original film version, starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder was marred by a blatant disregard for the narrative’s best elements, and instead, focused on things that many fans found irritating, or downright foolish. Well, in a clear case of failing the second time around, producer Michael Bay equally eviscerates the storyline, keeping only the chills for this exercise in excess. First time filmmaker Andrew Douglas makes the fatal mistake of believing that non-stop scares make for a masterpiece of macabre. Instead, he churns out a meandering mess with various haunted house histrionics that appear to have no real point. (Saturday 21 October, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 20/21 October, the choices are sensational:


Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Russ Meyer’s emblematic exploitation film is far more interested in violence than vice, but that doesn’t mean its any less effective. With one of the best girl gangs ever put on film – including the sultry Tura Satana and the ‘healthy’ Haji – you can’t beat this film for full out gal against guy gratuity. The result is a true cult gem. (2:00am EST)


Mudhoney
Made the same year as Pussycat, Meyer’s trashy Tobacco Road take is far more typical of his overall canon – an oeuvre that was more social commentary than all out skin flick. Safely within the limits of acceptable mid-‘60s censorship standards (it will be interesting to see how TNT handles the nudity), this is also one of the director’s best.  (3:30am EST)


 


Seven Films, Seven Days

For October, the off title idea is simple – pick a different cable channel each and every day, and then find a film worth watching. While it sounds a little like an exercise in entertainment archeology, you’d be surprised at the broad range of potential motion picture repasts in the offing. Therefore, the fourth installment of acceptable selections for this week include:



21 October - The Game
David Fincher fooled everyone by showing that the tired twist ending could still be surprising – and thought provoking – in this inventive clockwork thriller.
(Flix – 8PM EST)


22 October - Dolores Claiborne
Kathy Bates takes on another classic Stephen King character in Taylor Hackford’s excellent adaptation of the terror maestro’s experimental novel.
(Encore Mystery – 9:30PM EST)


23 October - Halloween II (Edited Version)
Edit out all the blood and guts and what do you have? Another American Movie Classics excuse for entertainment – not that this shoddy sequel needs help sucking.
(AMC – 8PM EST)


24 October -Leviathan
Right at the end of the ‘80s, sea creatures made a minor run at genre box office gold. The better of the two is this combination of Alien and aquatics.
(Encore – 8PM EST)


25 October - The Haunting
Want to see the film that killed Jan de Bont’s directorial career? Then check out this overwrought, CGI heavy version of the Shirley Jackson classic.
(TBS – 11:20PM EST)


26 October - Better Off Dead
Considered by many ‘80s film fans as one of the era’s definitive teen romps, this jaunty John Cusak starring vehicle deserves all of its aficionado affections.
(The Movie Channel – 11:35PM EST)


27 October -Strange Invaders
Both a throwback to the sci-fi of the ‘50s and a celebration of the F/X heavy horrors of the ‘80s, this forgotten film is a true forgotten classic.
(MoviePlex – 7:20PM EST)


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Wednesday, Oct 18, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the biology-based terror of David Cronenberg, Canada’s premier horror maestro.


For many, sex and sexuality is an issue best left private. It involves so many idiosyncratic and deeply personal aspects that it can cause considerable individual angst. But in the mind of Canadian macabre maestro David Cronenberg, the physical act of intercourse, and the ancillary essentials that make up eros, can be more terrifying than any monster, more horrific than any visit from a violent slasher. It all has to do with the body – as a temple and temptation, a place easily violated and poisoned by facets from without and within. In a career that has spanned three decades, several sensational films, and a genre-defying approach to narrative, Cronenberg has managed to locate the fear inside the most fundamental aspect of existence – life itself – and as a result he created a canon where being human is the most potentially precarious thing a person can do.


For some, he is a difficult auteur. His work is overloaded with ideas, plagued by invention that both amplifies and occasionally addles, his efforts. Because of his background – Cronenberg studied both science and literature in college, taking a degree in the latter from the University of Toronto before dabbling in film – his themes usually clash, creating cinematic chaos before coming together at the end. After several strange and unique independent efforts (and more than a couple of TV films for Canadian broadcasting) in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Cronenberg was desperate to explore the unnatural ideas rolling around in his head. He finally got the chance in 1975 with Shivers (released in the US and better known as They Came From Within).


