Sunday, March 24, 2013

Understanding Auteurs: David Cronenberg (Scanners and Videodrome)

The Brood (1979) advanced David Cronenberg’s aesthetic by combining his early low-budget horror style with a deeply personal storyline that reflected the writer-director’s real-life familial anxieties.  The film’s notoriety gained Cronenberg a somewhat bigger budget for his next outing, Scanners (1981).  But while Scanners displays an increase in Cronenberg’s technical skill, it is in some respects a step back from The Brood’s ambitious intensity.  A relatively straightforward sci-fi action film, Scanners eschews the psycho-sexual horror of previous Cronenberg projects, and the uncomfortable personal psychological investment of The Brood, and instead applies the director’s customary extreme gore to a campy story about a race of mutants with incredible psychic powers.

The plot revolves around two particularly powerful “scanners.”  Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a derelict who has withdrawn completely from society due to the pressures associated with hearing a non-stop flood of other people’s thoughts.  Where Vale fears his telekinetic and telepathic powers, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) embraces them, and uses them to spread terror.  After Revok creates havoc at a press conference intended to demonstrate the scanners’ potential usefulness, a security firm called ConSec captures Vale with the hope that he’ll be able to help them reign in Revok.

It’s a silly premise, but one that Cronenberg treats with grim solemnity.  The humorlessness of The Brood was somewhat more excusable, given how closely that film’s horror was tied to both the director’s real-life situation and his characters’ psychology.  But there simply isn’t much depth to the characters or the plot of Scanners, and there’s really nothing to invest in.  The plotting is reasonably efficient and entertaining, but it’s all fairly mechanical, and lacking in the gallows wit and social commentary that gives the best exploitation films their personality.  (It doesn’t help that Lack is another in a long line of incredibly wooden Cronenberg leading men, though Ironside brings a tangible menace to his villain). 

Scanners lives and dies on the strength of its setpieces, and thankfully it has enough impressive special effects showcases to function as a solid action film.  That said, the film peaks too early with the justly famous scene in which Revok terrorizes a conference room.  Once the scanner has used his psychic powers to pop a man’s head like a blood-filled balloon (in an incredibly convincing effect) there’s really nowhere to go but down – which wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t happen in the film’s second scene.  The climactic showdown between Vale and Revok provides another good excuse to show off Gary Zeller’s exquisite special effects, but the conclusion (in which Vale and Revok merge bodies…or something), while superficially trippy, is both muddled and meaningless.

Videodrome (1983) is pretty muddled as well, but here the confusion is purposeful as it is tied to the increasingly warped mind-state of its protagonist.  Max Renn (James Woods), the president of a UHF station specializing in softcore pornography, is looking for programming that will break through to a new audience.  The station’s pirate satellite expert (Peter Dvorsky) stumbles upon the type of extreme programming that Renn is looking for when he unscrambles a transmission of a plotless television show depicting the brutal torture of a series of anonymous victims.  As Renn’s fixation on this snuff entertainment increases, he loses his ability to distinguish between his everyday reality and a series of bizarre, violent hallucinations.

Videodrome succeeds where Scanners doesn’t, because here the horror is inextricable from the psychology of the film’s protagonist.  As he did in The Brood, Cronenberg made his main character both a stand-in for his own real life experiences and an audience surrogate.  The director had been attacked many times in the press for the extreme content of his films, causing a number of personal and professional setbacks.  When Canadian journalist Robert Fulford called Shivers (1975) “the most repulsive film (he’d) ever seen,” it not only made it more difficult for Cronenberg to obtain funding for his future Canadian productions but also resulted in him getting evicted from his apartment due to a “morality clause.”  Virtually all of Cronenberg’s films up to this point had been affected by some form of censorship, with The Brood in particular having to go through a huge amount of edits before reaching a form that the ratings boards found appropriate for public consumption.  Videodrome, which is all about the potential affects of prolonged exposure to the types of ultraviolent content that Cronenberg traffics in, reflects the writer-director’s own anxieties about the morality of his art.  The film doesn’t ultimately come to a clear, coherent conclusion about any of these issues, but because the plot is indistinguishable from the psychology of its protagonist, whose own concerns reflect those of the director, Cronenberg’s abstract themes become viscerally palpable.

The believability of Renn’s hallucinations owes largely to the extraordinary work of effects wizard Rick Baker (who would provide the same services for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video the same year that Videodrome was released).  Even thirty years after Videodrome’s original theatrical release, the practical visual effects feel state of the art and memorably grotesque.  Perhaps there isn’t a single defining gory image in Videodrome to compare to the insane birth scene in The Brood or the head popping scene in Scanners, but there is a bigger variety of astonishing visuals in the newer film.  Pulsating VHS tapes, protruding TV screens, and a vaginal stomach cavity that functions as a VCR are just a few of the memorable sights that appear in Videodrome.

Ultimately Videodrome might have been better off had Cronenberg trusted the surrealistic images to carry the film’s climax.  As it is, too much screen time is devoted to an increasingly silly conspiracy angle involving warring factions who intend to use the hallucinatory signal of the snuff program for vaguely defined political purposes.  This aspect of the plot is justified to the extent that it can be seen as a paranoid delusion of Renn’s, as the reality of anything that happens in the film after Renn originally sees the snuff transmission is questionable.  But for conspiracy stories to really be effective they have to seem at least vaguely plausible, and too much of the latter half of the film is devoted to exposition couched in half-baked philosophizing when the strength of Videodrome clearly lies in its distinctive imagery.

Fortunately there is enough of that imagery on display to make Videodrome the best and most interesting of Cronenberg’s films up to this point.  While the film continues the director’s line of body horror nightmares, it is his first project with clear ambition beyond being an exploitation movie.  Cronenberg had grown in leaps and bounds as a director at this point.  In his earliest films Cronenberg had trouble transitioning smoothly from one scene to the next, but in Videodrome he frequently switches from flat reality to outright surrealism in the space of a scene.  A creepy sex scene between Renn and a masochistic radio host (Deborah Harry) has the two alternating hypnotically between appearing in Renn’s apartment and the orange dungeon where the snuff program takes place, a sequence that has a hallucinatory power (and genuine eroticism) that would’ve seemed out of Cronenberg’s range earlier in his oeuvre.  Where earlier Cronenberg films were largely defined by a small handful of memorably intense images, Videodrome largely sustains its atmosphere of surrealistic dread over its entire 87 minute runtime.  A quantum leap in ambition and a promising sign that its director could be more than just a quality horror filmmaker, Videodrome marks a clear evolution in David Cronenberg’s aesthetic.

UP NEXT  The Dead Zone and The Fly

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