Tag Archives: David Cronenberg


Videodrome 1

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Release date: 17 August 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg

Cast: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits

Canada 1983

89 mins

***** out of *****

Every national cinema has its own unique brand of indigenous storytelling, but by virtue of its geographical proximity to the economic and cultural juggernaut that is the United States of America, English Canada has had the unenviable position of maintaining a voice and identity all its own, struggling for half a century to tell uniquely “Canadian” stories to speak to both Canadians and the world. French Canada has always been able to maintain a distinct identity because of the language issues. English Canadian culture has had a tougher time of it, but it’s not simply a more tasteful, literate version of the United States.

David Cronenberg, along with the likes of Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, Peter Mettler and a clutch of other visionary filmmakers in English Canada, generated product which can be viewed as Canadian by simple virtue of the fact that both the style and content of the films could only have been made in a North American context that prided itself on uniquely indigenous qualities in spite (and perhaps even because) of the southerly Behemoth of Uncle Sam.

And though plenty of Canadian dramatic product was (and often continues to be) almost unbearably tasteful, this has happily never been a problem for any of the aforementioned filmmakers – especially not David Cronenberg. “Tasteful” has seldom reared its ugly head anywhere near his films.

Videodrome is as Canadian as Maple Syrup, beavers and the MacKenzie Brothers, but with the added bonus of almost hardcore sadomasochistic snuff-film-style torture weaving its way throughout the picture as narrative and thematic elements.

Max Renn (James Woods) is the head honcho of a tiny independent Toronto TV station which specialises in unorthodox programming with an emphasis upon lurid, exploitative and downright sensational stylistic approaches and content. This is clearly a fictional representation of the uniquely Canadian Toronto company CITY-TV which became famous for its soft-core “Baby Blue Movies” and the open concept studios for news and public affairs. Though Cronenberg denies it, Max Renn is clearly modeled upon the real-life Canadian visionary Moses Znaimer who revolutionised broadcasting throughout the continent, and even the world, due to his unorthodox approaches.

Renn finds himself looking for something to take his station and broadcasting in general in far more cutting edge directions. Via his pirate satellites, he discovers a rogue broadcast from Malaysia featuring non-stop BDSM. The actions are vicious, hard-core and clearly the real thing. He searches desperately to track down the direct source of the feed, seeking the learned counsel of Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) a “medium is the message” guru (based on Canada’s Marshall McLuhan).

Unfortunately, Renn has been exposed to a nefarious virus by watching the footage and soon reality and fantasy begin to mesh together while he engages in an S/M relationship with radio interviewer Nikki Brand (Deborah “Blondie” Harry) and discovers that his body has sprouted its own VCR within his guts.

There is, of course, a conspiracy and, of course, it’s rooted in America where the snuff station is actually broadcasting from. The goal of mysterious New World Order-like power brokers is to use Max to infect the world with total acquiescence.

To say Videodrome is prescient, is a bit of an understatement. Cronenberg brilliantly riffs on early 80s Canadian broadcast innovations and visionaries (like Znaimer and McLuhan) to create a chilling, disturbing look at how a corporate “One-World” government seeks to anesthetise the world (and destroy all those who are not susceptible to the virus of brainwashing).

Videodrome is scary, morbidly funny, dementedly sexy (gotta love lit cigarettes applied to naked breasts, a vaginal cavity in Renn’s stomach which plays videotapes and stashes firearms and, among many other horrors, masked figures exacting violent torture on-screen) and finally, one of the great science fiction horror films of all time.

I will not spoil anything for you by elaborating upon the following, but I will guarantee that you’ll be able to experience the shedding of the “old flesh” to make way for “the new flesh”. Right now, though, you really don’t want to know.

A famous Canadian TV commercial during the 60s-80s featured a variety of British tea-sippers slurping back Canada’s “Red Rose” tea and looking directly into the camera to remark (in a full Brit accent):

“Only in Canada, you say? A pity.”

It’s kind of how the rest of the world can feel about David Cronenberg and his Videodrome. It is precisely the kind of movie that could only have been spawned in Canada, but unlike Red Rose Tea, it’s available worldwide and forever.

