August 29, 2009

Episode 14: Tetsuo and the New Flesh

Hold your meals, ladies and gentlemen, for now we’re coming up with something fairly revolting…

Body horror, or venereal horror as David Cronenberg calls it now and then, is any form of horror based primarily on transfiguration and mutilation, be it explicit the way all gore movies are, or implicit like Rosemary’s Baby. Body horror involves everything from alien chestbursters to weresheep transformation sequences to vagina dentata, and that’s before we get to an entirely new level with Cronenberg's Videodrome.

The 1980s are a particularly rich decade for this type of horror as cyberpunk and industrial aesthetics dug deep into the language of popular culture, riding the media-fueled fears of what the 21st century was supposed to hold for the human body. Think not only of the obvious examples like Akira and Robocop but also of "cleaner" projects like Dune and Blade Runner (remember the eye plant?). That gore became such an important thing for the slasher genre after Friday the 13th wasn't going to help things, either.

Of course, body horror has always been present in storytelling as it really represents the visual component of aging and death – it reminds us that as much as we’d like to think of ourselves as spirits, we’re 100% organic and we tend to decay over time. Myths and legends make full use of chopped-off body parts and strangely mutated human beings to drive the point home; so are the tales of the Brothers Grimm and pretty much all European folklore. Last season we covered the Thing-Without-a-Name and the Werewolf - an important thing that needs mentioning is that body horror plays a huge part in why they are so effective. On one hand, it is way easier to detest an abomination than a perfect being; on the other hand, if you leave out this visual externalization of what is essentially internal struggle within the main characters, you might as well scratch the genre and watch a psychological drama (to significantly lesser impact). Just think of Tod Browning's Freaks.

As I’ve suggested on several occasions, if there is one true master of body horror, it would have to be David Cronenberg. The guy is a true auteur, making movies so dry they could snap at any given moment, much like the main characters they make room for; yet this unsettling vibe is always used as a force to push the overall themes forward and not just to provide visual spectacle. As others have noted, over the arc of his career, Cronenberg's films have followed a definite progression, moving from the breakdown of social order in his early films (e.g. Shivers, Rabid) to personal chaos (e.g. Scanners, Videodrome) to self-changing experiments (e.g. The Fly, to certain extent Dead Ringers). For this reason, it made perfect sense to pit him against William S. Burroughs for the production of the “unfilmable” Naked Lunch. At the end of the day, Cronenberg clearly has a thing or two for the human condition, or rather for its fragility - disease and disaster, according to him, are less problems to be overcome than agents of personal transformation (and if you want to read more about it, go here and here for interesting articles on the subject; also, you might want to check out the following clip).

Musically speaking, this episode ties 100% with the body horror theme, covering as much ground as possible between Tapeworm’s version of Skinny Puppy’s “Warlock” and Clinic’s “Distortions”, including a couple of turns by the ever-present Fantômas. Enjoy!

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