*. The Keloid Clinic (Inc., even though turning it into a franchise is still something that is only in the planning stage). Is there a more obsessive Cronenberg element than these bizarre clinics and institutes whose cures are always worse than the disease?
*. The Special-K monograms on the bathrobes unfortunately make it look like the Kellogg’s Clinic. The word “keloid” refers to a kind of scar tissue, which is fitting enough for a plastic surgery centre, but I think of a portmanteau of Kellogg’s and hemorrhoid, especially as Rose’s scar looks like an irritated sphincter.
*. Sticking with Rose’s little addition, it’s usually described as a penis, which seems to stack the deck on how you’re going to interpret the film. Even Cronenberg on the commentary calls it a “penis-like proboscis,” which is doubly weird (how is it like a nose?). I still think it’s an erupting sphincter, but the retractable needle is unique. I suspect it may be inspired by a distaste for skin tags.
*. Back to the Keloid Clinic: on the commentary Cronenberg mentions how he’s always been interested in the enclosed world of a hospital or clinic, with people isolated from the world because of some condition. The isolation is physical, as the clinics (like this one) are often situated in some remote location. It’s his version of the cabin in the woods. He also comments that the artist is a type of this outsider, a monster because of his enhanced perceptions. So it’s Yaddo as well.
*. Cronenberg’s background was in literature. He originally wanted to be a novelist (his first novel, Consumed, came out in 2014) and he never went to film school. Low-budget horror was his film school.
*. That importance of the writing is evident throughout his work. I think it’s behind Kim Newman’s very astute comment that “Cronenberg’s underground films [Stereo and Crimes of the Future] are more fun to read about in synopsis than to watch.” This was the feeling I had watching all of Cronenberg’s early movies for the first time. I’d read about them extensively before I actually got to see them, and the experience was always a bit of a let down. Cronenberg’s a good director, but I can’t help feeling there’s more there in his scripts than he gets on screen.
*. Some of the script also seems to have gone missing here. Apparently Rose’s intestine was lost so she couldn’t digest food and so had to feed herself on blood. I think it would have been nice if that had been explained. It’s hard to figure out why she would grow a feeding tube otherwise.
*. Why the close-up on the Freud paperback? Cronenberg is silent about this on the commentary. Is Rose expressing (in a manner foreshadowing the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics) her penis envy? Later Cronenberg does remark on the Freudian analysis of boys in the audience fainting during the finger-cutting scene because of castration anxiety.
*. Marilyn Chambers is actually pretty good, and an obvious choice since she does project sexuality well in a role where she’s both Virgin/Madonna and Whore at the same time, (the Ivory Snow girl who became famous for doing porn. I don’t think she delivers her lines convincingly, but she has an expressive face that manages a difficult role very well. (She also has demonstrative nipples, but I won’t dwell on the obvious.) And the fact that her co-star Frank Moore is just terrible in every regard (as well as looking a bit too much like Christopher Walken to be safe), makes her seem that much better.
*. When I say her faces manages the role what I mean is that it has to show, in silence, her tragic inner conflict. Her despair, pain, and vulnerability, and then her hunger and cool predatory sexuality. The latter came naturally (the scene in the porn theatre, for example), but also look at the scene in the shopping mall where she’s getting picked up. It’s a situation a beautiful woman has to deal with all the time, and she’s obviously somewhere else but not at all a blank.
*. Then there are her more conflicted moment, like when she cries in the truck, and best of all when she looks at Hart after he’s been knocked unconscious in the stairwell. Will she kiss him, or kill him? That’s a hard ambiguity to sell just with her face, but she does it.
*. I’m not sure Sissy Spacek (who Cronenberg originally wanted) would have been much better. Especially considering that Cronenberg doesn’t really seem that interested in his actors’ performances anyway, at least in his early films. He doesn’t even mention Frank Moore’s name on the commentary, though he may have been trying to forget the experience.
*. While Chambers has some great moments, she’s also helped out by being presented in stereotypical porn scenarios (including a bucolic interlude in a barn), as well as being kitted out in various fetish uniforms: from her leather biker get-up, to her tight jeans and cowboy books, to a fur-coat streetwalker look, to wet t-shirt and panties.
*. The point, I think, of such a wardrobe is to draw attention to how clothes deceive us. Chambers is another one of Cronenberg’s variation on the Jekyll/Hyde character: people who don’t really change from one personality into the other but are always possessed by both at the same time. She is the carrier and the disease: Madonna and whore again, victim and predator. Because isn’t that the fate of beauty? And as she tries to explain to her boyfriend, she didn’t make herself this way.
*. What are Cronenberg’s targets? Sexual promiscuity? Perhaps. I don’t think he has much time for the sleazy guys who keep hitting on Rose. But he’s also not very fond of Dr. Keloid, who we last see as a mad dog being taken away to the pound (or more likely destruction). Cronenberg calls him “a victim of his own cleverness.” He thinks he knows everything, but no!
*. A slightly odder target is Santa Claus. Does he really have to get shot by the policeman at the mall? That seems a stretch. But on the commentary Cronenberg observes that this is something we’d all like to do.
*. If you’re not used to Cronenberg’s early stuff you’ll be struck by how cheap this looks. It had a budget, he recalls, of “maybe $560,000.” Over the opening credits I kept wondering how they were going to film the motorcycle accident that was so obviously being set up. When it came it was even cheaper than I thought it would be. It’s just a shot of a bike flying through the air, then exploding (of course) into a fireball.
*. On the other hand, the car accident where the taxi falls off the overpass was pretty impressive. I wonder what percentage of the budgets was blown on those ten seconds of film.
*. How cheesy is it that in the examination room at the clinic the pictures on the wall are a print of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man and an eye chart? Come on.
*. Martial law comes to Montreal. Well, they know how to live with that. There’s an obvious parallel to the October Crisis, but I doubt many Canadian viewers even get this today.
*. Sometimes you mis-hear dialogue in a movie and make up your own, in the same way we sing popular songs to incorrect lyrics we’ve misidentified. That happened to me at the end, when Rose is on the phone to Hart and realizes that she really is the vector for the disease and is about to get killed by the man she’s infected and locked herself in with. She says “I’m afraid” before he pounces on her. When I first saw the movie I thought she said “I’m a freak.” This worked for me because it showed both self-awareness and self-loathing at what she had become. Alas, I had got the line wrong and she really does say “I’m afraid.”
*. Romero was an influence. The ending is a clear nod to Night of the Living Dead, with the “hero” turning into just another body to be thrown on the pile. But even more than that, the look of the film owes a lot to The Crazies, especially with the soldiers and men in protective suits running around. It’s easy to see this now as a spin-off of the zombie apocalypse, along viral lines that 28 Days Later would develop further. The crazies aren’t the living dead, but they are “us” transformed into, or revealed as — depending on how cynical a view you take of human nature — wild animals. It’s just a little less supernatural than zombie mythology would have it. The next logical step in this progression was still to come.