There is arguably no bigger name in body horror than David Cronenberg. The Canadian is often credited as one of the originators of the genre, with his notable works including Rabid, Scanners, and The Fly. One of his best explorations into the genre was the 1983 film, Videodrome. While his earlier work, Rabid for example, displayed scientists experimenting on human bodies and the subsequent effects on societal order, Videodrome focuses more on the effects on the individual, though the individual in question can be viewed as representative of the masses.
The film revolves around Max Renn, the president of a television station, who is looking for new material. He is introduced to Videodrome by the man who runs the station’s pirate satellite dish, a show displaying the torture and murder of random strangers. When he asks what the plot is, he is told that there is no plot. The mutilation and murder just goes on for an hour. “Absolutely brilliant” is his response. He becomes increasingly obsessed with the show, even watching it with his date. She becomes sexually aroused, and the two have sex with it on.
On the surface, one might think that the film is arguing that exposure to sex and violence leads to desensitization. The film does not seem so interested in tackling this issue, however, focusing more on showing that television is a weapon itself rather than the contents that appear onscreen. Max eventually uncovers the secrets around Videodrome, which involves a shady organization (Spectacular Optical) wanting to use the broadcast to manipulate the masses. The head of the organization, Barry Convex, tells him that the violence in the show affects the nervous system, “opening receptors in the brain and the spine” which allows the signal to sink into people, permitting them to be turned into drones. This establishes the idea of television affecting the body, taking it to the extreme and having it go all the way down to our organs and nerves. Max himself becomes a drone, carrying out the will of the organization. If the theme of media being able to influence individuals was not clear enough, Cronenberg includes a scene in which Max has a videotape shoved inside him by Convex, allowing Spectacular Optical to program Max’s mind and control his life. While over-the-top, it gets its message across: television (mass media in particular) programs its viewers.
The film ends with Max taking directions from a television, one that seduces and even shows him how to kill himself. The television is a manipulative object, and once again Cronenberg takes it to the extreme. While sex and violence were the trigger of this entire conflict, they were only a means to a greater end, a vehicle to spread a message. As Max is told, “…it [Videodrome] has something that you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that is what makes it dangerous.”
David Cronenberg’s foray into body horror is widely believed to have ended with his 1999 film, eXistenZ. His son, Brandon Cronenberg, however, has started from where his father left off. His directing debut, the 2012 film Antiviral, tackled the genre that his father had explored numerous times, taking a social and cultural issue (the power of celebrity culture) and exaggerating it to make a point.
Unlike his father’s films, Antiviral is clearly set in the future, one characterized as extremely sterile. Walls, chairs, clothes, and so forth are almost always stark white, adding to the biologically driven story. While some of David Cronenberg’s films were set in the near feature, they often felt like the present. The future in Antiviral does not feel that way, but at the same time, it does not appear too far away.
In this future, the celebrity-obsessed culture has escalated to unprecedented heights. In order to feel closer to the celebrities they love, people buy the viruses that plagued them, having it injected into their bodies. Syd March, the protagonist of the film, works for one of the companies that acquires and sells the viruses. To make extra money he pirates the illnesses, which involves injecting himself with it, his body serving as an incubator. The obsession over celebrities even carries over to an odd form of cannibalism, in which people can buy meat cultivated from the cells of certain celebrities.
By combining celebrity culture with something as bodily as viruses, Cronenberg is able to explore the theme of celebrities as ideas and contrast it with the human beings behind those constructs. Syd injects himself with a virus from superstar Hannah Geist, but finds out soon after that she had died from that very disease. Syd is eventually contacted by Hannah’s family, and he learns that Hannah is not yet dead, though she is dying. Syd gets to meet her, and this is one of the very few times she is shown in person. She is simply a sick human being, bedridden and constantly coughing up blood. Her face is drained of its color, baring no resemblance to the divine, pervading figure plastered on the news and ads across the city. Even when she is finally shown in person, she is emphatically human and not-human due to her ghostly figure.
Both Videodrome and Antiviral use the body horror genre to dissect a part of our culture, taking something already present in our society and exaggerating it. Videodrome is increasingly regarded as having been a couple decades ahead of its time, foreseeing the increasing impact of technology and media, especially with today’s Internet. As for Antiviral, it’s not difficult to imagine that celebrity obsession will continue. At times it appears that celebrity news already takes precedence over more pressing current events. Brandon Cronenberg does take a similar approach to satirical prediction as his father did in Videodrome, but despite his father’s rather grand status in the body horror genre, he manages to display his own unique vision.