Greg Klymkiw


Rabid 1

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 16 February 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg

Cast: Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver

Canada 1977

91 mins

Rabid was David Cronenberg’s second Canadian exploitation film, a phase that evolved more or less naturally from his period as an underground filmmaker, before he mutated into a more mainstream auteur via films such as The Fly (1986). It even features a cameo by Adrian Tripod himself, Ronald Mlodzik, star of Crimes of the Future (1970). Bigger in scope than its predecessor, Shivers (1975), but perhaps more rough-edged, it explores the effects of an experimental surgical technique performed on an injured motorcyclist (porn star Marilyn Chambers) where she is treated with ‘undifferentiated tissue’ – an idea borrowed from William S. Burroughs which anticipates current developments in stem cell research. The unfortunate and unexplained side effect is the growth of a retractable, penis-like spike in her armpit, through which she sucks blood and passes on a rabies-like virus.

Cronenberg has always played nonchalantly innocent about this subject’s misogynist undertones. Chambers becomes a kind of Typhoid Mary, immune to the disease herself but passing it on through her depredations, which are all redolent with sexual subtext (hot-tub lesbian encounter; porno cinema pick-up). Though Cronenberg rightly says that the character is portrayed as sympathetic, it is also somewhat hard to relate her given her strange denial of what is clearly going on. The virus seems to induce a kind of amnesia: her victims go about their business after being vampirised, until suddenly going berserk in a way familiar to viewers of Romero or Danny Boyle flicks; Chambers seems to know she’s draining blood, but thinks little of it until the discovery that she’s been spreading a kind of plague brings about a crisis of conscience. Her eventual fate seems uncomfortably like a puritanical judgement, or a deliberately provocative pastiche of one.

The film betrays its status as an early, crude effort, in other lapses in psychology and logic. The opening motorcycle crash seems to happen on a straight stretch of road where the mobile home parked across the road would be clearly visible for some considerable distance; but the hero just yells in panic, drives straight at the obstacle, and then swerves at the last possible moment. That hero (Frank Moore) presents a considerable problem. Cronenberg is only partway to his eventual solution to the monster movie problem, which involves making the monster the main character. Here, our attention and empathy are needlessly diffused by the useless Moore character, whose defining trait is his tendency to be wherever the plot is not unfolding (because if he was ever in the right place at the right time, he would perish immediately). The same problem would afflict the lumpen protagonist of The Brood (1979), but in Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983), the hero is himself deviating from the normal, and in the latter film we actually view the entire action filtered through his gradually mutating consciousness, a trope the filmmaker would return to repeatedly.

It’s notable that Cronenberg has never fully embraced the idea of a female lead character. His heroes can develop vaginal openings in their abdomens or be penetrated in their lower spine by Willem Dafoe wielding a bolt gun, they can turn into insectoid hybrids, they can be one consciousness split between two bodies, and they can be psychotic. But they can’t have one of those alien openings from birth: they have to be supplied by the special effects department.

Rabid is most intriguing in its adoption of the plague narrative form used by George Romero in The Crazies (1973), or by Eugene Ionesco in his play Here Comes a Chopper. Rather than following a single character, we follow the disease itself as it filters through society: the scenes of psychodrama with Chambers alternately weeping and feasting are distractions from what could be a perfect Cronenberg hero: a quasi-sexually-transmitted virus.

David Cairns


Shivers 1

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 13 October 2014

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg

Cast: Fred Doederlin, Paul Hampton, Lynn Lowry, Barbara Steele

USA 1975

88 mins

A delivery boy strolls down the hall of a new luxury high rise just as a grotesquely corpulent old woman pokes her head out of a doorway and moans lasciviously: ‘I’m hungry.’ She waits for a response, then parrots petulantly: ‘I’m hungry!’ Lunging violently at the lad, her teeth bared, she screams, ‘I’m hungry for love!’ As she sates her unholy desires, a gelatinous blood-parasite is deposited down his throat as she sucks face with him.

This is one of many vomit-tempting moments in David Cronenberg’s first commercial feature film, Shivers, which happily inspired incredulous Canuck pundits to demand government accountability, as the picture represented an early investment from the Dominion’s federal cultural funding agency. The 1973 horror classic has now been restored and premiered during the 2013 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s not only a scare-fest, but is also replete with all manner of nasty laughs, all of them wrenched naturally out of an utterly unnatural situation. Pre-dating the AIDS crisis, Cronenberg links sex with death. The delightfully simple tale involves a new form of parasitical venereal disease spreading like wildfire within a Montreal luxury community, gated by its island borders on the mighty St Lawrence. The disease turns its victims into homicidal sex maniacs.

