NOTE: This article contains spoilers for Black Swan and Splice, as well as Dead Ringers (1988), Videodrome (1983), and The Fly (1986).
These days, more people might know of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg as the director of award-winning crime thrillers like Eastern Promises than as the “King of Venereal Horror,” which his IMDb page proudly proclaims as his title. But the critical success of recent films like Splice (74% on Rotten Tomatoes, though it didn’t do quite so well at the box office) and Black Swan (88% on RT) warrants another look at some of Cronenberg’s earlier work – films like Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and of course The Fly, which torment their audiences with morbid eroticism, psychological unraveling, and naturally a large helping of blood.
Of all the subgenres vying for supremacy among horror fans, perhaps the most unique is “body horror,” or “venereal horror.” Where most horror stories show some kind of malevolent force attacking their characters from outside, venereal horror shows us people whose own bodies and minds are their worst enemies. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a wonderful contemporary example – bird flesh appears on Natalie Portman’s skin as she sinks further into insanity. Aronofsky and his team were likely thinking of Jeff Goldblum’s grotesque transformation in The Fly and the appearance of an orifice resembling a VCR in James Woods’ body in Videodrome when they envisioned the images in their new masterpiece – but Cronenberg’s work is often considerably darker than theirs. When Portman’s character kills herself at the end of the film, it’s not exactly tragic because she gets exactly what she wants – the final sound we hear is the ballet’s audience chanting her name. The main characters in Videodrome, The Fly, and Dead Ringers all commit suicide in one way or another as well – but not until they’ve essentially destroyed their lives.
Love it or hate it (I loved it), Splice also owes a lot to Cronenberg’s movies from the 1980s – specifically because Vincenzo Natali (its director), like Cronenberg, refuses to back away from intensely disturbing Freudian themes. With the possible exception of Teeth, it’s difficult to think of movies that inspire more psychosexual terror than Splice and Cronenberg’s own Dead Ringers, the loosely fact-based tale of two identical twin gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons). Gynecology already inspires a feeling of violation that is unpleasant at best (at least among the women I know who’ve talked to me about it), and by the end of Dead Ringers, the “instruments for operating on mutant women” that one of Irons’ characters designs could probably make most men squirm as well. Part of what makes Cronenberg’s horror so effective is its dealing with themes that are both primal and in some way modern – it’s not about the wolf that will eat you, it’s about the germ that will invade you.
The oeuvre of “Dave Deprave” (another nickname for Cronenberg, this one derived from Wikipedia) is about to come full circle: after successfully trying his hand at drama (M. Butterfly) and the aforementioned crime movies, while sprinkling in more science fiction and psychological thrills (eXistenZ, Spider) for good measure, his new film A Dangerous Method is due to be released later this year. It’s adapted from a stage play about the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, whose writings elegantly outline the fears Cronenberg has been playing with for over a quarter of a century.