Where To Start With... David Cronenberg
Over the last four decades, Canadian director David Cronenberg has been behind some of the most shocking, controversial and thought-provoking films ever to appear on cinema screens. Beginning in earnest in the mid-70s with films like They Came From Within and Rabid, Cronenberg's early career is characterised by what has become known as the 'body horror' genre; that is, films that exploit human fears of body image, deformity, infection and mutation. It's the latter of these that is a recurring theme in many of Cronenberg's films, particularly during the first half of his career, but where films like The Fly deal with physical transformation, others, such as Scanners and Videodrome, are more concerned with transformations in their characters' mental state.
Although his more recent films have moved away from the 'shock and gore' approach employed by some of his earlier films, Cronenberg's fascination with the mental state of his characters remains present and the resulting films are no less disturbing. So it is with his latest offering, Maps to the Stars, only this time Cronenberg has trained his sights on Hollywood itself.
Julianne Moore stars as the famous but fading actress Havana Segrande, one of a group of Hollywood inhabitants dealing who are all struggling with their lives both in and out of the spotlight. In Havana's case, she is seeing a psychotherapist named Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) in an attempt to come to terms with her abuse at the hands of her mother, herself a former film star. Weiss, however, has his own problems to deal with as the head of a highly dysfunctional family that includes a schizophrenic daughter (Olivia Williams) and a former child actor son (Evan Bird), who finds himself in rehab recovering from drug addiction at the age of 13. Robert Pattinson also makes an appearance as Jerome, a limousine driver who ferries the film's cast of unstable characters from one appointment to the next.
In typical Cronenberg fashion, Maps to the Stars is a grim and biting satire on the inner machinations of Hollywood and those who seek their fortune there, presenting a bleak account of how its inhabitants deal with both fame and the absence of it. If you're a fan of the director's approach, you'll find plenty to enjoy about this skewering of those that inhabit the film industry, though be warned; you won't find much in the way of sympathy for them here. Even so, Julianne Moore has already picked up a Best Actress award at last year's Cannes film festival for her excellent performance and while it might be uncomfortable viewing, it's also pretty mesmerising.
Given his previous form, you wouldn't expect otherwise from David Cronenberg, so while you're waiting for the film to arrive on DVD and Blu-Ray next week (February 2nd), we've picked out five more of David Cronenberg's best moments for you to watch through your fingers.
You can also find the trailer for Maps to the Stars below...
Of all Cronenberg's earlier films, which include concepts from infected zombies to dangerous telepathic abilities, the idea behind 1983's Videodrome has to be one of the weirdest. James Woods stars as Max Renn, the CEO at a television network who stumbles upon a bizarre programme named Videodrome, a programme that has no plot and consists entirely of people being tortured in an orange-coloured room. Appearing to be broadcast out of Malaysia, Renn finds himself captivated by the programme and sets out to track down those responsible for making it. What he discovers however is far more sinister: Videodrome is actually an experimental broadcast that gains control of viewers' brainwaves, causing them to have violent hallucinations. Also starring Blondie's Debbie Harry as the sadomasochistic psychiatrist Nicki Brand, Videodrome is highly disturbing viewing, but we'd highly recommend this film if you have the stomach for it.
Essentially a remake of Kurt Neumann's 1958 horror film, Cronenberg's 1986 version stars Jeff Goldblum in the role of Seth Brundle, a scientist experimenting with teleportation by means of disassembling and reassembling objects at an atomic level. While he is canvassing support for his project at a science fair he meets journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), who becomes fascinated with his work when she realises how close he is to success. Sensing she may be able to break one of the biggest stories in scientific history, she begins documenting his experiments. However, when Brundle's latest attempt to teleport a living creature ends in him successfully transporting a live baboon, he tries the experiment on himself. What he doesn't realise is that a pesky fly has made its way into the teleportation pod with him, and while initially the experiment appears to work, he discovers that his machine has bound him and the fly together at a molecular level and Brundle slowly begins to undergo a horrific transformation. Although some of the special effects look a little dated now, Goldblum's performance as the manic scientist is totally compelling in this unsettling sci-fi horror.
William S. Burroughs' seminal but controversial novel was said to be 'unfilmable' and even Cronenberg himself admitted when taking on the project that a straight translation of the book to film would “cost $100 million and be banned in every country in the world.” Instead, the director blends the novel's storyline with that of Burroughs' own life, making the film's plot as much about the process of writing as the novel itself. The result is a surreal tale in which a bug exterminator named Bill Lee (Peter Weller) becomes exposed to “bug powder”, causing him to hallucinate and believe that he is a secret agent. He writes reports for one of two imaginary 'handlers', typing them out on an insectoid typewriter that talks to him through its anus in an attempt to control Bill's thoughts. The typewriter persuades Bill to track down the man behind a narcotics trafficking operation - trading in a substance called 'black meat' - by seducing a woman called Joan Frost, who happens to be a dead ringer for Bill's recently deceased wife. Confused? You will be, but don't let that put you off; Naked Lunch is as brilliant as it is disorientating.
Continuing his fascination with adapting books with extremely dark subject matter, in 1996 he took on J.G. Ballard's controversial 1973 novel Crash. The film stars James Spader as the story's semi-autobiographical protagonist James Ballard, who finds himself in hospital after he is in a car crash near Heathrow Airport. Here, he meets Vaughn (Elias Koteus), a former TV scientist who introduces him to strange community of people who are symphorophiliacs – or, in plain English, people who get their rocks off during car crashes. Yes, you read that correctly. Ballard finds himself drawn into a world of people who stage car accidents in order to gain erotic pleasure from them, and before long he begins to believe that this is what he needs to put the spark back into his failing marriage. Also starring Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette and Deborah Kara Unger, Crash is one of the weirdest films you'll ever see, but it's also strangely compelling. Again, if you've got the stomach for it...
A History of Violence
Of all the films on our list, A History of Violence is perhaps the one with the least bizarre concept, but that doesn't mean it's any less disturbing. Viggo Mortensen stars as Tom Stall, a quiet and unassuming family man who runs a modest diner in the sleepy town of Millbrook, Indiana. When Tom foils an attempted robbery at the diner, the story is picked up by national news networks and he becomes a local hero overnight. Tom is uncomfortable with all the attention and hopes that it will blow over soon, but the news coverage has caught the eye of a sinister stranger named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who has taken to showing up at Tom's diner, insisting they know each other and referring to Tom as 'Joey'. Tom insists it is just a case of mistaken identity, but is there more to his past than his family knows? Unsettling and gripping throughout, this is a great indication of how Cronenberg's style has evolved over the years, but it's still as unnerving as anything he's done.