As mentioned in my personal comic last week, I’m a fan of body horror movies, especially those of director David Cronenberg. The following is the first part of a lengthy discussion on Cronenberg’s body of work with my friend Amber.
DISCLAIMER: David Cronenberg’s movies are pretty violent and gross, and while there won’t be any of that kind of imagery in this discussion, there are a few somewhat graphic descriptions of certain scenes here and there. Reader discretion is advised.
Brett: As a starter, how did you get into Cronenberg? What was the first movie you watched that made you decide to get into his filmography? For me, I can’t really recall. The Fly scarred me as a kid, and I remember seeing screenshots and comments about Scanners, Videodrome, and Crash on the internet. Videodrome was the one that really locked me in, though. That movie is amazing.
Amber: Oh, this is an easy one! When I was a child, my parents rented The Fly for a movie night, and the scene where Brundle’s fingernails fall off made me vomit. Of course, I didn’t know about Cronenberg at the time; I just knew that despite the negative physical response I had, I could never forget that scene. My real familiarity with Cronenberg started when my brother brought home a copy of Nightbreed when I was in high school. I was so drawn to Cronenberg’s portrayal of the serial killer Decker that I immediately looked him up online, and found to my surprise that he was also a director, and that he was the director of the movie that had seared itself into my brain so early in life! At the time, I was really getting into the horror genre as more than just a casual fan, so I looked up scenes from his other movies. Almost immediately, I discovered the exploding head scene from Scanners, and I was hooked.
Brett: I think what gives his movies so much power isn’t just the extreme violence and subject matter, but the weird cerebral, intellectual quality throughout. There’s always a psychological element at play that elevates things from your typical horror movie. His characters are generally pretty nerdy types who are constantly trying to understand and express whatever it is that’s happening, be it psychic powers, sexual parasites, whatever. Growing up, going through puberty as a nerd, I relate to the weird transformations his characters undergo in those horror movies and trying to grasp them. I felt like an alien when I was little, and through my teens thought I was turning into some sort of monster. As big as the ideas in his movies can get, they’re always unusually relatable.
Amber: Agreed. Honestly, there’s something so freeing about body horror for me. Growing up in a small rural area in the Bible Belt tends to encourage the perception of physical self-discovery as being inherently evil, especially anything sexual. I think that’s why I embrace the body horror genre so happily; directors like Cronenberg aren’t afraid to delve into the dark and wonderfully disgusting side of sexuality and subjects like motherhood and birth that are connected to it, and he’s one of the few who does it without making the viewer feel like he or she has just watched an exploitation film or fetish porn. Everything is so open in Cronenberg’s films.
Brett: You’re right. I mean, these are our bodies! They’re weird, they’re wonderful, but any discussion, especially regarding sex and anything close to it, is shoved away. There’s a lot of gore and problematic stuff to sift through, but I’ve learned a lot from watching Cronenberg’s movies, reading his interviews. His work always makes me look a little closer at myself. I like that it’s a twisted version of body positivity. I definitely look at my acne scars and other imperfections differently after seeing those movies, and it’s given me a little more confidence in myself. Even though I do sometimes still feel like a monster, I’m more comfortable being one.
He’s steered away from horror, but that emphasis on the human body, on the flesh, is still there. His newest movie, Maps to the Stars, isn’t terribly good, but Julianne Moore deserves an award for her performance as an aging actress struggling to get a big role that could keep her relevant in Hollywood. Apparently audiences at early screenings were grossed out when she wipes her vagina after having sex, but, that’s a normal thing, right? His book that was released last year, Consumed, has the two main characters, a couple, having a frank discussion about an STD that one of them has given the other. It’s nothing extraordinary, but it’s the kind of thing that just isn’t talked about out in the open like it probably should be, and gross as it may get, I’m glad he’s doing it.
Amber: In my earlier years, my desire to be a “good girl” was always at odds with my frank curiosity and desire to know everything about the human body and sex. I’ve been over this internal struggle for years, but it’s always been difficult for me to find anyone else with which to have an open and intelligent conversation about the body. Yes, people will discuss the aesthetic appeal of it, but very few wish to acknowledge, let alone talk about, what they consider the distasteful or vulgar side, namely bodily needs, functions, or internal workings. A great body horror movie will not only portray those elements, it will also revel in them. Cronenberg’s movies contain a type of dialogue that I can identify with on an intellectual and physical level, a dialogue which my personal life is otherwise lacking. As a matter of fact, there is a scene in Dead Ringers in which Beverly tells his lover, Claire, that he thinks there should be internal beauty pageants glorifying the inner workings (and he clearly means the physical insides–intestines, heart, lungs, etc.–as opposed to mental and emotional beauty) of the human body. I greatly admire Cronenberg for including that scene, because it shows that he also views the “disgusting” parts of the human body as beautiful, too. Isn’t it so intriguing that a film genre called “body horror” can produce a reaction so positive about one’s body?
Part 2 will arrive next week!