(On Cable TV, January 2019) I’m not sure whether it’s a disappointment or a compliment to say “Wow, that wasn’t as unpleasant as I expected” at the end of writer/director David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. I suppose that it depends on what you think of Cronenberg’s movies and his reputation as a master of body horror. What seems like faint praise can be interpreted as disappointment if you hold the view that Cronenberg movies should be as extreme as possible, then go back to praise considering that Cronenberg’s reputation is such that he creates a sense of dread even before we start watching the movie, preparing our imaginations to all sorts of terrors yet to be experienced and perhaps more effective than if they had been shown on the screen. Of course, “not as unpleasant as I expected” is a relative term and jaded Cronenberg viewers will interpret it differently than more mainstream audiences—Dead Ringers remains a movie with sexual deception, torture-like gynecological tools (ick!), drug abuse, fatally codependent relationships, evisceration and a body count. “Not as unpleasant as I expected” may simply mean that we’ve been spared horrors such as a fifteen-minute one-shot of the film’s most sordid business. Everyone’s mileage will vary. Jeremy Irons stars as twins working as gynecologists and is suitably creepy in his dual roles, while Geneviève Bujold plays the unusual client that divides them. Dead Ringers’ sense of unease is displayed early on and never dispels, although it does prepare us for horrors more extreme than what we actually see. (For once, the female character escapes unscathed—and may even unwittingly deliver the killing blow.) It may not be as crazily imaginative as Cronenberg’s most unhinged movies such as Scanners and Videodrome, but it’s slicker, better controlled and probably a bit cleverer in the way it plays with unease rather than outright disgust. This being said, I suspect that Dead Ringers is more effective for viewers who think they know what to expect than relative newcomers to Cronenberg, and that male viewers will have more muted reactions than female ones.
(In French, On TV, November 2016) I’m writing this a few days after the close of the 2016 American presidential election, in a haze where I’m not sure what’s real and what isn’t. It’s not necessarily the best time to tackle The Dead Zone, or maybe exactly the right time. Here, an unassuming teacher gains the power to foretell the future and see the past, leading to a complicated life and terrifying visions of what would happen if a local loon became president. Best time or worst time? I’ll tell you in four years. Until then, there’s an impossibly young Christopher Walken’s strangely compelling performance to admire and Martin Sheen as an unhinged politician that contrasts with his latter President Barlett. I’ve read the Stephen King novel too long ago to be specific about the details, but The Dead Zone seems to play loose with the details of the original story, which is not necessarily a bad thing. While writer/director David Cronenberg’s film can hit a few rough patches at times, with ambitions exceeding the means at its disposal, The Dead Zone remains engrossing throughout … and suddenly seems like a newly relevant film at a time when we’re grasping at any attempt to predict the future.
(On TV, June 2013) As amazing at it may seem, I had actually forgotten that The Fly was directed by David Cronenberg. Don’t worry, though: within moments, it all came rushing back… as did the memories of being utterly terrified by bits of the film at age 12. Seen from the perspective of an adult, The Fly isn’t as terrifying at a purely visual level. It is, however, quite a bit more insidious about its body horror and the gradual devolution of its character into a mindless beast. Jeff Goldblum can still look upon this as one of his most defining performances as the mutating scientist, while Geena Davis strikes just the right notes as a journalist who finds herself with a lot more grief than she expected chasing a good story. What really doesn’t work so well is John Getz’s character arc going from creepy ex-boyfriend to shotgun-wielding saviour. Cronenberg’s craft means that the film still, more than twenty-five years later, works quite well despite analog effects and sometimes-torpid pacing. The Fly is worth a look, and not just as part of Cronenberg’s filmography.
(Video on-demand, March 2013) The kindest thing one can say about Cospomolis is that after more than a decade spent in the wilderness of criminal realism, it’s good to see writer/director David Cronenberg go back (even partially) to weirdness and his longstanding preoccupation with the dehumanization of modern society. From the first few highly-stylised moments, it’s obvious that Cosmopolis is not going to be your average plot-driven thriller. Our protagonist may be a rich businessman driving around with the simple goal of getting a haircut, but the artificiality of the film is underlined at every second through fake visuals, elliptical dialogue obviously copied-and-pasted from Don Delillo’s short source novel and performances so devoid of normal emotion to make us question whether we’re truly seeing humans on-screen. For Robert Pattinson, this isn’t a good break from the Twilight series: His performance demands such a sense of detachment that we don’t get anything resembling emotion from him, and so no perceptible shift away from a hundred-years-old dispassionate vampire. (This is called typecasting.) It’s a film built to dwell upon the artificiality of life among the elite and it sort-of-works, but it sure feels like it takes a long time to make its points about the coldness of technology, capitalism and/or driving around in circles. It offers mildly thoughtful material, a few nude scenes, unexplainable plot points and an atmosphere that’s quite unlike any other film in recent memory. As a thriller, it’s a flat one-thing-after-another framework on which to hang ideas and intercutting monologues (the characters speak a lot but rarely respond to each other) –it’s a lot more interesting as a high-concept film with strung-together sound-bites. Still, it’s not uninteresting to watch even as an art-house experiment, and as would befit an intellectual thought-piece, a few lines may even stick in mind once the film’s performances fade away.
(On cable TV, March 2012) The media landscape has changed so much in thirty years that there was a real risk that Videodrome, in tackling the TV anxieties of the early eighties, would feel fatally outdated three decades later. In some ways, that’s true: at a time where gory execution video-clips are never farther than a Google search away, the premise of satellite channel piracy uncovering a snuff TV show doesn’t quite have the same power to make audiences shiver. The average moviegoer now has effortless access to a vastly more complicated media diet in which can be blended the worst perversions: Videodrome really scratches the surface of the horrors out there as we realize that we now all have access to the same. But there’s a lot more to Videodrome than a treatise on the dangers of satellite TV and a charming throwback to early-eighties techno-jargon: As the body horror of the film’s second half kicks in, director David Cronenberg (who, a long time ago, still made horror movies) truly uncaps the techno-surrealism that still makes the film worth a look. Videodrome still deserves its cult status as an unnerving piece of bizarre horror, perhaps even more so now that cathode-ray tubes are receding in the past. The visuals, as imperfect as they were in a pre-CGI age, still have a sting and the shattering of the protagonist’s reality is good for a few kernels of terror. What really doesn’t work all that well is the last act of the film, which disarms the film’s increasing sense of paranoia and ends up burying itself in pointlessness. Videodrome, even today, is more interesting for its potential rather than its execution. Oh well; at least James Woods is captivating as the protagonist, and Toronto gets a pretty good turn in the background. A stronger third act would have been a good way to wrap up the film, but as a cult classic, it probably doesn’t need any improvement.
(On DVD, June 2009): The most frustrating thing about this low-budget Canadian horror film shot and set in Toronto is how uneven it is: Too often settling for a muddy drama somehow featuring a vampire protagonist, it occasionally flickers brightly with a moment of interest, only to fade again. It’s self-consciously ridiculous (David Cronenberg plays a local mob boss with boot-scratching gusto), and yet it also tries to have it both ways as a character study, especially near the unsatisfying ending. (Here’s a hint: Don’t try make us go “Oooh nooo he’s dead” over the film’s most annoying character.) But what do I know? The film was nominated for a bunch of Genies, including for the Best Screenplay award. It’s a bit of a shame to see that lead Helene Clarkson’s IMDB filmography tapered off shortly after this film, because her charm is one of the things holding the rest of the film together. Otherwise, well, fans of Canadian horror will fill a big hole in their cinematography by watching this, and fans of unusual vampire films may as well give it a look.