In some sense, Shivers, a venereal horror movie that invites you to track the vectors of sexual intercourse among a group of apartment-dwellers, is a parody of a soap opera where the point is who is sleeping with whom. It’s also a spit-take on those sex-ed hygiene films that try to frighten teenagers into abstinence. Set almost entirely in a Montréal apartment complex and photographed in a jaundiced palette that leans towards yellow-green, it’s about the proliferation of parasites that make their way from body to body by a variety of sickening means, transforming their hosts into insatiable sex maniacs.

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Trailer: Maps to the Stars

I spent some time looking under rocks online, trying to scare up a higher-quality version of this, but it’s the new David Cronenberg film and it looks … well, it looks pretty solid. Also, I love everyone in it except Robert Pattinson and, hell, he might even turn out OK if he keeps hanging out with the right people.

Eastern Promises

Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts in <i>Eastern Promises</i>

The life of a Russian gangster, with a heart. Forget about the story, which is a slight thing, and more than a little obvious. It’s elevated — from an auteurist perspective at least — by Cronenberg’s pedigree, although it’s perhaps the most conventional of the director’s many genre-tweaking exercises. But this expertly modulated B-movie exercise in tension and release is really the Viggo Mortensen show — he spends most of the movie with the kind of confident almost-grin on his face that suggests he’s the only one who realizes that a joke is being told. It’s not until a punishing action scene, in which Mortensen’s Nikolai fights for his life, nude, in a Russian bath house, that he delivers the punchline. Like the superior A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is a deliberately modest but sophisticated (and quite entertaining) accomplishment.

David Cronenberg on Viggo Mortensen’s Balls

AMY TAUBIN: I found a piece that someone had posted on Ain’t It Cool News about having seen a preview of [Eastern Promises].

DAVID CRONENBERG: Was it the guy who was obsessed with Viggo’s balls?

AT: I don’t know if I performed an act of repression, but I don’t remember seeing his balls.

DC: You do see them. It’s just that they go by rather quickly.

AT: Right. I meant I didn’t notice them in particular.

DC: It wasn’t like there was a close-up of them. But this guy was obsessed. He even wrote “big hairy balls.” Well, that’s one way of looking at it. They’re definitely there, as you would imagine, but it’s only if you’re looking for them that that’s what you see. Because mostly he’s shot in full figure. So when people decide to run the DVD frame by frame, they are going to see everything at one point or another. Of course, a lot of the time it’s going to be slightly blurred because he’s in motion.

Excerpted from “Foreign Affairs”, Film Comment, September/October 2007


Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh in <em>eXistenZ</em>

The opening credits of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (yup, that’s how you spell it) suggest anything but a virtual reality thriller. Earthy textures emerge from the darkness again and again, sometimes overlayed with anatomical drawings that recall the opening titles of Cronenberg’s last great film, Dead Ringers (1987). Coupled with a characteristically somber theme from Howard Shore, it’s an efficient introduction to the ensuing yarn, which deals in organic, rather than silicon gadgetry.

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James Woods and Deborah Harry in Videodrome

Finally released in a widescreen video version (on DVD) and as crucial now as when it was first released, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is a dark parable for the television age as well as a horror movie about the very nature of horror movies. With clinical and allegorical relish, Cronenberg uses a gut-busting horror film to turn the oft-repeated claim that violence in the media catalyzes violence in society on its ear.

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Somewhere in the middle of Crash, the remarkable new film from David Cronenberg, James Ballard (James Spader) is caught in traffic. The cars on the highway are at a standstill, stymied by an impact farther up the blacktop. Ballard is driving a vintage Lincoln Continental, the kind of convertible JFK rode through Dallas. The car belongs to Ballard’s new friend Vaughan (Elias Koteas, from Exotica), a visionary of sorts who sees car crashes as “fertilizing,” rather than destructive, events. In the car with Ballard and Vaughan is Ballard’s wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), who is growing more and more attracted to Vaughan — she and Ballard seem to achieve sexual bliss more and more often by comparing notes on their most recent adulteries. You could almost consider this menage a trois a special kind of post-nuclear family.

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David Cronenberg’s debut feature prefigured both Alien and AIDS with its tale of parasites — a metaphorical sexually transmitted disease — that turn humans into nymphomaniacal zombies as they move from host to host, infecting the residents of a Canadian apartment complex. Like other early Cronenberg films, the movie has a low-key immediacy that makes the perversions of its milieu all the more distressing. Shivers is the original Canadian title of this film. If you’re looking for it in the U.S., the title is They Came From Within. The movie was originally edited for U.S. consumption, but as far as I can tell, the most recently released TCFW videocassette (Vestron Video VA4403) is identical to the Canadian cut of Shivers except for the title.

Update 09/18/10: In the intervening decade and a half since I originally wrote this paragraph, Shivers has come into wide, easy availability on DVD and then gone back out of print again. Cronenberg deserves better distribution.