by David Kane

“You see, control can never be a means to any practical end. It can never be a means to anything but more control… like junk.”

~ William S. Burroughs

Feel your heartbeat. What is doing that? Squishy cogs in the soft machine circulate healthy blood to the bric-a-brac of your body. Since you don’t actively command the heart to beat, what automated voice speaks from within the delicate sea sponge coiled in your skull?

Who is in control?

That question is asked time and time again in the filmography of Canadian icon David Cronenberg, godfather of the subgenre we call “body horror.” Much has been written about his work, but here I’d like to focus on his various dalliances with that question. I believe his films avoid conclusive answers, instead leaving it up to us to explore, like a juicy cadaver waiting for the autopsy to commence.

The sci-fi creations in early Cronenberg movies exert blunt forms of mind-control. Viruses hijack bodily functions to serve their own procreation. Mutations act like wounds in the genome trying to heal themselves but only spread the derangement. In Shivers (1975), bioengineered parasites propel their hosts into aphrodisiac ecstasy. The infected horde lands somewhere between zombified and body-snatched, their libido absolutely uninhibited. Beyond the invasion of horrible sex-worms, this is meant to invoke the viewer’s revulsion: to live in total submission to the whims of your flesh. The sexual revolution as truly limitless.

In her final speech, Nurse Forsythe describes a dream about an elderly man divulging the erotic power of all flesh. The old man could be Dr. Hobbes, the murderous inventor of the parasite, or he could be an avatar of the parasite’s willpower doing its darndest to entangle Forsythe’s identity with its viral ideology. Have the slugs replaced the minds of the high-rise residents, or have they remained themselves but simply “turned on”? This undefined space invokes our terror at forsaking our carefully constructed identities when our body shakes hands with a virus.

A note on Dr. Hobbes’ fridge reads, “Sex is the invention of a very clever venereal disease.” Pair that with Forsythe’s declaration, “disease is love between two kinds of alien creatures.” Taken together, these Cronenbergian koans express a philosophy that taps into the universal fear of biological coercion. How terrifying it is to lose command of our limbs, our senses, our perceptions of reality—already you can hear the whips of Videodrome snapping in the static between your synapses. A dreaded disease wedges between the mind and body and proposes a threesome. We fear disease not because of destruction but transformation. The blueprints of our wildest nightmares originate in our own nucleic cells, waiting like cosmic vipers to strike. 

In Rabid (1977), Cronenberg continues this brand of “venereal horror.” An unconventional life-saving surgery mutates Rose into a horny mosquito. Her fancy new armpit proboscis exsanguinates her victims, who are left with a novel form of rabies. Here, the monster is not disgusting but tantalizing: a seductress whose embrace disguises penetration. The desire to conquer or be conquered muddles the question of who can remain in control during a dangerous mating dance. A victim of circumstance, Rose despairs over her vampiric predicament and ultimately decides to solve the problem herself. In a horrific self-sacrifice, she allows one of her rabid victims to kill her. She takes back control of her story, and the virus vanishes soon after her death.

This theme of tragic suicide recapitulates itself over the course of Cronenberg’s career. In The Dead Zone (1983), burdened with terrible knowledge of the future, Jimmy must attempt an assassination that he knows will be the end of him. In The Fly (1986), the transmogrified Brundlefly puts a gun barrel to his head but is unable to pull the trigger himself. In M. Butterfly (1993), Gallimard becomes the title character using the sharp edge of a mirror. The fetishists in Crash (1996) reach for sexual nirvana nestled in violent death. Cosmopolis (2012) finds its disillusioned antihero allowing his assassin to take the shot at the end. These instances are of course not an avowal of suicide as positive, but rather poses the act as a last-ditch escape from an existence the characters can no longer control and therefore can no longer bear. If losing your identity to the monster is a kind of death, then a merciful exit may be the last resort to restore dignity to the disintegration.

These diseases dissolve the border between our inner and outer selves, a false dichotomy Cronenberg aims to eliminate entirely. In The Brood (1979), a woman’s scorn actually manifests as mutant offspring. Through a radical therapy called “psychoplasmics,” Nola’s lymphatic system produces parthenogenetic fetuses. In a genius twist, the spawn skips the need for sex altogether. Like Dionysus from the thigh of Zeus, these freaks sprout fully formed from Nola’s abdomen. Immaculate conception turned rancid. Eagle-eyed viewers can spot images of the Virgin Mary decorating the wall of Nola’s room—another slam dunk by Carol Spier, Cronenberg’s regular art director.

