This is the super beefy second and final part to my conversation with Amber Combs on the body horror films of David Cronenberg. You can check out part 1 here. There are a few graphic descriptions of scenes from his movies here and there, so reader discretion is advised.
Brett: We were talking about how Cronenberg finds beauty in what we normally find disgusting, and how he expresses that so well. The dream that Lynn Lowry’s character describes in Shivers is a good example, as well as the line in Dead Ringers and the way Seth is absolutely fascinated with the way his body is changing in the Fly, even as it gets more and more repulsive. Like I said, it’s relatable, and has helped me look more closely at my own body. Are there any specific characters or ideas that you personally relate to? Things that make you examine your own body a little more closely or think about your self-perception?
Amber: I think the film I originally felt most connected with was Shivers. The contrast between the sterility and suppressed natures of the characters and the raw primal freedom granted by the parasites was something that spoke to me in ways I didn’t understand at the time. It really says something when you feel more connected to the characters AFTER they’ve been turned into sex-crazed maniacs. Cronenberg took the idea that had always been instilled in my mind–sex is a terrible NO-NO and can lead to sometimes fatal consequences–and turned it on its head. Yes, the characters in Shivers get infected with the parasite mainly through sexual contact (that pivotal bathtub scene when the parasite crawls up the woman’s vagina is another scene forever seared into my memory), but they all look so happy and free after the conversion! Even the little girl in the elevator was less uptight!
As for changing my self-perception, that honor goes to The Brood. When Nola’s mother told the story of Nola’s many hospital stays and the mysterious welts covering her body, it shook me. My parents weren’t abusive or emotionally absent like Nola’s, but I did have a rather lonely childhood. I was the youngest and the only girl, so my brothers didn’t want me around, my father was always working, and my mother had her hands full taking care of the three boys. And I, too, would get mysterious welts on my body, only mine always manifested as large bumps on the back of my neck. The pediatrician told my mother that my body was stressed out, which made my lymph nodes swell, but those knots were a constant companion throughout my elementary school years. As I grew, stress manifested in other ways; I was plagued with acne, anxiety-induced rashes, and weird bumps on my scalp. Because of that, the idea of psychoplasmics as a release of suppressed emotions and anxiety really spoke to me. Furthermore, I suffered from terrible chronic menstrual distress when I hit puberty, so it really felt like the specifically female parts of my body were rebelling. The doctor’s diagnosis? Again, it was stress-related. I know The Brood is often listed as Cronenberg’s most anti-feminist work, and there are good reasons for that, but the way Nola embraces her psychoplasmic reaction to her suppressed childhood and marital traumas strikes me as so empowering. The other patients are clearly distressed by their bodily rebellions; that opening sequence where Mike throws off his clothes and reveals a body covered in weals and what look like burns is punctuated by his pained scream. But not Nola. Her body rebelled in more grotesque ways than the other patients’, yet she took it and used it.
Brett: Your connection to his movies is way closer and more personal than mine, and I’m glad you shared that.
I watched Dead Ringers earlier, which you told me to give a shot. I take it that’s one of your favorites? One thing that struck me was the way Jeremy Irons played each twin. Beverly, suiting his name, is the more feminine one, and Elliot is more masculine. Characters comment on how you can’t tell one from the other, but after a while I felt like I caught on to their mannerisms. Well, until their roles started to switch around, at least. I’m still wrapping my head around it though. What is it about the movie that really makes it work for you?
Amber: Dead Ringers is indeed one of my favorite Cronenberg movies. I have a rather different take on it, as related to what works for me about the movie. You’re right about the subtle differences between Beverly and Elliot that Jeremy Irons brings to the role, at least on the physical surface, and Irons emphasizes those differences in his portrayal of each brother to help the viewer determine which brother is which. However, for the first half of the movie, at least, I was firmly convinced that Irons was actually portraying a man with DID, which is still more commonly known as multiple personality disorder. As you say, the physical differences are there; Beverly and Elliot hold themselves differently, have different tones of voice, and, as you’ve pointed out, seem to lean towards slightly opposite sides of the cultural idea of what constitutes femininity and masculinity, particularly the social construct of how the feminine desire love as opposed to the sexual appetite expected from the masculine. But if you watch it again, you’ll notice there is a sameness to the brothers much more striking than those little differences, namely that they share all things.
All experiences on an internal level are still shared between the brothers, culminating in the shared drug addiction and death. There are a few scenes where you really notice a focus on this internal sameness, especially towards the end of the movie, where the differences between the brothers blur. Also of note is that throughout the beginning of the movie, Beverly is the one denying the sameness and Elliot is the one encouraging it, but in the later half, Elliot begins to deny it and Beverly to encourage it. Neither is ever completely correct, and we see that when Elliot tells his drug-addled twin that he himself can take the same drugs and not get addicted to them because he isn’t Beverly; still, he winds up in the exact drugged state as his twin.
I’d also like to point out that even though Beverly IS a more feminine name than Elliot, Beverly calls his brother “Ellie,” which is also a feminine name. So once again, we see Cronenberg take what seems like a difference between the brothers and make it another subtle hint of that sameness.
Brett: You’re right, I hadn’t really noticed that emphasis on their sameness. That’s brilliant.
Amber: The link between feminine and male sexuality is fascinating in Cronenberg’s work, too. Shivers shows the parasites being “birthed” from Nick’s “womb” as he feels a connection with the moving growths inside of him. In Rabid, Rose develops a phallic protuberance that she inserts into others while embracing them. Max’s “VCR” in Videodrome is placed in his lower torso like a womb, and its appearance is that of a vagina. It really plays on the curiosity men and women have of the other’s bodies and what they go through. I will probably never experience sex from the man’s perspective, so I have no real way of knowing everything about the penis, but Rose got to possess one, in a way. You will probably never experience birth, so there’s no real way you can understand the pain and exhilaration of growing and bearing another life, but Nick feels that connection. Cronenberg swaps the sexes of his characters and lets the viewer experience what they would otherwise probably never experience, and that is both frightening and thrilling.
Brett: So, if someone wanted to get into his movies, having never seen any of them before, which would you recommend they watch first? I’d go with Videodrome, then the Fly, I think. Then again, the Brood feels like a more traditional horror movie than any others, doesn’t it? So I guess one of those two. What do you think?
Amber: That’s a good question. If a general horror movie fan wants to get into Cronenberg’s earlier body of work, I’d probably give them The Fly based on mass market appeal and the fact that it has a sequel, even if it’s not canonically Cronenberg and was directed by the special effects designer of the first film. The Fly is recent enough to not feel as dated as the others, the acting is top-notch, and it has the added appeal of Jeff Goldblum. If I wanted to recommend Cronenberg’s films to someone I know would appreciate the same aspects of them I do, though, I would put The Brood and Videodrome at the top of the list, depending on whether the person likes true horror or a blend or horror/action more. The Brood is just so close to my heart, so of course it’s going up there!