Allow me to repeat that:


And what a frothy concoction Shivers truly is with all manner of viscous emissions:

• Blood parasites being vomited from a balcony onto an old lady’s clear plastic umbrella;
• Parasites roiling and bubbling just under the surface of Alan Migicovsky’s sexy, hairy belly;
• A lithe, nude body of a lassie formerly adorned in a school uniform has her midriff sliced open, her insides then drenched in acid.

Add to this frothy concoction a whole whack o’ babes, from pretty Susan Petrie as a weepy wifey, Lynn Lowry as a drop-dead gorgeous nurse, to the heart-stopping British scream queen Barbara Steele.

Stunningly, Cronenberg manages, in one salient area, to match the great Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hitch, of course, infused utter terror in the minds of millions who dared to take a shower. In Shivers, Cronenberg delivers one of the most horrendous bathtub violations ever committed to celluloid. Best of all, the sequence involves Barbara Steele. ‘God bless you, Mr Cronenberg, God bless you!’

This review was first published as part of our TIFF 2013 coverage.

Greg Klymkiw

Watch the trailer:



Format: Cinema

Release date: 8 August 2014

Distributor: Terracotta Distribution

Director: Kim Ki-duk

Writer: Kim Ki-duk

Cast: Jo Jae-hyeon, Seo Young-ju, Lee Eun-woo

South Korea 2013

88 mins

Kim Ki-duk’s disquieting and hyperbolic castration/incest melodrama Moebius caused a stir in the Korean media last summer after it was issued the rare ‘Restricted’ rating by the Korean Media Rating Board, the highest certification they bestow. Although this episode with the censors demonstrated that the controversial Korean auteur still refuses to soften his approach even as he continues to trudge into middle age, it also led to an uncharacteristic instance of compromise. Films with a Restricted rating can only be screened in specially licensed theatres (much like the BBFC’s R18 certificate), but since no such theatres operate in South Korea, Moebius was effectively banned from domestic release. After numerous failed re-submissions, two and a half minutes of problem footage featuring incest had to be removed to meet the KMRB’s requirements for the slightly less harsh ‘Teenager Restricted’ (i.e. 18 or over) to guarantee wide release. This prompted angry calls of censorship and artistic suppression from fellow directors and the Korean film industry elite.

Moebius is released in the UK on DVD and VOD on 13 October 2014.

But even in its cut version, Moebius remains a dark and thoroughly depraved odyssey of sexual desire that strongly plays to Kim’s preoccupation towards unusual, psychosexually informed chamber pieces. This loosely Oedipal tale focuses on a dysfunctional family: Mother (Lee Eun-woo) has turned to drink as Father (Jo Jae-hyeon) regularly fraternises with a woman who runs a local convenience shop (intriguingly, also played by Lee). Caught in the middle is their teenage Son (Seo Young-ju). Seeing Father and Mistress dining together in a romantic restaurant, Mother is sent over the edge of sanity. Later that evening, she enters the bedroom brandishing a knife; her intention is to emasculate her husband by severing his penis. He wakes up and manages to stop her. Still angry, Mother takes out her male hatred on the Son, using the same strategy (successfully this time) before disappearing off into the night.

Following the incident, the Son tries to carry on as normal, but a group of kids from his school get wind of his embarrassing disability and start bullying him. Guilt-ridden, the Father takes to the internet and conducts research on penis transplant surgeries. Desperate for his Son to have a normal sex life, his search also unearths a bizarre alternative method of sexual stimulation that doesn’t require a phallus. Meanwhile, the Son develops a fraught relationship with the store owner, unaware that she is partly the reason for his mutilation and, after an unusual turn of events, he also begins having strange, sexual feelings towards his own estranged Mother.