With a narrative that would come to exemplify much of the director’s works – a parasite overruns an apartment building, turning the residents into lust-crazed maniacs whose goal is to infect each other – Shivers started Cronenberg’s career long march toward discovering the mysteries of sex. Acknowledging that for many, the physical act of love (or without emotion, pure carnal copulation) can be a daunting, even devastating act, the director designed his cinema to symbolize such an internal struggle via brash external means. In the case of Shivers, it was the loss of intimacy as represented by a small, squishy slug that brings on uncontrolled desire. Seen by many today as an AIDS metaphor as well as a comment on the disease spreading revolution that marked most of the Me Decade, the movie was an auspicious start to a soon to be impressive career. 


Next up was Rabid, which took the whole pornography of fear (and visa versa) element one step further by featuring real life adult film star Marilyn Chambers in the lead role. She played a woman whose botched plastic surgery leads to an insatiable desire for blood, and a small penis-like appendage jutting from her armpit. Never one to shy away from the more graphic aspects of imagery, many fright fans were repulsed by the decidedly disturbing nature of Cronenberg’s visuals. Still, Rabid was well received and after the one-off car cult action pic Fast Company, Cronenberg was back in biological territory. Using children as the source of all evil, he fashioned The Brood. Noted for taking the concept of psychosomatic illnesses to an all new, literary level, the director dissected birth, and the legacy of procreation, and inserted them into the closest thing to a condemnation of offspring this side of David Lynch’s Eraserhead.


Though he was now a considered cult filmmaker, Cronenberg had yet to matter to the mainstream. All of that would change with his next effort, 1980’s Scanners. Completing a kind of queer quadrilogy that followed terror from creation, to birth, to a kind of mutated maturity, the filmmaker established the perfect way of meshing physicality with fear, while also tapping into areas revolving around power and purpose. In this popular hit (which used the explosion of a man’s head from the film’s first act as a decided gore selling point), two adult ‘scanners’ battle for a kind of metaphysical supremacy, one arguing that the telekinetic skills he was genetically engineered with are a curse. The other, of course, sees nothing but superiority. Thanks to the bloodletting and special effects which accented Cronenberg’s complex screenplay, what could have been a geek show turned into a brave, bravura statement.


But he wasn’t done manipulating both mind and body. In his minor masterpiece Videodrome, Cronenberg considered the meddlesome effects of the media on human nature, and personal physicality, all with devastating results. Predating many of the symptoms post-modern punditry would imply were destroying the human race (TV, violence, sex, cults, religion) the director melded technology, terror and temptation to produce a kind of arch acid flashback, compete with living televisions, torso vaginas, and guns that were an actual extension of one’s anatomy. Some consider the last act where star James Woods has become a bio-sexual assassin (all thanks to a brainwashing signal implanted in a pirate satellite transmission) to be a meandering mess that looses much of what Cronenberg was commenting on. While definitely gruesome, the finale is a flawless wrap up to a story that’s surrealism sets up all the symbolism to come.


At this point, Cronenberg had arrived and was presented with his choice of projects. Scanners was a hit, and Videodrome proved he could match wits with even the wildest industry innovators. His next step threw the fanbase a substantial cinematic curve when he agreed to film an adaptation of Stephen King’s paranormal political thriller The Dead Zone. Antithetical to his whole corporeal creep show concepts, he still delivered a searing socio-political drama that resonates as realistically today as it did three decades before. It so impressed the individuals holding the option for a remake of the ‘50s insect schlock The Fly that Cronenberg was given the job of bringing the troubled project to the screen. Perhaps the perfect match of material and maker, the resulting effort would become one of horror cinema’s greatest achievements.


