DAVID CRONENBERG makes his living out of murderous telepaths, vampiric transplants, soul-sucking parasites and uncontrolled mutations. He has unloosed these and other biological horrors upon an all-too-suspecting public in five previous horror movies including "Shivers," "Rabid" and "The Brood." And now he is terrifying audiences with the $4.5-million "Scanners," which opened here last Wednesday.
But sitting in his Washington hotel room, shoes kicked under the couch, legs curled under his slight frame, a hand drifting occasionally to his horn rims, the quietly intense 37-year-old Canadian director seems more the biochemist he almost became than the man many critics regard as the king of schlock horror films.
"It's a conspiracy of darkness," he says of the science-fiction/horror genre. "The audience is putting themselves in my hand, much as with the doctors and scientists in my movies. I really think audiences want as much as you can give them."
He has often given them more than they can take. His earlier films made lavish use of gore tech, and he is a master of audience-gagging special effects. In "The Brood" (1979), Samantha Eggar exorcises her inner demons by growing them in wombs outside her body. In "Rabid" (1977), Marilyn Chambers is a victim of scientific experimentation that turns her into a vampire; after she works her way through the hospital blood bank donor by donor, the disease spreads like . . . rabies, causing people to foam a green ooze at the mouth and attack each other.
And "Shivers" (1975, original titles: "Orgy of the Blood Parasites" and "They Came From Within") deals with sexually transmitted parasites who romp through people's bodies; one set pops through a victim's chest and splatters across a doctor's face, leeching out his blood.
But now Cronenberg feels he has moved beyond "intoxication with the power to shock an audience by magic and flash. So many filmmakers have a tendency to guarantee a reaction without taking structure into consideration."
In "Scanners," Cronenberg has effectively mixed external combustion with internal intensity. The Cartesian schism between mind and body -- a theme that has occasionally made his films obtuse despite their carnage -- is downplayed in his newest feature. "Scanners" deals with a coven of telepaths who can literally blow people's minds: Cronenberg's concept of telepathy is not mind-reading but the joining of nervous systems. Some of these adepts, or "scanners," become homicidal rebels, and the drama of the film revolves around which side will prevail. There are still enough bulging veins, ripped flesh and apocalyptic encounters to satisfy his old fans, but "Scanners" is essentially a witty and stylish sci-fi adventure.
As a boy, Cronenberg was an avid entymologist and lepidopterist, and the sense of detail he once applied to butterflies and moths has extended to his films. His settings have names like the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics or the Canadian Academy of Erotic Inquiry. His props are realistic -- such as a fictional 1945 Life magazine ad touting the wonders of a drug called Ephemerol (with a telepath-producing side effect). His dialogue is convincingly interlarded with pop science straight out of "Psychology Today," and he portrays the captains of commerece as willing henchmen to mad science.
Cronenberg's father was a writer and publisher for a magazine called True Canadian Crime Stories, and also contributed story lines to Canadian comic books during World War II. Before he was 10, Cronenberg had plotted out a career as a novelist, though he enrolled at the University of Toronto majoring in biochemistry and biology. Raised "on horror movies and D.C. Comics," Cronenberg stopped reading science fiction at 17 and ended his career in biochemistry as a college junior. "Though I was fascinated by the interface between man and technology in the universe at large, the reality of scientific study was boring. But the idea of it was very fascinating."
Cronenberg started making films in college, graduating from 8mm to 16mm as soon as he could afford it. In those days, he was also his own cameraman and editor. He made two surreal shorts ("Transfer" in 1966 and "From the Drain" in 1967) before moving on to "Stereo" in 1969. That film also depicted artificially induced telepathy with a soundtrack representing the jumbled thoughts and communications of the telepaths. The avant-garde aspects of the film brought him his first attention and the start-up money for a second film, "Crimes of the Future" (1970). That one dealt with a pestilence instigated by additives in cosmetics, resulting in a strange effluence with a bizarre attraction for bystanders; subplots dealt with foot and lingerie fetishes. It wasn't until 1975 that Cronenberg finally directed his first major feature, "Shivers." Its budget of $1.5 million arrived only after three years of trying to get the government to help finance the venture.
"Canadian horror films of the time were gothic, stiff," he recalls. "It would have been easier to finance a comedy or a Canadian Nationalist Art Film. The government liked those," he says condescendingly. The powers at the Canadian Film Development Bureau ("mandarins and culture czars," Cronenberg calls them) were horrified at the venture -- until it earned back their investment in record time. Other problems included the "nationalist conditions" that set a limit of two foreign actors per film for government-financed ventures: Those stars have included Chambers, Eggar and Oliver Reed in "The Brood" and Patrick McGoohan in "Scanners."
Cronenberg, who writes as well as directs his own films, litters his conversation with references to Descartes, Nabokov, Burroughs, Freud and McLuhan. His film vocabulary is free of the weight of artistic history and propelled by respect for such other genre masters as John Carpenter, Brian De Palma and Nicholas Roeg, whose "Don't Look Now" is the "most frightening film" Cronenberg has seen.Recent favorites include "Texas Chain Saw Massacre," "Raw Meat" and "Private Parts."
The director frowns on the more obvious shockers that have splattered screens recently, looking down on "those directors who allow the audience to write their scripts" to diminished expectations. "In a film that is advertised accurately -- and I think most horror films are -- there is a collusion between the filmmaker and the audience that is tighter than in any other genre. The filmmaker comes in with a challenge and the audience accepts it: 'I'm going to take you further than you would dare go. And you're going to resist . . . possibly. You're going to try not to be frightened, you're going to try not to believe what's happening, you're going to try not to be sucked into the film -- but I'm going to take you anyway and you're not going to be able to resist.'"
What elevates Cronenberg is that he's a gourmand in a landscape of butchers, twisting audiences not only on the shock level, but with involving concepts, narratives, characters. He insists, in his barely discernible Canadian accent, that sci-fi and horror films can be arenas of confrontation where an audience has to deal with unpleasant realities of the human condition -- death, aging, violence, separation from loved ones, "the phenomenon of your body dying while your mind looks on wondering why it's all happening. Those mysteries are what my films are primarily about."
Cronenberg has been largely unnoticed in America until "Scanners." But he has gained a reputation among European critics, one of whom called him "the most brilliant and disturbing director in North America." bizarre "Brood," whose excised version has been confined to cable TV here, reportedly outgrossed, "The Empire Strikes Back" in England -- and sold 200,000 copies of a novelization. It was that kind of overseas commercial success that led to the big American push on "Scanners."
Nonetheless, some Canadian officials are still squeamish about financing his films, and criticize the genre as mindless, reprehensible exploitation without social value. Cronenberg replies that "they don't understand why people see these films, or the vitality and the worth of them. Art is on the side of the unconscious mind and the id. To see a movie is to enter into a trance or dream state. Realism has nothing to do with it. And I also believe that art of any kind is subversive. It would be a betrayal of one's art to worry about issues of social responsibility. As a citizen I have social responsibilities. But as an artist, I don't."