When films deal with themes of castration, the act typically functions as a shocking end point to an intensely emotional, impassioned or horrifying episode – Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) or, more recently, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) for instance. What’s interesting about Moebius is that the film deals primarily with the aftermath, where the surviving victim has to come to terms with the literal loss of his manhood in a society where men still choose to define masculinity by penile prowess. Kim’s work has featured genital mutilation before (The Isle (2000) made use of fishing hooks to wince-inducing effect) but here it is presented as part of a grander thesis, with the film wanting to offer something more than merely showing gross things for our bemusement. The casting of Lee as both wife and mistress, mother and lover, strongly alludes to Kim’s ambitions in this regard, blurring the boundaries of the Son’s and Father’s desires.

Like Kim’s earlier work 3-Iron (2004), Moebius contains no spoken dialogue between its characters. It’s a narrative device that works well for the subject matter, sparing the actors from potentially undermining the story with unnecessary conversation, which could very well have sent the proceedings past the point of acceptable ludicrousness. The film already walks a very fine line between the horrific and hilarious, and there are moments where you may find yourself laughing for reasons Kim had not intended. Like with other Kim films, basic character logic is often thrown to the wind for the sake of artistic statement. A group of horny young men coerce the Son into raping the store owner, which, of course, he can’t do but instead pretends in order to save face. Apprehended by the police, the Son is unnecessarily embarrassed by his Father in the communal holding cell when the latter yanks the Son’s trousers down to show that he doesn’t have the physical capacity for rape, much to the amusement of the other rapists, when a more discrete approach could have easily been arranged. Incidentally, the mutilation never seems to be reported to the authorities, and when the deranged mother returns to the homestead after what must have been weeks of idly roaming the streets, she’s allowed back in without any resistance from the Father or Son.

Another aspect that threatens to derail the film is the sex substitute discovered by the Father involving the vigorous rubbing of the skin with a stone (and, later on, the rhythmic jostling of a knife in a wound), where pain macabrely functions as pleasure. The idea of a new copulation paradigm beyond standard coitus methods is evocative of David Cronenberg’s equally controversial Crash (1996), which features an audacious moment where James Spader’s budding car-crash fetishist treats the yonic wound on the thigh of Rosanna Arquette’s character as a new sexual orifice. Like Crash, Moebius could easily (and unfairly) be dismissed as vulgar, morally bankrupt pseudo-porn, designed to titillate and scandalise. Instead, the film is a startling, Freudian nightmare that, despite its faults, somehow manages to be funny, repulsive and strangely compelling all at the same time. Whether or not you’re able to buy into its bizarre gender politics or dubious plotting, Moebius is still potent filmmaking from a still potent filmmaker.

Mark Player

Watch the trailer:

Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars
Maps to the Stars

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 September 2014

Distributor: Entertainment One

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: Bruce Wagner

Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson

Canada, USA 2014

112 mins

You can say what you want about Maps to the Stars, as long you don’t mention the word ‘satire’. At least not in the presence of director David Cronenberg or his screenwriter Bruce Wagner, who spent most of their time in Cannes denying the fact that the narrative could be seen as such. A pitch-black family drama of sorts, yes. Cronenberg’s very own Divine Comedy, maybe. A haunting, terrifying version of life in LA, if you like. But a ‘Tinseltown satire’, NO. ‘It is not a satire of Hollywood,’ Cronenberg stresses in more than one interview, ‘it’s reality.’ And Wagner adds: ‘I’ve given you the lay of the land as I see it, saw it, and lived it.’

If so, then the truth is that Wagner has seen a lot – by anyone’s standards. Julianne Moore plays Havana, a fading yet feisty ageing actress, who is desperate to make her big comeback but instead is increasingly haunted by the ghost of her mother, a celebrated child actress who became a classic Hollywood star. To her good fortune, Havana is inclined to think, she meets Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), whom she employs as her new PA. Branded with burn scars on her hands and arms, Agatha, however, has her very own agenda. The daughter of a smug self-help guru (John Cusack) and demanding mother (Olivia Williams), who managed her kids’ careers but otherwise cared little for their well-being, Agatha left home for rehab after causing a fire that put her and her little brother Benjie (Evan Bird) – a child star ruined by fame – in life-threatening danger. Now back in the hood, Agatha lives out her inner demons and romantic fantasies in a weird imaginary game with limousine chauffeur Jerome (Robert Pattinson), who, in turn, is seduced by Havana. Unsurprisingly, things get pretty messy from here on.