Here, the mind-control aspect evolves. The children undertake Nola’s subconscious bidding. When her fury sparks, the minions march into the world to savagely hammer the subjects of her hate. Nola doesn’t seem cognizant of their actions, which further mystifies the question of control. As much as her children, Nola is a slave to her own hysteria—the infamous medical label culled from the Greek word for “uterus.” Nola’s very pores become unholy cavities birthing the twisted litter of her trauma. In The Brood, the body becomes a filter for violent thoughts to take literal shape with no one at the wheel. Nola’s rage reaches its zenith when she sets the children upon her own daughter, just to spite Frank. He rescues Candice, but the damage is done. She stares off in traumatized silence.

The final shot of the film ties its premise back into the “virulent horror” Cronenberg has been gestating. After being grabbed by her half-siblings, Candice’s arm bears the marks of their mother’s condition. Did it spread via skin-contact, or is Candice’s lymphatic system regurgitating patterns absorbed from its environment? The cycle of abuse self-perpetuates within the crucible of trauma, leaping from body to body in a mockery of the love we are meant to share. This isn’t a virus from outside the flesh; the wound itself takes control.

Cronenberg later expands this theme of psychological scars as developmental bellwethers. Childhood trauma in Spider (2002) traps its eponymous protagonist in a mental haze, his past as unclear as his future. The past also weighs like an anchor around the hero in A History of Violence (2006). This journey comes to fruition with A Dangerous Method (2011). Cronenberg finally turns the lens on psychologists themselves and their historical effort to grapple with the wounded human psyche. And hopefully control it.

Mind-control moves to the forefront in Scanners (1981). The villainous Darryl Revok forcibly recruits fellow telepaths to his cause of world domination. Again, mental energy directly influences the flesh. Nervous systems sync up for explosive results. In a predictive echo of Videodrome (1983), our hero Vale scans a computer network, hinting that the mechanics of greater consciousness are not limited to the human body. Revok ultimately plans to covertly spread the scanner mutation within the fetuses of expecting mothers. The mutants themselves become the virus, charting an altered course for human history. In the final battle, Vale and Revok use their powers to rip and burn each other’s faces. Telepathy, a usually disembodied superpower, is depicted as firmly rooted in the flesh. The final shot of Scanners poses my thesis literally: Revok’s body possessing Vale’s eyes and voice declaring “We won.”

But who is in control?

Scanners also introduces a theme essential to Cronenberg’s work from here on out: the power of art. One scanner has given up using his abilities and creates sculptures as an outlet for his destructive energy. Standing within a large head he states, “My art makes me sane.” Art helps the artist control reality, a concept central to later works like Naked Lunch (1991), eXistenZ (1999), all the way to Cronenberg’s most recent release Crimes of the Future (2022). And don’t forget that Vaughan, the psychopathic pervert in Crash, recreates celebrity car crashes as twisted performance art. It’s all one journey. It’s all one body.

In Dead Ringers (1988), the twins become famous for inventing a surgical instrument that can modify the human body and in essence control it. With the help of a sculptor played by the star of Scanners, the twins’ next invention signifies their mutual descent into addiction and insanity: an array titled, “gynecological instruments for operating on mutant women.” Though the forces of deterioration doom them, the twins externalize their delusions as freakish art, much like Cronenberg himself. Art replaces suicide as the preferred rebellion against control. But then they do eventually kill themselves with drugs and derangement. Different strokes, I guess.

Additionally, the horror in Dead Ringers comes not only from the personal strife of our stricken twins, but from the layperson’s nightmare of losing trust in the medical system, especially the field dealing with sex organs. When you go under the knife, this esteemed stranger has total dominion over your body. What if that stranger happens to be a drug-addled fiend at the end of his rope?

Who, then, is in control?

Thus concludes the first half of my examination on Cronenbergian conceptions of control. Please return for Part Two, where we’ll dive into the plasma pools of ‘80s and ‘90s psychotronic madness. Finally, we’ll shine our lens on the most recent polyp to sprout within the legendary filmmaker’s glut: Crimes of the Future.

Drink deep, or taste not, the plasma spring!

David is a writer and performer based in Los Angeles. His work swerves between absurdist comedy and psychedelic horror, especially in collaboration with his mentor, Dr. Bendigan. (Twitter: @thedavidkane | Instagram: @davidakane)

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