A man’s skin and limbs fall off until he turns into a creature resembling a giant fly. Another’s hand turns into a sentient biomechanical gun. A woman licks the blood off her newborn. Another lets a man fornicate with a wound in her thigh.
These are only some of the iconic cinematic moments from body horror maestro David Cronenberg. The 79-year-old director is back with a new film, Crimes of the Future. The MUBI release offers both a tribute to and modern update of his pet themes.
Body horror, a subgenre of horror rooted in literary classics such as Frankenstein and The Metamorphosis, involves graphic disintegration and the transformation or violation of the human body by forces of usually scientific origin. Body horror is present in scare fare such as The Exorcist and the Body Snatchers adaptations, science-fiction actioners like Total Recall and films that are a mix of both (the Alien series).
Films with gross-out scenes can be campy, like Re-Animator. Some body horror films offer more than lurid thrills, such as The Thing (1983), a slow-burn thriller, and Society (1989), a satire about the elite.
What makes Cronenberg’s approach stand out is the combination of visual elements with philosophical ideas concerning the human condition. From his earliest hits such as Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983) to his later-day dramas like Cosmopolis (2012), Cronenberg has constantly explored what lies in store for the future of the Anthropocene. (The closest comparison to his work is Japanese filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo series).
For Cronenberg, body is reality. Body horror is a term he dislikes; he would rather call his interest in the corporeal “body interest and body investigation”, as he told The Independent in 2014.
“I don’t believe in any afterlife, so for me, philosophically, the body is the fact of human existence; we are our bodies,” Cronenberg said. “And people do have a fascination with their own bodies: they are worried about disease and ageing and they are right to, as there’s no fixing it later.”
In fact, a better way to describe Cronenberg’s films is science fiction.
Working as an independent filmmaker outside the studio system throughout his five-decade-long career, Cronenberg started with low-rent productions involving bodily fluids, parasites and infections. His work started gaining a cerebral edge, beginning with The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981).
While The Brood explores troubled parenthood and mental illness, Scanners was Cronenberg’s first prominent work to feature themes he would build upon in subsequent films. Scanners follows weapons companies attempting to mentor people with psychic superpowers for corporate espionage and private armies. Rebel Daryl Revok (Michael Ironside) believes his powers are evidence of the next stage of human evolution, and, therefore, his kind should rule the world.
Cronenberg’s ideas become more focused in Videodrome (1983). An arms company secretly creates and telecasts videos of brutal torture and murder. The signals from these Videodrome programmes are meant to incite fatal tumours in American viewers addicted to violence and pornography. The company’s agenda is to cure America of its perceived cultural rot.
Videodrome is prescient on many levels, especially in its themes of mass obsession with visual media and the consumption of violence to the point of being desensitised to it. “The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye,” media theorist Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) declares.
O’Blivion predicts that people will soon have “special names” like his “designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate”. It’s not hard to see contemporary parallels with internet users who create alternate identities in the digital world.
Cronenberg returns to these themes in Crash (1996) and eXistenZ (1999). Crash follows a group of people sexually aroused by car crashes. Once again, there’s an enigmatic figure like Revok and O’Blivion who’s at the forefront of supposed human evolution in the guise of transgression: Robert (Elias Koteas).
eXistenZ, released in the same year as The Matrix, deals with virtual technology. All these films are thought-provoking dramas that frequently feature body horror imagery to drive home the point.
Even Cronenberg’s biggest commercial success, The Fly (1986), is a romantic tragedy, where a scientist accidentally turns himself into a grotesque abomination that can recognise its lost love even at its horrifying final stage: part-fly, part-human, part-machine.
Crimes of the Future takes off from where eXistenZ ended. Somewhere in the future, humans have stopped feeling physical pain because of environmental and ecological degradation. Public self-mutilation counts as performance art.
Ahead of the curve is Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) who has the unique ability to grow new organs. His partner, Caprice (Lea Seydoux), surgically removes them in front of an audience.
These divested organs are then officially registered and archived by Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and Wippet (Don McKellar) at the National Organ Registry, since the government wants to regulate the indiscriminate growth of organs.
Because of his new organs, Saul often feels pain while eating or sleeping. This is taken care of by special eating chairs and sleeping pods that can anticipate pain and move the body accordingly to minimise it. These machines are provided by a company whose motives are slowly revealed.
Contrary to the film’s techno-gothic darkness (lensed by Douglas Koch), Crimes of the Future is oddly hopeful.
“I think we are evolving, not devolving,” Cronenberg said in an interview in June. “I think our nervous systems are completely different from human beings 100 years ago. I think the use of screens, the use of digital technology has actually altered our nervous systems.”
Multiple elements in Crimes of the Future hark back to Cronenberg’s body horror classics.
Like the protagonists in Scanners, Videodrome, Crash and eXistenZ, Saul is caught between the old guard and the new frontier, unsure of where salvation lies. Like those films, Crimes of the Future has political intrigue surrounding new biotechnology and an underground group threatening the status quo.
The biomechanical sleeping pods and eating chairs resemble the video game apparatus made from mutant animals in eXistenZ. The spectacle of open surgeries is reminiscent of the groups that restage car accidents in Crash. A drug said to end all pain appears in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis.
In Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg returns to his roots with renewed vigour, perhaps motivated by growing apprehensions about the future of the human race in the wake of climate change and uncontrolled pollution. It is indeed a neat summation of his career – and hopefully, the beginning of a new cycle of prophetic science-fiction.