In his career, spanning almost 40 years since his 1975 debut featureShivers, Cronenberg has never before shot an entire film in LA and, quite aptly, finally arrives only to expose it to the bone before burning it all down to ashes. What’s more, Maps to the Stars exploits its blatantly Lynch-inspired plot of switching reality for fantasy, yourself for someone else, and losing all sense of truth to a point where delusion (and in Havana’s case, hysteria) thrives, terror rules, and nothing is sacred.

In both counts, the film sees Cronenberg at his weirdest, wittiest and most horrifying in years, crafting a highly charged, cynical nightmare about today’s fucked-up Hollywood society, with the suitable feel of a mystery ghost story. And yet, as fitting, seductive and gruesome as it is, Maps to the Stars somewhat feels at odds with the director’s insistence that the film is anything but a satirical apocalypse. But luckily, as in real life, the truth lies in the details and it is the ambiguity that makes the experience worthwhile.

This review is part of our Cannes 2014 coverage.

Pamela Jahn

Watch the trailer:

The Brood

The Brood1
The Brood

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 8 July 2013

Distributor: Second Sight

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg

Cast: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle

Canada 1979

92 mins (Blu-ray) / 88 mins (DVD)

This is an excerpt from Kier-La Janisse’s book House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (published by FAB Press, 2012).

Let’s go back to the official definition of hysteria: ‘the bodily expression of unspeakable distress’. In genre films, this is where things get most interesting. In David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), Art Hindle stars as Frank Carveth, the exasperated husband of Nola (Samantha Eggar), a neurotic woman who’s checked herself into the Somafree Institute for experimental therapy with Dr. Hal Raglan (screen titan Oliver Reed, also of The Devils). Raglan, the author of a popular self-help book called The Shape of Rage is the proponent of an unconventional psychotherapeutic method called ‘psychoplasmics’, in which past traumas, when discussed openly, manifest themselves in the form of sores and abrasions on the patient’s body as the trauma is being ‘expelled’. A very literal take on Freud’s ‘talking cure’ through which hysterical patients could be cured by confronting the thing making them ill (which is still the foundation for psychological treatment today), and an exaggeration of common stress-induced hives or rashes, psychoplasmics is nonetheless a dangerous game. Because what Nola is expelling from her body during these sessions aren’t just toxins – they’re repository rage monsters. Faceless children who kill all those who have ever hurt her.

Listen to the podcast of our talk with Kier-La Janisse on House of Psychotic Women here.

While Frank isn’t hoping to reconcile with his estranged wife, he is concerned that her therapy is having a negative emotional effect on their young daughter, Candy, who is becoming increasingly antisocial and despondent following every visit with her mother. After one such visit, Candy comes home with bruises, and Frank becomes more determined to keep the child away from her mother. But, as Dr. Raglan asserts, access to the child is key to Nola’s recuperation, and at that time (1979) awarding sole custody to the father without access to the mother was practically unheard of and not likely to occur in Frank’s favour. The film is notoriously referred to as ‘Cronenberg’s Kramer Vs. Kramer’, and is inspired by his own custody battle with his ex-wife, who joined a religious cult in California and was planning to take their daughter Cassandra with her, before Cronenberg kidnapped the child and got a court order that prevented the ex-wife from taking Cassandra away.

The bonus features on the Blu-ray/DVD include an interview with David Cronenberg about the beginning of his career.

As with many of Cronenberg’s outlandish ideas, carrying them off often comes down to the performance, and Samantha Eggar pulls it off with gusto, equally threatening and oblivious. The therapy sequences in which Raglan draws out her past trauma are as frightening as the film’s more overtly horrific set pieces; reverting to a childhood state, Nola reveals that anger at her husband is not the only thing fuelling her neurosis – beatings by her alcoholic mother have never been addressed. But her real anger is reserved for her father, the parent she loves the most, but who she feels abandoned her at those crucial moments: ‘You shouldn’t have looked away when she hit me. You pretended it wasn’t happening. You looked away… didn’t you love me?’

