SCANNERS was written and directed by Cronenberg and concerns a group of people who have intense telepathic and telekinetic powers who are caught in the middle of an industrial espionage thriller, because ConSec, a weapons agency, are seeking to harness the powers of the scanners for their own dubious ends. Steven Vale, is struggling to handle his powers as he feels debilitated by having to listen to the thoughts of others. From the moment that a head explodes during a public demonstration of their powers, the story grips the audience with a layering of inventive elements to make this a fascinating and convincing film, which is more than can be said for some of his other output.
Back in September, The Dirk Malcolm Film Club watched SPIDER (2006) Cronenberg’s creepy adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s 1992 novel of the same name, about a paranoid schizophrenic adjusting to life after being released from the comfort of an asylum. Typically for Cronenberg, the film feels like an exercise in making the un-filmable into a film, as the protagonist’s world, is externalised version of his own psychosis, nothing is quite as it seems when seen through his eyes. Ralph Feinies is brilliant at portraying the character who is sympathetic, very disturbed, delusional and yet trying to get a grip on his sanity. It is played very slowly. Each scene builds steadily, becoming more and more unsettling.
It is a film that I admire greatly, so why isn’t it my selection for this list? Why have I chosen an earlier, in many ways, less subtle film from his body of work? The trouble I have with SPIDER is the performance of Miranda Richardson who plays three roles in the film, reflecting Spider’s delusional state and relationship with his parents. When she is the prostitute she affects an accent that channels Barbara Winsor via a myna bird, which is so over the top that it jars the tone of the film.
In many ways, her performance is illustrative of the problem with Cronenberg’s entire body of work. There is a great deal of intelligence at play and images that are challenging and sometimes shocking, however he walks the tight rope between genius and the plain daft, occasionally falling into the latter with toe-curling results that negate some of his engaging brilliance.
eXistenZ (1999) is an ingenious, thought provoking splatter-punk SF film about consensual reality that was trumped by THE MATRIX (1999) in the same year, yet explores similar themes in a bolder and more darkly surreal manner. The moment when Jude Law diligently constructs a gun from the carcass of the creature he is eating is a thrilling moment of cinema, yet the moments when he is with Jennifer Jason Leigh, rubbing rubbery consoles in simulated pleasure, are just silly.
His notorious adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel CRASH (1996) suffers from the same lapses in credibility. As a scholar of Ballard for several years, it came as no surprise that Cronenberg would want to adapt this exploration of sex, trauma and technology as the two share very similar concerns around making the psychological-physical and the relationship between sex and technology. The execution is slick. James Spader is convincing as Ballard, finding his way through bizarre S&M groups who get their kicks from witnessing and staging car crashes. The novel is shocking, yet written with a satirical tone; the film is also shocking, but delivered with such earnestness that it appears, well, again just silly.
Cronenberg is a director who has fascinated me from the moment when I first started to go to the cinema on my own steam. THE FLY (1986) grips the attention from the beginning to the end (despite the transformation taking place after 30 minutes of build up). It was independent horror dressed for the multiplex and now seems incredibly dated. SCANNERS also feels of its era, but it somehow ‘fits’ as it feels like a science-fiction period piece.
After revisiting these films, I was beginning to doubt whether he deserves a place in the list at all, yet I would always cite Cronenberg as one of my favourite directors, because despite some of my misgivings over his output, he is never boring, always challenging and inventive. Mind-blowing, and just a bit daft.