The recurring themes that run through a filmmaker’s body of work are most evident with genre directors. The bordered confines of genre concentrate the subject matter, these themes bubbling just below the surface. Take David Cronenberg for instance, mainly at play in the field of icky sci-fi horror, his films ooze with creepy sexuality, psychic warfare and grotesque obstetric aberrations. Tying all these motifs together is the central theme: transformation. While all stories are about transformation on a metaphorical, psychological and emotional level, in the cinema of Cronenberg, transformation is physical, often disturbingly so.
eXistenZ is the mad genius’ latest exploration of the fusion of biology and technology. eXistenZ is an organic videogame downloaded into the human central nervous system, transforming the player from mere participant to creator and ultimately into game itself. This non-linear, postmodernist look at the intrinsic dangers of creativity begs the question “what is reality?” Cronenberg’s 1982 film, Videodrome, dealt with the subject similarly. In this gruesome film, amoral TV exec Max Renn, looking to program a snuff film series -- Videodrome -- for his cable network, becomes addicted to the images of brutality and strangeness. He eventually finds himself in a subculture of ever-shifting reality, an actor in the Videodrome himself.
No less disturbing is 1992’s Naked Lunch, based on the life and writings of Beat author William S. Burroughs. Bill Lee, the alter ego of Burroughs, is an exterminator who, strung out on bug spray, begins to receive telepathic messages from giant beetles. Consumed by an addiction to bug junk and fighting personal demons -- he shoots his wife in a game of William Tell, Bill becomes a writer, under orders from his bug leaders. The more he writes and the more dope he takes, the deeper into the world of his own creation -- the Interzone -- Bill travels.
Drugs also play a role in the transformation of twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle from respected, if not kinky, gynecologists into disreputable and definitely kinky madmen in Dead Ringers. The two doctors -- played by Jeremy Irons -- one, sexually predatory, the other, socially retarded, share women in a twisted yet generous game of sloppy seconds. When the shier Beverly falls in love with Claire Niveau, a hard-partying actress, he begins to descend into an abyss of drug abuse, paranoia and violent impulses, dragging his brother Elliot with him. Connected by a psychic bond only twins possess, they become a dangerous duo. Dead Ringers eschews Cronenberg’s characteristic gore in favor of a suggestive sickness that is no less effective. The medieval gynecological instruments Beverly creates are hideous.
The idea that siblings are connected by telepathy, as are offspring to their mothers, was recurrent in Cronenberg, linked to the themes of authorship of personal reality and transformation. In 1981’s Scanners, women who used an experimental tranquilizer spawn a race of telepaths who, years later, determine to take over the planet led by Revok. Only Revok’s brother Vale, connected to him psychically, can defeat him. In The Brood, Nola Carveth under the care of a mad scientist gives birth to her own rage, manifested as murderous trolls. She is transformed from depressed housewife into stone killer by the evil doctor.
But in no film is transformation so drastic as in The Fly. Seth Brundle, a researcher who has developed a teleportation device, attempts to teleport himself. Unbeknownst to him, a housefly has entered the pod seconds before initiation. The machine becomes an inadvertent gene-splicer. Seth Brundle doesn’t become a fly. Nor does fly become Seth Brundle. Instead, something new is created. Brundlefly. This is Cronenberg’s thematic magnum opus. The Fly is biology, technology, reality and even creepy sexuality transformed.
And it’s really gory.