Kier-La Janisse

Watch the original trailer:

The Fly

The Fly

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 19 May 2008

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Director: David Cronenberg

Writers: Charles Edward Pogue, David Cronenberg

Based on the short story by: George Langelaan

Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

USA/UK/Canada 1986

96 mins

Our cinemas are presently teeming with transformation, infested with the umpteenth spawn of Stan Lee, Marvel and DC - underwhelming Spiderman, the Avengers ad nauseam - so it is perhaps worth having a quick spew. Comic books give us transformation, clean, wreathed in steam and colourfully costumed, but the flip side of such adolescent power fantasies is the disgust of mutation; dirty, gooey and possibly fatal.

David Cronenberg’s The Fly begins with Howard Shore’s wonderfully bombastic B-movie score striding through the titles and immediately places the movie in highly strung melodramatic territory. Cronenberg’s gore-fest was based on the 1958 black and white horror film, which itself was based on a George Langelaan short story published a year earlier in Playboy and was directed by Kurt Neumann and scripted by Shogun author Jim Clavell. Cronenberg’s up-to-date reimagining (long before the horrific verb ‘reboot’ had seen the light of day) was an unexpected critical and commercial hit on its release in 1986. It was the film that brought body horror into the mainstream. But gruesomeness aside (only for the moment), The Fly is a chamber piece, a relationship drama, which infests adolescent hopes of transformation with the corrosive vomit of mutation.

Geena Davis is the ambitious journalist Veronica Quaife, who belatedly realises she’s onto a major story when she snags Seth Brundle, a goggle-eyed and socially inept young scientist, at a conference and he takes her home to show off his latest invention: teleportation devices. Completing the ménage í  trois of filigree-named protagonists is Stathis Borans (John Getz), Veronica’s ex-lover and current editor, who at first is sceptical and jealous.

‘I’m onto something big, really big,’ Veronica tells him. ‘What? His cock?’ Stathis replies.

In a sense though, Stathis is right. He’s the hairy truth teller. Everything in the film is motivated by sex, despite Seth’s ludicrous suggestion that his invention has been spurred by the fact he got motion sickness on his tricycle. This is a B-movie horror plot complete with a monster, a mad scientist and a spunky girl reporter, but somehow when it was being teleported from 1958, a tiny relationship drama must have got into the machine and the two were fused. Seth is obviously lonely, which explains his otherwise insane indiscretion in blabbing to the beautiful Veronica. He is the virgin of the piece - unworldly and naí¯ve, with his wardrobe full of the same clothes and his ‘cheeseburger’ dinner date invitation. Whenever he steps out of his laboratory, things are going to go wrong, be it drinks receptions or arm-wrestling contests. His relationship with Veronica is immediately intense and swiftly marred by petulant and adolescent jealousies.

Veronica, with her can-do no-bullshit approach, is the mover and shaker. She is the one who seduces Seth, in her own time and on her own terms. ‘You’re cute,’ she tells him, but only once he’s proved his chops as a scientist. She is the one with experience. She has perhaps used sex in the past, having - after all - slept with her boss and decided to stop sleeping with her boss, while keeping her job. Stathis could easily have been taking advantage of his position. He is the sleazy, hirsute chancer, cheerfully sneaking into Veronica’s apartment to take a shower. ‘Was passing… felt a bit grimy,’ he says. Despite Veronica’s protestations, perhaps they are meant to be together. There are sparks in their exchanges, compared to the puppy love Veronica enjoys with Seth. She cuddles Seth and coos about his flesh, like an old lady who steals babies (her comparison!). Seth is like their baby, a troublesome genius who shouldn’t be allowed out on his own and who ultimately longs to be joined to her and be completed by her. Seth (the romantic) wants to consume her totally, whereas Stathis just wants to fuck her.

The goo of the make-up effects is still impressive today, but none of that matters if we don’t care about the characters, as was to be proved by the sequel, which was directed by the make-up artist Chris Walas to make an interesting but ultimately forgettable film. Cronenberg’s success here, helped by several career-best performances, is to drop fully realised characters into the B-movie plot. Seth’s disintegration as a human being is played out tragically. At first, he feels benefits from the experiment gone wrong: super strength, increased sexual performance etc. but soon comes to realise that it’s a disease, a kind of cancer. His mutation isn’t a clean Peter Parker transformation. To be fair, The Amazing Spiderman does give Parker some sticky moments, but they are more for comic effect than fuelled by body disgust.

