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But The Flesh Is Weak: Cronenberg's Body Horrors

Body horror; something that effects each one of us as we are made of squishy, fallible, and finite flesh. Tackled many times in many ways throughout the years, body horror will stick with us until we finally learn to lose these weak, human bodies and begin existing in some other form.

There are many lenses through which to view body horror, lets talk about a few quickly before talking about some specific films in this genre.

Science and Technology
We depend on technology, especially in regards to our flimsy, fleshy bodies. Hip replacements, new hearts, brain surgery, iron lungs, cheek implants, etc. We have limited abilities and a limited lifespan, so we lean on technology to increase both. But what happens when we take that melding of mechanical and organic too far? Horror and scifi have taught us that going too far can lead to frighteningly devastating consequences and monstrous creations. (SpeciesRobocopFrankenstein, etc.)

Much of body horror is related to or revolves around the female body. Many feminist critics would argue that the primary issue here is the innate male fear of the female body - because it's different than the male body. And here "different" means, "without a penis." I'd argue that it's not just a fear but also a "fascination."  (Teeth, The Leech Woman, The Wasp Woman, etc.)

Gender Part Two (Pregnancy and Birth)
A related gender issue is one of procreation. Despite the way that many people may romanticize the so-called "miracle of birth," there's something terrifying about a life-form growing inside your body, feeding off of you. There's an element of "mutation" involved as well; watching your stomach expand, your feet swell, etc. for nearly a year. Your body changes in ways that you cannot control. It's equally as upsetting to think of something forcing it's way out of your body. This comes back around to the male concerns of the female body being different then their own and, in some cases, the horror of becoming feminized through becoming pregnant themselves. (Grace, The Brood, It's Alive, etc.)

Gender Part Three (Menstruation)
There's something terribly disturbing about blood gushing from your body, especially when it happens over a period of multiple days. And then again. And again. And again. Every month. Every year. And an additional horror, for women, is that this definingly female process will eventually stop - changing the way society sees you, the way you see yourself, and possibly making you less of a woman. (Ginger Snaps, etc.)

Disease and Decay
As humans we are susceptible to all kinds of illness, viruses, bacterial infections, and an eventual breakdown of our bones, organs, faculties, etc. Who among us hasn't seen the gaggle of elderly people stashed away in homes where they cannot contaminate those of us who are still in possession of our youth. We typically assume that any disease can be fought with knowledge (machines, medicines, etc.) but what happens when those diseases cannot be fought or controlled? What happens when they take over our bodies and minds and turn us into monsters? (Shivers, Cabin Fever, etc.)

There are many directors whose works have fallen into the body horror genre but none have been so consistently prolific in that area as David Cronenberg. He's called his movies, "films of confrontation" that force audiences to deal with hard truths about disease, aging, death, and the loss of people close to you.

For the sake of everyone's sanity, I'll narrow this post to writing about (only) three of Cronenberg's movies: The Fly, The Brood, and Videodrome.

The Fly
Now, as you probably know, The Fly is actually a remake of a film based on a short story. The original was released in 1958 and (unsurprisingly) is significantly less "graphic" than the remake. Usually I'm fairly critical of remakes (as you probably know) but I have a hard time writing anything terrible about Cronenberg's version.

The Fly is a warning to us: don't mess with technology (it will go haywire), don't succumb to obsession (it only leads to trouble), and oh yes, you're pathetic human body is going to rot and fall apart leaving behind something inhuman. All the while it asks us, "What is the nature of humanity? What makes us human?" and "What happens when we lose our humanity?"

And if I don't pause here to mention Kafka's Metamorphosis, I'll have to turn in my smart person card. So there you have it, that was my official acknowledgement that The Fly is a modern day retelling of Kafka's classic story. But it's somewhat more than that. It's more like The Metamorphosis meets Frankenstein. Before I digress further, resume movie review.

So, The Fly. This may be one of the most graphic depictions of the decay of the human body in all of film. The effects are nothing short of grotesque.

Cronenberg and his effects team have said that their treatment of Seth Brundle's (Jeff Goldblum) transformation was meant to represent the natural aging process yet while we've heard many a grandparent lament that fact that their body is, "falling apart" as they age, it's rarely as horrifying as Seth's transition.

And while addressing our own fear of our bodies decaying, The Fly also highlights the struggle of a loved one to come to grips with watching someone close to them "falling part." This forces us to ask ourselves, "What do I really love? My partner's body? Their mind? Their soul?" And if you can live without one of those things, can you live without two? When do we stop loving someone?