The Fly functions on many magnificent levels – love story, splatterfest, acting tutorial, monster movie – that to try and narrow its success to one or the other is futile. With a remarkable Jeff Goldblum giving life to one of the most difficult roles in all of fright filmmaking (man turning into a creature) and effects that added emphasis to the horror this human was experiencing, the sci-fi aspects of the narrative function perfectly as an analogy to how love impacts and changes a person. Before his relationship with Veronica, Goldblum’s character Seth Brundle was an insular and introverted man. Passion, and physical love transform the sullen scientist into a man eager to explore the possibilities of the world. Sadly one said adventure involved his teleportation device, an errant insect, and a gradual transformation into something quite grotesque.


An unquestionable achievement, Cronenberg’s creation touched a substantial genre nerve. Fright fans found it almost impossible to ignore the depth of emotion that existed between the characters, and saw the ending, a Grand Guignol spectacle of violence and loss, as one of Cronenberg’s most powerful. Few thought he could do better, but again, he baffled his devotees by delivering another amazing movie, the dualistic thriller Dead Ringers. It was a narrative that brought all his obsessions full circle. More psychological than physiological and using the almost telepathic connection between twins to tell a tale of obsession and possession, the narrative seemed like a response to all the critics who commented on the director’s own fascination with the human body and all its amniotic aspects.


At this point, Cronenberg could have merely coasted. Numerous projects came his way, many of which were Hollywood’s way of “rewarding” him for years of outsider excellence. But instead of bowing to blockbuster pressures, the filmmaker followed his heart, and attempted the near impossible – an adaptation of William Burrough’s notorious novel Naked Lunch. Instead of coming to terms with the demented descriptions in the author’s stream of consciousness screed of drugs and their use/abuse, Cronenberg fused a fictional Burroughs’ biopic with an interpretation of how such haunting, harrowing passages were prepared, and created a kind of mental Molotov cocktail. Fans hoping for a quixotic slice of pure Burroughs felt betrayed. Others argued that there were vast, varied differences between Croneberg’s Lunch and the ersatz story on the page. While celebrated today, Naked Lunch was lamented at the time of its initial release, considered disappointing in both cinematic and literary camps. 


It didn’t stop the auteur from continuing to court controversy. He brought the Broadway hit M. Butterfly to the silver screen, amplifying the homosexual angle of an already scandalous story of a French diplomat who fell in love and lived with an Asian transvestite. Next, he pushed the acceptability envelope even further by retrofitting J. G. Ballard’s brave book, Crash to fit his filmmaking ideals. So scandalous that it barely got released, the story of sexual deviants who get physical thrills from accident scenes and injury, put a preemptive halt to the director’s ascent into universal adoration. Arguably one of his best films, Crash can also be seen as penance for all the peculiarity Cronenberg placed upon his audiences.


Instead of a retreat, however, the filmmaker merely pressed on. His next big screen effort, eXistenZ was a weird, wooly trip into virtual reality, and proved a professional disappointment. Viewers apparently weren’t ready to see a motion picture mindfuck that actually was mindfucking itself. Then came the criminally underrated Spider with Ralph Fiennes delivering a devastating turn as a mentally unhinged man whose past and present seem to coexist simultaneously. In 2005, Cronenberg stunned everyone, from film critic to fervent supporter, with his Oscar caliber comment on the brutal nature of the human race, A History of Violence.


For a filmmaker used to accolades, the love this masterpiece received was outrageous. Nominated for numerous awards, and high on almost all film critic’s year end ‘best of’ lists, the story of small town America shaken by murder, and mistrust violates almost every single aspect of the filmmaker’s venereal style. Gone are the multiple references to the human form – in there place are stellar statements about the nature of evil, and how a loved one can hide their true self from even those they profess to care about. In fact, many reviewers responded favorably to the film for the very reason that Cronenberg appeared to be giving up his biological fascinations once and for all.


In fact, when looking at his upcoming projects (including a comedy -??? – and another graphic novel adaptation ala Violence) it does indeed look like he has abandoned his genre roots for good. While it wouldn’t be surprising if he never made another horror movie, fans of the creature feature art form would have a real reason to be upset. When he was part of post-modern macabre’s making, there was no one better than this crafty Canadian. The cinematic category surely misses his cruel, considered tone as well as his outstanding ‘body’ of work. 


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