Seth is not simply turning into something. That in itself wouldn’t be all that bad. Waking up one morning to find yourself a giant cockroach is amply better than waking up one morning to find yourself a rubbish mix of cockroach and man. The speed of Seth’s deterioration and his desperate attempt to retain some semblance of humanity even as he becomes Brundlefly give the film something like a tragic grandeur. Veronica’s disgust and loathing, as exemplified by her maggot dream, is tinged with pity. Stathis, finally, is also transformed. He becomes the hero of the piece, albeit an ineffective one, trying to protect Veronica and, as a consequence, suffering his rival’s jealous bile.

In the end, the only fatality of the film is Seth himself, who to some extent achieves his ambition of being the first insect politician and retains some degree of humanity (and some call on our sympathy) even in his final moments.

John Bleasdale

2011 Big Expectations, Great Disappointments

The Tree of Life

Electric Sheep writers review the films that turned out to be big disappointments in 2011.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

I like trees. Sometimes I talk to them - like Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon. When I forget to take my meds, the trees politely talk back. In spite of the mysterious uttering, so common in one’s dotage, I can assure you I was a happy child. I loved dinosaurs, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and inhaling the misty aroma of DDT as it wafted gently through my suburban paradise, keeping it bereft of mosquitoes (but also numerous birds and other small animals). I attended church regularly - cherishing the solace, architecture and magical dapplings of light piercing the stained glass. And dearest Dad, being an ex-cop of Ukrainian descent, was (understandably) of the authoritarian persuasion - strict to be sure, but a hard-working fellow who wished only to provide for his family. And Mom? She was a saint, not unlike Mother Teresa. Winnipeg, where I grew up during the 60s and 70s always seemed a couple of decades behind the rest of the world - very post-war, if you will. ‘Twas, I might add, a leafy city - thus rendering the aforementioned tree worship… Hey! This is all starting to sound suspiciously similar to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. That said, my relatively uneventful childhood was, finally, more interesting and poetic than this lugubrious Battle of Ypres upon the gluteal muscles - wrought by a filmmaker whose work I otherwise adore. Far too many critics are pretending they actually find merit in this picture - often resorting to extolling the virtues of Malick’s ambition and praising him for taking a bold risk. For me, the only thing Malick takes is a bold dump on audiences. By the way, my own Dad never looked like Brad Pitt - sleepwalking through his role as the taciturn father who eventually weeps at the death of one of his sons. (I’m not sure if Brad Pitt knew which of his sons died. I certainly didn’t.) My own father, though no Brad Pitt, bore the visage of that late, great Ukrainian of the Silver Screen, Jack (Wolodomyr Palahniuk) Palance (crossed, ever so delicately, with Tony Curtis in Taras Bulba). And yes, I talk to the trees and they, in turn, talk to me. The Tree of Life is rich and bountiful. Unless you’re talking about the movie. Greg Klymkiw

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)

I would have been surprised if A Dangerous Method - about the rivalry between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, with the mediocre Keira Knightley playing the love interest - had been any good, but it’s always a shame when such a renowned director as David Cronenberg delivers something so banal. Adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own stage play, the film stars Michael Fassbender as Jung, who helped pioneer psychoanalysis with his mentor, Freud (Viggo Mortensen, the only good thing in the film). In this interpretation, Jung is an insipid, upper-class man, shackled by turn-of-the-century mores. He eventually breaks his ethical code when he starts having sex with his patient, Sabina Spielrein, a woman who suffers from ‘hysteria’ before being ‘cured’ and becoming a psychotherapist in her own right.

Beaten by her father as a child, Sabina has a thing for authority figures and masochism - basically, she likes being spanked, and Jung, once he gives in to his baser urges, seems to have no problem fulfilling her fantasies. If these scenes were meant to be titillating, Cronenberg failed; the underwhelming, mechanical film is mostly forgettable, except for Knightley’s tortured, painful acting. The film has received glowing reviews from other (mostly male) critics who have found something meaningful in the film that I somehow missed; personally, I can’t think of anything, except a perverse curiosity, to recommend it. Sarah Cronin

Extra gripe from Greg Klymkiw: Sadly, no proper views of open palms connecting with buttocks or slap imprints on said buttocks are afforded to us.