But Seth isn't merely decaying, he is becoming something else. His body does things that our normal, human bodies can't do: produce corrosive vomit, cling to walls and ceilings, etc. We feel revulsion not only at his deterioration but at his "unnatural" abilities. His body has become unpredictable and thus horrible. This also makes us fear even his normal behavior: he is able to impregnate his girlfriend (Geena Davis) but both she and the audience cannot help but wonder if the child will be human or some disgusting mutant.

The Brood
This movie is a prime example of the predatory female body as well as the overall disturbing potential of the human body; showcasing how an extremely, mentally unstable woman can give birth to murderous creatures. Nola (Samantha Eggar) is revolting to us both in her refusal to express her rage in a "normal" way ("normal" here being "anything that is not producing rage babies.") and in her physical deformity and betrayal of the natural birthing process.

She is also revolting to us as she breaks the social convention of what we believe to be beautiful: the naked, female form. Curves, soft skin, and demurely hidden sexual organs. Nola's insides existing on her outside is a refusal to be sexualized; her body is no longer beautiful and no longer requires a male to produce offspring. And while we know where babies come from, we typically do not wish to witness the process.

But to call Nola simply the villain would be an incomplete description. She is also the victim; the victim of an abusive mother, the victim of a "mad scientist", the victim of her own body. This again, challenges us. Do we sympathize with her? Should we regard her deformity as outside her control? Or do we feel disgust at her monstrousness? Do we hate her and what she implies could go wrong with our own bodies?

And yet, she's not the only monstrous body in the movie. Other patients of Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed) manifest their emotions into bizarre physical deformities as well. These characters speak more to the disgust we feel over diseased and deformed bodies. The idea that our own bodies can turn against us, transforming us into monsters, is hardly a new fear.

And then there's Nola's brood of rage babies. So nearly like normal children yet so terribly deformed: lacking belly buttons, internal organs, sexual organs, and an ability to speak, we look at them and feel horror. How can something as beautiful as a child be so completely wrong? Is this not every expecting parent's fear?

There are a handful of moments in this movie that I find most disturbing.

The first is so wonderfully subtle: Candy (Cindy Hinds) tells her grandmother that her favorite photo is one of her mother in the hospital as a child.

Why is this upsetting? Through various bits of conversation, we understand that her mother is in the hospital because of abuse from her parents. It also just feels, uncomfortable. Why wouldn't her favorite picture be one of her mother at a birthday party? On a cruise? Picking flowers in the park?

And because we also come to understand that Candy herself is being abused by her mother, this favorite photo seem a bit like revenge - "My mother hurts me, I like seeing her hurt." Certainly a disturbing thing for a young child to be feeling.

The next is the "big reveal." Nola pulls open her dressing gown to show her off her external womb. The expression of disgust on her husband's (Art Hindle) face is truly amazing. She then pulls open the womb and begins licking clean the "child" inside. While this should be disturbing enough, the thing that truly disturbed me is that she didn't eat the damn thing. Her secret has been exposed, her safe hiding place discovered and invaded, her animal instinct should have made her devour that thing.

While The Fly looks at what happens when the human form is accidentally fused with another life form, Videodrome looks at what happens when the human form is fused with technology.

"The television screen is the retina of the mind's eye. Therefore the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain." - Professor Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley)
Blurring fantasy and reality, Videodrome suggests that our immersion in visual media will make us lose ourselves; our physical bodies becoming obsolete as our imagined (or newly perceived) video bodies replace them. But it's not simply a story of technology destroying our bodies, it is also a story of technology controlling our minds.

Even upon introduction, we're positioned to find Max Renn (James Woods) a vulgar, disgusting character; a man obsessed with find increasingly extreme programming for his television station, he exploits sex and violence for his own gains. He is a subversive character, his "difference" makes him distasteful to us.

As he becomes lost within the Videodrome programming, his physical body begins to transform into something bio-mechanical (a video slot opens in his abdomen and later a gun grows out of his arm.) making him even more repulsive to us.

But our feelings are complicated by the surreality; is he man? Is he machine? Are these mutations real or imagined? Is technology stealing our humanity or are we imagining it?

Even more than The Fly and The Brood, Videodrome leaves us asking questions of ourselves.

Alright kids, it's wrap up time and there's only one way this can end: Long Live The New Flesh!


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