For today’s Cineray recommendations, the focus is on the early career of David Cronenberg with the films Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood. These films are very early in his career and are great examples of his abilities and both showcase a talent that would become famous for his imagination, imagery, and signature body horror. There is no one quite like Cronenberg to really disturb you and make you feel so trapped by the flesh we live in and how easily it can be manipulated.
Before Cronenberg became an English major and film student at the University of Toronto, he was an honors science student. Now, this may seem like a minor fact, but it was that interest in science that has informed his films ever since. You will not find ghosts or supernatural elements in the films of Cronenberg. His focus is on creating horrors based on scientific possibilities and the power of the human mind. Going even further, Cronenberg is an atheist and believes that there is no spirituality. So despite the viewer’s ideologies, the visions he creates are entirely based on scientific possibilities and make them that much more terrifying.
I would say Shivers is a good place to start this party, as it’s Cronenberg’s first feature film and perhaps the least seen. The story revolves around urban professionals living in the new Starliner apartment complex, a place that caters to the young urban professional looking for all the amenities of the city (Montreal), without actually having to live there. You know, gym, doctor’s office, pharmacy, movie theater, etc. Dr. Roger St. Luc discovers his coworker has killed a woman and reports it to the police. Roger then learns that the man killed himself while developing a parasite to take over organ function in the human body.
Meanwhile, the film also follows a young man who becomes a breeding ground for the parasite after having an affair with an infected girl. As it spreads, the tenants of the building begin to act more sexually aggressive. Roger discovers that Hobbes was trying to turn the world into one big orgy, and it becomes a race against time as Roger attempts to stop the parasites’ spread.
What makes Shivers so damn interesting is why it’s terrifying. Unlike zombie movies where the person becomes a mindless flesh-eater, here there is a piece of the original person left. But their inhibitions have been stripped away until what’s left is little more than animals, sexual beings of a ravenous appetite, stripped of moral constructs or any ideas beyond satisfying the most animal of instincts. It’s fascinating to peek into fear from a very logical mind. From medical experimentation, the next film delves into the dangers of experimental medicine.
Our second feature Rabid is more famous for Cronenberg’s use of pornstar Marilyn Chambers as his star than the film itself, which is a shame. The film centers on Hart Reed and his girlfriend Rose, played by Chambers, who has a motorcycle accident riding in the country. Hart suffers minor injuries while Rose is seriously injured and burned. They are taken to the Keloid Clinic for Plastic Surgery, where head surgeon Dan Keloid decides to use an experimental treatment on Rose. He uses morphogenetically neutral grafts to her chest and abdomen in the hope that it will differentiate and replace the damaged skin and organs. Rose remains in a coma, while Hart is released. When she does wake, Rose does so screaming, and another patient goes to comfort her. While he does this, Rose pierces his skin and takes blood from him. He has no memory of the incident, and while he is transferred to another hospital for observation, Rose escapes. While Hart begins to search for Rose, she attacks more people, as do those she has fed on.
Again the loss of oneself in a monstrous transformation is horrifying but so are the doctor’s actions. Although it’s not as stressed as it could have been, Cronenberg is still pointing out the dangers of medical experimentation. Recently the Soska sister’s remade this film, and they certainly made a strong emphasis on this concept with a story twist. But it’s important to remember this is an original concept and only the second feature film by a great director. From the dangers of medical experimenting to the dangers of exploring the human mind, we head into our last film on the list.
The Brood is another highly original concept, but there are times the premise gets a little hokey. The story centers on Frank Carveth. He is dealing with his wife Nola, who is legally embattled with for the custody of their 5-year-old daughter Candice. At the same time, Nora is being treated at the Somafree Institute, where psychotherapist Hal Raglan, played by Oliver Reed, is using an experimental technique called Psychoplasmics. The technique encourages the patience to let go of their mental disturbances to manifest their repressed feelings as physiological manifestations. Frank has no respect for it and is annoyed he has to bring his daughter there to see her mother. After bathing Candice, Frank is incensed to see she has bruises and believes Nora is responsible. While he leaves his daughter with her maternal grandmother Juliana to visit a lawyer, he also informs Raglan he is ending visitation rights. Raglan decides to intensify his therapy sessions, and during a session with Nola, he discovers she beliefs her mother abused her while her father ignored the abuse. Not long afterward, Juliana is killed by what appears to be a child, Candice overhears the incident and discovers the body. Soon more people Nola is angered with are attacked by the strange mutant children while Frank struggles to protect Candice and Raglan tries to find a way to stop what he suspects is happening with Nola.
The whole “mutant killer children” concept is a little on the hokey side, but there are some great performances and really cool ideas in this film. To start, Oliver Reed is fantastic in every scene he is in. Honestly, it’s hard to pin down your emotions about him onscreen as he transitions from a character you despise, as an arrogant doctor to a man caught up in something beyond his imaginings and desperate to stop it you root for. And Samantha Egger’s Nola has a fantastically creepy final scene that is both disturbing and chilling. The concept of emotional disturbances manifesting physically to the extent they become physical embodiments of your rage strikes me as very original. There have certainly been films where characters have psychic abilities to attack people, but they are literally an angry person who manifests a mutant being that then attacks the source of the person’s rage. I cannot think of another film that uses this same concept, but I would sure like to know if others exist.
Finally, you will have to do a bit of navigating to see all these movies, as I am sorry to say they are not all on one service. Shivers is available on Apple TV, Vudu, and YouTube for purchase or rent. Rabid is for rent on Vudu or Amazon and free on prime and free also on Kanopy. The Brood is only available with a subscription through HBO max or Criterion or free on Kanopy. I think they make for a great triple feature because they showcase the start of Cronenberg’s career and make for great pairing because they have about the same impact. Unlike some of his more famous films with a much more significant impact emotionally and ranking a lot higher on the weird scale, these are fine films and pretty easy to watch in one shot.