‘David Cronenberg On Screen’ reviewed

❉ Everything you always wanted to know about David Cronenberg but were too afraid to ask!

“Books about Cronenberg have been written before … But Irish poet, screenwriter and novelist Patrick Chapman has pulled together some truly thorough research in an attempt to make the definitive guide to the director’s work… Even as a long-time Cronenberg fan, there was much here that I didn’t know… Honestly, anything you wanted to know about Cronenberg’s work, it’s hard to imagine you won’t find it here.”

When I was a horror-loving teen in the mid-to-late 80s, my friends and I had a holy trinity of horror movie auteurs. George A Romero, Dario Argento – and David Cronenberg. All three had distinctive styles and ideas; Romero did social satire, Argento did art-horror, and Cronenberg did weird medical stuff which stretched the boundary between the mind and the ever-changing body. While I love my zombies and my black-glove-clad Italian serial killers, it was Cronenberg’s ideas that really intrigued me.

What if cancer wasn’t your body betraying you, but trying to change and evolve? What if psychotherapy could change your physiognomy? What if a virus or a parasite could be beneficial in ways you couldn’t begin to imagine? Cronenberg posited all these transgressive, taboo ideas in his early works, along the way coining a term for a genre he’d principally helped to develop – “body horror”.

 “It’s a small field, venereal horror, but at least I’m king of it.” – David Cronenberg.

Fast forward thirty-something years, and David Cronenberg is now a much more mainstream filmmaker, with seemingly conventional movies like Eastern Promises and M Butterfly under his belt. But that distinctive style, those distinctive ideas, have never quite deserted him – they’re just more subtly expressed these days. I must admit, my teenage love of Cronenberg waned somewhat when he started making movies that didn’t involve strangely named scientists doing medical procedures that were the stuff of nightmares. In fact, though I still admire him as a filmmaker, I have to admit I haven’t even seen his last four films.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law in ‘eXistenZ’  © 101 Films.

David Cronenberg On Screen, a new (and thoroughly exhaustive) guide to all the Canadian auteur’s works, has gone some way to rekindling that teenage crush. Irish poet, screenwriter and novelist Patrick Chapman plainly has the same love for his work that I once did, and it shines through here.

Books about Cronenberg have been written before – not least Faber and Faber’s excellent compendium of the director’s own words, Cronenberg on Cronenberg. But Chapman has pulled together some truly thorough research in an attempt to make the definitive guide to the director’s work. No, there’s nothing new here – but the breadth of research Chapman has done in pulling together information from so many disparate sources is truly impressive.

If you’re a nerd like me, you probably have quite a few “episode guides” pulling together all available information about, say, every Doctor Who story ever made, with cast and credits, production notes, plot synopses, and analyses. David Cronenberg On Screen follows this familiar template, with each of the director’s movies detailed in a separate chapter, opening with accounts of their production, followed by a very detailed plot synopsis, and a lengthy author analysis of the themes at work.

Cronenberg’s movies are so thematically deep that there’s plenty to discuss, much of it in very abstract, subjective terms – if you’re looking for an easy, Buzzfeed-style read, look elsewhere. Chapman is very serious about his analysis of his idol’s work, and the book’s tone more than once veers towards the academic. Often, his analyses seem to draw inspiration from Cronenberg’s distinctively philosophical, idea-driven writing style. Discussing the prescience of Videodrome in foreseeing today’s media-dominated society, Chapman refers to the ubiquity of screens in our everyday life as a “panopticon of telepresence”. It’s easy to imagine Professor Brian O’Blivion using such a phrase.

Jack Creley as Professor Brian O’Blivion in ‘Videodrome’ (1983).

