David Cronenberg’s name is synonymous with the “body horror” subgenre. Other directors have earned their reputation with films that focus on the graphic degeneration of the body – Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) is a classic example of body horror, while Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma Studio acolytes have built an entire quirky universe around punkishly grotesque imagery – but no one has gone as consistently far as Cronenberg in turning psychology into biology. Few contemporary filmmakers can challenge the Canadian director’s facility for creating memorably extreme visuals, but Cronenberg clearly has more on his mind than appealing to the most twisted fantasies of Fangoria subscribers. Though Cronenberg is the undisputed master of this tiny subgenre that he virtually invented, he has shown an increasing tendency over the past several decades to step outside of horror altogether, as in his psychologically sophisticated historical drama A Dangerous Method (2011). Cronenberg’s oeuvre is increasingly difficult to pin down, blurring the line between multiplex, arthouse, and grindhouse cinema in ways that are bound to confound viewers of all stripes.
Considering how adept Cronenberg eventually became at inserting subversive messages and state of the art effects into conventionally satisfying narratives, it seems almost surprising that his early film work is comprised mostly of work-for-hire jobs on Canadian television shows and generically “experimental” short movies. Stereo (1969) is fairly insufferable even in a condensed “fan edit” posted on YouTube (which cuts the film’s length down by nearly 50 minutes, and adds some smartly chosen ambient background music to the original cut’s mostly silent soundtrack). Based on the 5 minutes or so that I managed to sit through, Crimes of the Future (1970), which is also currently available to watch on YouTube, isn’t much better.
Every artist has to start somewhere. Tedious though Cronenberg’s earliest work may be, it did lay the groundwork for his impressive proper commercial debut, Shivers (1975). Stereo and Crimes of the Future are both set in what appear to be immaculately furnished, antiseptic facilities. The action of Shivers is likewise confined entirely to a high-rise apartment building, introduced in a suitably creepy opening credits slide show advertisement. The comfortably numb, insular world shown off in the commercial is practically begging to be destroyed, and the film wastes little time before disrupting the peace of this yuppie paradise. Early scenes of a couple of prospective renters arriving at the building are interspersed with disturbing shots of a wild struggle between two apartment dwellers (an older man and a young woman), climaxing in the man cutting the woman’s stomach open with surgical precision and then committing suicide. Gradually it’s revealed that the man in the struggle was a doctor whose experiments have gone out of control. Distraught that humanity has become overly rational, the doctor had been implanting organisms in his patients that caused heightened sexual desire. Unfortunately, the parasite has been turning its hosts into uncontrollably aggressive maniacs who spread their condition throughout the apartment building like a venereal disease.
This Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque plot is an ingenious premise for a low-budget horror film. The apartment building setting works as a convincing microcosm of society, even though the film was likely shot on fewer than ten sets. The script’s structure, which charts the progress of the spreading disease as it works its way through the building (as opposed to following a conventional protagonist) helps cover up the weaknesses of the mostly amateur cast, none of whom have to do too much dramatic heavy lifting. Cronenberg starts at a high level of tension with the struggle between the doctor and his patient and then just keeps raising the stakes from there, climaxing in a wonderfully insane scene in which an uninfected man is trapped in a pool surrounded by dozens of deranged hosts waiting to turn him into one of them. The final shot, showing the apartment building’s psychotically smiling residents driving in succession out of the facility’s garage, successfully suggests the beginnings of a world invasion in the most economical way imaginable. Shivers is a wonderful case study in how to get maximum impact out of a minimal budget, and it is one of the most clever horror films of its era. Though it isn’t as politically bold as George Romero’s initial zombie films, as relentlessly scary as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), or as technically assured as Halloween (1978), Shivers is nonetheless a terrifically resourceful horror film, and a fine proper start to David Cronenberg’s feature film career.
Cronenberg followed up Shivers with another film about experimental surgery leading to the spread of a devastating disease. But while Rabid (1977) is as logical a follow-up to Shivers as is imaginable, it somehow lacks the inspiration and conviction of its predecessor. After a woman (Marilyn Chambers) is injured in a brutal motorcycle accident she is taken to a plastic surgery facility (the nearest proper emergency room is too far away) where doctors hope that an experimental skin grafting technique will allow her to survive. While the transplants keep the woman alive, they also have the inexplicable side effect of creating a weird vaginal orifice under her armpit, from which a phallic stinger emerges, allowing her to feed off the blood of other people while turning them into rabid zombies. The disease quickly spreads beyond the facility and into the nearest major city, causing mass panic as the military is called in to try to contain the outbreak.
Taking the disease out of the plastic surgery center distinguishes Rabid from Shivers, but Cronenberg didn’t have the budget and/or the technical skill at this point in his career to convincingly depict a city-wide crisis. While some of the film’s flaws can be charitably blamed on lack of funds or experience, it frankly seems that the script was a bit underdeveloped as well. The nature of the disease simply isn’t very well established before the action spills out into the city, with too much of the time in the plastic surgery facility devoted to a succession of similar kill scenes. While Chambers’ condition is uniquely grotesque, her victims’ eventual zombie-like state is strictly generic. There are hints of socio-political commentary in the military’s poor handling of the outbreak (recalling Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies), but these never amount to much. The acting is also a serious problem in the film. Chambers makes for a passable scream queen, but Frank Moore, as her character’s concerned boyfriend, is wooden even by the low standards of horror film protagonists. Cronenberg gets some mileage out of simply going farther than other filmmakers would dare to go – a scene where a man goes home to find that his infected wife has slaughtered their baby is seriously hardcore – but his ideas aren’t particularly well thought-out or executed throughout most of Rabid.
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