Gary Couzens on a book about David Cronenberg edited by Chris Kelso & David Leo Rice
David Cronenberg is eighty now, but no doubt has a few films left in him. In fact, in a 2022 minute-long short co-directed with his daughter Caitlin, The Death of David Cronenberg, he embraces his own corpse on screen. Ageing is a form of bodily modification that comes to us all, unless we suffer the alternative fate, and such concerns – body horror, to use the phrase – have been at the heart of Cronenberg’s cinema from the outset. His most recent film as I write this, his first feature in seven years, reuses the title of one of his earliest, Crimes of the Future (2022), and does seem like a summing up of his prevailing themes and tropes, as artists often do in their twilight years. More about that below. However, he does currently have another film in post-production, with the potentially death-haunted title of The Shrouds.
For many people, the Canadian-based Cronenberg became known in the horror genre with his 1975 feature Shivers (also known as They Came from Within), in which a parasite infects the residents of a tower block, with sexual and violent chaos ensuing. As with many of his films, Cronenberg doesn’t return us to the status quo, but leaves us on the hook. However, Shivers is one of those films that made such an impact that many people assumed it was a debut feature. However it wasn’t: it had been preceded by Stereo (1969) and the original Crimes of the Future (1970), both just over an hour long, and both far more avant-garde in style and technique than the more avowedly commercial Shivers. Although made with budgets that allowed for shooting on 35mm, both lack direct sound and synchronised dialogue, with the soundtrack consisting of voiceover narration and music, Stereo in black and white and Crimes of the Future in colour. The discrepancy between what we see on screen and what we hear on the soundtrack is important.(Cronenberg has said that a double bill of these films would be particularly hard work and, fascinating though they may be, he’s right.) He had also made short films, including the early 16mm pieces Transfer (1966) and From the Drain (1967) and half-hours for Canadian television anthology series: Secret Weapons (1972), The Lie Chair and The Italian Machine (both 1976). These shorts and the two short features are the main subject matter of this book. Transfer, From the Drain, Stereo and Crimes of the Future are available on more than one Cronenberg DVD or Blu-ray release, while the three television pieces can be found on YouTube as I write this, for anyone looking to play along at home. That’s especially wise if you haven’t seen some or any of these before, as there are plenty of spoilers ahead. (There are quite a few other films Cronenberg made for television in the early 1970s which aren’t discussed in this book, mostly for simple lack of availability to view.)
Children of the New Flesh: The Early Work and Enduring Influence of David Cronenberg (11:11 Press, 2022) sets out its stall from the outset. It is in no doubt that Cronenberg is a major artist of our time – a ‘heroic pervert’ in the words of co-editor David Leo Rice in his introductory essay. He is one of the few artists – in film, television or other media – tackling the themes of body modification, psychically derived or otherwise, and possible forms of human evolution in a rapidly changing world. After this introduction, the book goes through the films in chronological order. An initial piece, written by co-editor Chris Kelso, gives an overview of the film in question, its place in the chronology of Cronenberg’s work and its use of the director’s themes. These move from the Samuel Beckettisms of the two 16mm shorts (From the Drain resolving with some resourceful if inevitably micro-budget stop motion), to the chilly distance of the two short features, which Secret Weapons shares to some extent. Then we have The Lie Chair, in which the set-up of a house where a couple shelter for the night resolves in a way reminiscent of a Tale of the Unexpected. Finally, The Italian Machine reflects another of Cronenberg’s interests, in car and motorbike racing, which led to his one non-horror early feature, Fast Company (1979).
However, if essays, frequently of a distinctly academic kind, are all this book would have to offer, it would be much shorter than it is. As well as the analytical pieces, there are works of fiction and poetry from several contributors which riff off these short films and other, later Cronenberg films. Videodrome and eXistenZ frequently figure, not least because of Cronenberg’s later films, these are some of the few which are original scripts rather than adaptations of the works of others. (The 2022 Crime of the Future is another, and more of that below.) The fictional pieces are frequently dense, and often non-narrative, and so this book is an often chewy, if still stimulating read. What you won’t get is much in the way of technical nuts and bolts on the making of the films, for which you would have to take a look at the extras on some of the DVD and Blu-ray editions. A look at the later adaptations – which include notable mergings of Cronenberg’s sensibility with on-the-face-of-it quite dissimilar other artists such as William Burroughs (Naked Lunch, 1991) and J.G. Ballard (Crash, 1996) – would be welcome, but that’s no doubt another book.
Following the film-by-film main section of the book are interviews with Cronenberg collaborators, those avowedly influenced by him or otherwise kindred spirits: Patrick McGrath (author of the original novel and the screenplay of 2002’s Spider), Filip Jan Rymsza (writer/director of the Cronenbergian 2020 feature Mosquito State), Bruce Wagner (source author and screenwriter for 2014’s Maps to the Stars), Mick Garris (film director and Cronenberg associate and screenwriter for the 1989 sequel to one of Cronenberg’s biggest commercial successes, 1986’s The Fly), critic and novelist Tim Lucas, novelist Kathe Koja (whose work, beginning with The Cipher in 1991, frequently explores body-horror themes) and finally David Cronenberg himself.
After these, Andrew Farkas takes a look at some of the Cronenbergs which got away, such as Total Recall if he had made it rather than the very different filmmaker Paul Verhoeven had. Joseph Vogel discusses Videodrome and then the editors sum up.
But there’s more. This is an expanded edition of the book, and there are extras rather like a Blu-ray might have. There is a further interview, with Canadian writer/director Vincenzo Natali, whose work shows clear kinship with Cronenberg and then essays by both editors in turn on Cronenberg’s then (and for the time being) newest film, Crimes of the Future.
Children of the New Flesh is often not an easy read, for those lacking its academic frame of reference and for the non-mainstream moves of the fiction pieces. But as a contribution to the scholarship of one of the most significant filmmakers of our time, it is undoubtedly worth tackling. ∎
Gary Couzens has written reviews and articles for Black Static, and online for The Digital Fix and Cine Outsider, among others. Stories have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, and other magazines and anthologies, including Best of British Science Fiction 2021, edited by Donna Scott and published by NewCon Press.
IZ Digital is Interzone’s online sister zine. Become a member of the IZD Ko-fi for a euro a month to get EPUB editions of stories. Or just buy IZ a digital coffee/tea/raktajino – it is hugely appreciated and helps a lot.
You can also start a 6-issue EPUB subscription to Interzone and get even more amazing writing delivered electronically, bimonthly.
Reader memberships and subscriptions are the lifeblood of zines like IZ Digital and Interzone – thanks for reading, and supporting!