Sunday, June 30, 2013

Understanding Auteurs: David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone and The Fly)

By the early ‘80s David Cronenberg had proven that he could handle both highly personal projects and straightforward B-movies.  The cold and largely impersonal Scanners (1981) was a basic genre exercise distinguished only by its high level of gore and the exceptional quality of its special effects, but it came in between The Brood (1979) and Videodrome (1983), two distinctive nightmares whose storylines featured unmistakable autobiographical elements.   The Dead Zone (1983) was Cronenberg’s first major director for hire job, as he’d been commissioned by John Carpenter’s usual producing partner Debra Hill to become the next in a long list of notable horror filmmakers to adapt one of Steven King’s novels.  Had Carpenter handled the same material, with the same cast and crew as Cronenberg, it seems likely that the results would’ve been virtually identical (though Carpenter would’ve used his own menacing synth music rather than Michael Kamen’s orchestral score).  That said, The Dead Zone is Cronenberg’s most conventionally entertaining film up to this point, and it’s almost a relief to see him temporarily stepping away from his pet themes and visual tics.

Cronenberg’s directorial stamp is largely absent from The Dead Zone, but there’s something to be said for staying out of the way of strong source material and simply delivering a solid piece of mainstream cinema.  This may be Cronenberg’s most anonymous filmmaking to this point (with the exception of his work on 1979’s forgettable Fast Company), but it’s also his smoothest and most conventionally satisfying, without the clunky transitions or visible low budget limitations of many of his earlier films.  The Dead Zone is not ultimately as interesting or innovative as something like Videodrome, but it is still stylish and often quite tense.  The horrific moments don’t have the psycho-sexual edge or the strange conflation of biology and psychology that they do in other Cronenberg films, but images such as a man swallowing a pair of scissors are still plenty unsettling.  Cronenberg doesn’t fully translate King’s novel into his own language the way that Stanley Kubrick did with his 1980 adaptation of The Shining, but his take on King is a far more satisfying conventional horror film than contemporaneous King adaptations Salem’s Lot (1979), Creepshow (1982), Cujo (1983), Christine (1983), and Firestarter (1984).

The Dead Zone succeeds where Scanners didn’t both because King is a stronger plotter than Cronenberg, and because the newer film gives the viewer a protagonist to get emotionally invested in.  After a major traffic accident puts him in a coma for five years, Christopher Walken’s main character awakens to find that he’s gained psychic powers.  A character coming to grips with supernatural mental abilities is a pretty standard trope of science fiction, but Walken’s spacy line readings and haunted facial expressions lend a genuine gravity to his situation.  If you removed the sci-fi elements from the plot you’d still have a compelling and moving story about a man trying to come to grips with a world that moved on while he was physically and mentally incapacitated.  It’s this human element, beautifully played by Walken in one of his best performances, which makes The Dead Zone a better film than the intermittently exciting but ultimately empty Scanners.

The Fly (1986) is another adaptation, this time of a famously campy Vincent Price vehicle from 1958.  In this case, though, the source material plays directly into Cronenberg’s obsessions, allowing him to make a highly personal film that also functions as an emotionally engaging and entertaining piece of entertainment.  A combination of the personal autuerist themes of Videodrome and the efficient mainstream storytelling of The Dead Zone, with equal room for a dramatically resonant storyline and the imaginative gore that is its director’s calling card, The Fly is the ultimate David Cronenberg film.

The personal/mainstream synthesis is appropriate given that the film’s protagonist is a hybrid of two different species.  Jeff Goldblum’s scientist has been working on a way to transfer matter from one location to another, but he runs into complications when he attempts to teleport himself and accidentally brings a fly into the teleportation chamber.  Goldblum gradually takes on the physical characteristics of a fly, initially sprouting thick back hairs and eventually reaching the point where he is able to climb around on the ceiling of his lab.

Goldblum’s condition allows for a lot of astonishing makeup effects courtesy of Chris Walas, who has a field day helping Cronenberg achieve the most elaborate synthesis of biology and psychology in any of the director’s films to this point.  The gory effects are extreme enough to upset even the most iron-stomached horror fan, but what’s perhaps most impressive is that Goldblum remains recognizably human and sympathetic even after his humanoid appearance has almost completely deteriorated.  This is Goldblum’s finest performance, and it’s his shockingly relatable reactions to his character’s extraordinary circumstances that give The Fly its surprisingly strong tragic heft. 

It also helps that the screenplay (written by Cronenberg and Charles Edward Pogue) is more focused than any in the director’s oeuvre to this point, with the story revolving entirely around the doomed romance between Goldblum and Geena Davis’ reporter.  The film opens with the couple meeting at a science convention and ends with them battling each other, and not a scene goes by that doesn’t feature at least one member of this couple.  Goldblum and Davis were dating in real life while The Fly was being filmed, and their actual affection for each other translates very nicely to the screen.  As in The Dead Zone it isn’t too hard to imagine a compelling version of this film with the supernatural elements removed to focus solely on the troubled relationship of the main characters.

The Fly remains simultaneously dramatically engaging and viscerally horrific for almost its entire runtime, only faltering slightly during a climax that tips things a bit too far in favor of the special effects and away from the tragic human element.  It is one of the few notable remakes that is unquestionably superior to its inspiration, taking the basic concept of a fun but cheesy camp classic and investing it not with just state of the art special effects but also genuine emotional gravity.  When Goldblum repeats the most famous line of dialogue from the original film (“help me, please help me”) it’s in such a completely different (and much more devastating) context that I didn’t even notice the reference until this viewing, and this was the fourth or fifth time that I’d seen Cronenberg’s version.  Simultaneously offering the most horrific effects, the tightest storytelling, and the most dramatically affecting characters in any of Cronenberg’s films to date, The Fly represents a true evolution in the director’s aesthetic and is his finest film to this point.

UP NEXT  Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch

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