The guides are prefaced by essays about Cronenberg’s life, and the evolution of his cinematic style, that are plainly heartfelt but also questioning. Chapman has spared no effort in being completist; along with chapters on every one of Cronenberg’s feature films, there’s coverage of all his intriguing shorts like Stereo and Crimes of the Future, not to mention later short films crafted after his success as a director. But it doesn’t end there. A handy appendix covers everything even tangentially related to Cronenberg’s work, like the lacklustre Scanners sequels and even the TV series of The Dead Zone, which is far more connected to Stephen King’s novel than Cronenberg’s film. It even covers the TV commercials he directed, the opera of The Fly (who knew there was one?), and the occasional art exhibitions he’s contributed to. Honestly, anything you wanted to know about Cronenberg’s work, it’s hard to imagine you won’t find it here.

Of course Cronenberg is an actor too, appearing not just in cameos in his own work but putting in actual performances for other filmmakers. Chapman covers that too, with references to Cronenberg’s onscreen turns in such unforgettable roles as the creepy, clinical medical serial killer in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. It even mentions his recent recurring role in Star Trek Discovery – the book is that up to date, and that was very recent.

Rosanna Arquette as Gabrielle in ‘Crash’ (1996) © Arrow Video.

If I have a criticism, it’s that maybe Chapman is a little too reverential of his subject; “masterful”, “great themes” and “Pinteresque” are all in just one paragraph of his analysis of Cosmopolis. Yet even so, he doesn’t shy away from critiquing the limitations of Cronenberg’s earlier, lower-budget works. Discussing former porn star Marilyn Chambers’ good performance in Rabid, he still finds time to mention that, “the bar isn’t set particularly high here; the other actors are not great”. He’s also surprisingly scathing of Scanners, possibly early Cronenberg’s breakout film, with a (deserved) critique of actor Stephen Lack’s bland performance in the lead role.

I’d have liked a little more examination of early Cronenberg’s “repertory company” – the distinctive Canadian actors like Joe Silver and Robert Silverman who cropped up time and again in small but important roles (Silverman doesn’t even get mentioned in any of the cast lists, which struck me as rather an oversight given the crucial nature of his roles in The Brood and Scanners). Still, Chapman does cover Cronenberg’s repeated offscreen collaborators, none more so than his regular composer Howard Shore, who started his career on The Brood and went on to win multiple awards for his Lord of the Rings scores.

Marilyn Chambers in ‘Rabid’ (1977) © 101 Films.

I must admit, even as a long-time Cronenberg fan, there was much here that I didn’t know, and kudos to Chapman once again for his research. I’d been vaguely aware that Shivers was co-financed by the Canadian government, but I wasn’t aware of the moral panic that ensued ostensibly in the name of the taxpayer, with questions being raised in Parliament. And while I knew about Cronenberg’s love of motor racing, as expressed in his rather atypical stock car movie Fast Company (also covered here), I wasn’t aware that the director had been a massive comic book fan in his youth. Chapman does, however, lose nerd points for his assumption that the lead character of Cronenberg’s original 1976 treatment of Scanners, Harley Quinn, was named after the comic book character – a character that wasn’t created until 1992.

So, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about David Cronenberg But Were Too Afraid to Ask? David Cronenberg On Screen pretty much fulfils that mandate. I can’t think of a volume that collates this much information into such a surprisingly small page count, while also offering serious, academic analyses of an auteur’s work. The scholarly tone can occasionally be somewhat heavy going, but it’s still far more accessible than, say, Christopher Frayling’s massive tome on Sergio Leone. And if Cronenberg has indeed called a halt to his directorial career, this book even covers his most obvious successor – his son Brandon, whose movies Antiviral and Possessor are more than a little reminiscent of his father’s early works. An exhaustive guide that could be invaluable to any Cronenberg fan, it’s even made me want to catch up on those four Cronenberg movies I haven’s yet seen.

❉ ‘David Cronenberg On Screen’ by Patrick Chapman is out now and available from Sonicbond Publishing, RRP £14.99. ISBN 9781789520712.

❉ Simon Fernandes is an itinerant English teacher and movie fanatic currently working in Barcelona. He’s been seeking out the weird, underrated and interesting in movies, TV and music since childhood, and is unlikely to stop any time soon.

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