The Future (Miranda July, 2011)

Make that Meander July - as this overly self-conscious ‘indie’ effort tries to turn twee into art. With the most annoying performance by an actress this year (she doubles as the irritating voice-over for the cat narrator, Paw Paw - Puke Puke is nearer the mark), this empty and phony pseudo-slacker romance is completely unrewarding - unless of course you get a kick out of this ‘performance’ artist’s inability to gyrate and move when she is supposed to be a trained dancer. At no extra cost, you get an entirely unmotivated love affair with an older single dad who apparently wears a semiotic ‘fuck me’ gold chain around his neck. Existential, man! Avoid. James B. Evans

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011)

Period drama was ripe for a radical rethink. The BBC aesthetic of clumping hardwood floors, pretty frocks and trees in blossom had all the historical validity and bloodlessness of an episode of Antiques Roadshow. Andrea Arnold’s third feature film promised to blow the cobwebs away from one of the most under-served novels of the Eng. Lit. canon and restore grit and passion and realism and grit. The problem was that after destroying the clichés, Arnold installed a whole bunch of her own. The social realism was obviously in the tradition of Ken Loach, but Ken Loach first and foremost makes you feel for the people, Billy Casper in Kes (1969), or the struggling father of Raining Stones (1993). With Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is not so much enigmatic as blank. People gaze at the distance and get blown about in the wind. The camera follows with the insistence of Darren Aronofsky, but we fail to get under the skin of the characters. The photography at times is beautiful, but its beauty becomes too self-involved and by the end of the film close-ups of beetles will feel like a new cliché. Finally, the re-reading of Heathcliff as black is bold only to the Daily Mail and the validity of the reading is unfortunately not taken advantage of by the lacklustre performance of the non-professional actors lucklessly lumped with what should be one of the most powerful characters born from the 19th century imagination. John Bleasdale

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)

Fast cars and existential male angst make for great bedfellows - or rather, they MADE for great bedfellows. The 1970s were full of them, the tent posts being Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, Walter Hill’s The Driver and Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point. Drive comes closest to Hill’s nutty car chase thriller, but lacks that picture’s drive (as it were) and pulp sensibilities blended with art-house-style chic.

Ryan Gosling plays a movie stunt driver who doubles as a heist getaway driver and who falls in love with his dewy-eyed, perpetually open-mouthed and equally soulful neighbour. He agrees to help out her recently released jailbird husband to pull a heist that goes horribly wrong and predictably leads to a couple of bad guys, who coincidentally are backing a stock car Gosling will be racing. It’s fine when a genre picture keeps it simple and stupid, but the plot of Drive is, well, just plain simple. (Simple-minded, that is.)

The car chases are proficiently handled, but have none of the urgency of the true greats; some of the violence is satisfactorily shocking, but the movie - loaded with pretension and fake portent - seems even more disingenuous than, say, a Michael Bay movie. At least, we all know Bay is a knothead. Nicolas Winding Refn clearly has more going on upstairs, but he’d have been far better off playing things with the same kind of relentless pulpiness he brought to Bronson instead of a preciousness that just drags the movie down to Dullsville. Greg Klymkiw

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

I’ve always had a take it or leave it approach to the films of Spain’s most celebrated director, the darling of the European art-house scene. While I can revel in his mastery of colour, unashamed campiness and dedication to writing strong female roles I’ve too often been left feeling that substance plays second fiddle to style in Almodóvar’s films. His loose adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula, The Skin I Live In, had me pre-emptively convinced that this was the Almodóvar film for me. An emotionally damaged surgeon, a mysterious captive, murder, rape, madness, a (supposedly) killer twist - all orchestrated under Almodóvar’s aesthete’s eye - what’s not to love, right? Wrong.

I was completely underwhelmed by The Skin I Live In. Its mix of black comedy, thriller elements and body horror themes didn’t gel for me one bit. It should have been nasty, oppressive and unsettling but instead it was shrill, ironically skin-deep, shot through with risible dialogue (‘no, not the handkerchief!’) and not nearly grotesque enough. It felt like an inadequate marriage between Cronenbergian themes and an English sex comedy - Carry On Raping, if you will. Trash is trash whether it be made by Jess Franco or Pedro Almodóvar and this was the worst kind of trash, trash masquerading as art. A big disappointment. Neil Mitchell