Here’s a couple of David Cronenberg films. I think I appreciate Cronenberg a bit more than I like him. I love The Fly, but I now wonder if that’s more because of Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum than the film itself. And The Dead Zone might be more Stephen King than Cronenberg, too.
Even Videodrome, possibly his most Cronenberg of films, is hard going sometimes, but I do love its bonkersness. And Existenz is undeniably a huge amount of fun.
But tonight, we have Dead Ringers, a more prestigious film, made off the back of the success of The Fly, and Rabid, one of his early ‘calling-card’ horror films.
They’re part of the BBC2 Moviedrome series, introduced by Alex Cox. Here’s both intros.
In the intro to Rabid Cox compares him with other directors working in horror, saying that nobody else has as solid a body of work as Cronenberg, and I can’t disagree. Cox, I surmise, isn’t a big fan of Italian horror director Dario Argento, dismissing him (and Brian DePalma in passing) as being ‘preoccupied by a rather infantile misogyny” making “ultimately boring films.” But I felt there was plenty in Dead Ringers that counts as misogyny, not least two lead characters who are gynaecologists and yet seem almost disgusted by women.
Dead Ringers is a film about two identical twins, Beverly and Elliot Mantle. They are both played (as adults) by Jeremy Irons, and as Alex Cox tells us in the introduction, the film used motion control cameras so that the camera could accurately repeat its moves and Irons could be filmed as both twins without the camera having to be locked off. Cox is a little disingenuous when he talks about “a big blue line down the middle of the screen” in split screen shots, as even in older films, like Disney’s The Parent Trap, they were good at making sure the matte lines were masked by natural verticals in the background.
But the motion control allows more elaborate shots, for example following the twins as they walk into a room.
The film is extremely cold, emotionally and visually. Its primary colour is blue, but with bright red often counterpointing it. The most noticeable manifestation of this are the surgical gowns worn in the surgery scenes, which are bright red.
I always thought bright red was an unlikely colour for surgical scrubs. Psychologically it’s not very comforting, and it wouldn’t show up bloodstains, which I think might be a useful thing to be able to see during surgery, but I’m no expert.
One of the twins, the ‘shyer’ one, Beverly, meets an actress, Genevieve Bujold, who doesn’t know his brother is an identical twin, and is naturally upset when she first finds out, because she knows they’ve been ‘sharing’ her.
She’s a drug taker, and gradually, Bev starts taking the drugs too, and becomes more and more unhinged and paranoid. He becomes obsessed with the idea of special medical instruments “for operating on mutant women” and takes his ideas to an artist who does metallurgy. He’s rather upset when the artist take the ideas and presents them as his own pieces of art, rather than making them for Bev to use.
There’s references to Chang and Eng, two famous conjoined twins, and how they died. And because this is a Cronenberg film, you can be fairly sure there’s no bright, happy ending.
After this, another Cronenberg film, this one from much earlier in his career. In Rabid, a young girl (Marilyn Chambers) is involved in a motorcycle accident, and undergoes extensive reconstructive surgery with a pioneering new technique. Unfortunately, it has an unfortunate side effect of giving her a kind of fleshy needle thing in her armpit through which she can suck people’s blood.
Once again, Cronenberg’s favourite theme of ‘body horror’ is right there, front and centre, as Chambers becomes a ‘Typhoid Mary’ style carrier, who first infects some of the people at the hospital, then leaves to travel to Montreal, where more and more people are infected by her. Those infected eventually start acting like Rabies victims, hence the film’s title, and attacking others, spreading the disease further through their saliva.
It’s a very serious horror film, but there’s one aspect of it that really pulled me out of it, which is when Chambers suddenly attacks someone, on the soundtrack they plays a blaring brass chord followed by a muffled drum lick. Unfortunately, that’s a piece of library music, and it’s exactly the same chord as used in Monty Python for the entrance of the Spanish Inquisition. Literally the same recording, although here they use more of it, as there’s several blasts of brass playing slightly different chords.
But if you can ignore this, the film works pretty well. It’s extremely low budget, and suffers all the usual problems of low budget filmmaking in those days – murky lighting and some dodgy performances – but it’s a fairly smart movie. I think it suffers a bit from us not being totally sure who we’re rooting for. Our sympathies are with Chambers much of the time, but then she is deliberately infecting people, so we can’t be too sympathetic. And the other two principal characters are her boyfriend, who’s very boring indeed, and the partner of the doctor who runs the clinic where it all started, who teams up with the boyfriend to try to find Chambers, not knowing of her role in the infection. Their lack of information leads to a lack of urgency in the film.
I was going to comment on the lack of humour in the film, as for the most part it’s super serious, but there are some scenes of the blackest possible humour.
Chambers goes to a mall, and once again, she gets hit upon by another random man. Narratively, we know what will happen next, but instead of the expected armpit infection by Chambers, he offers her a cigarette, finds he doesn’t have a light and says he’ll get one from a person sitting nearby. Then, as he asks for a light, the man attacks him, because he’s got the disease. And at this point in the film, the disease is a civic problem, martial law is in place, and snipers and armed officers are everywhere, so an armed guard starts shooting at the infected man with a machine gun, and a store Santa gets caught in the hail of bullets.
Another example of the kind of drak humour on show comes when Chambers’ boyfriend is driving through the city, and an infected man starts clawing at his car, and climbing on his bonnet. All of a sudden a shot rings out from a sniper on the rooftop, the man is dead and the boyfriend’s windscreen is splattered with blood. Then, a haz-mat suited clean up crew rush up to the car, move the body, and spray the windscreen with cleaning fluid, then give him a bang on the window and motion for him to drive on. It’s a surreal way to show how normalized the infection and its handling has become.
The film definitely owes a debt to Night of the Living Dead, as it takes that central idea of an infection leading to extreme behaviours, and a similarly extreme response from society, and a downbeat ending borrows heavily from the ending of that film.
BBC Genome: (for both films) BBC Two – 31st May 1992 – 22:15
After this, there’s a trailer for Farewell, My Lovely.
Then, an episode of Dance Energy House Party. There’s a piece about Play from Kid ‘n’ Play, buying his own barber shop.
And Richard Fairbrass from Right Said Fred shows us how he shaves his chest hairs.
BBC Genome: BBC Two – 1st June 1992 – 01:40
There’s a look at programmes for Monday.
Then BBC closes down, and Roseanne Macmillan wishes us a good night. The tape ends there.