Strange but true, I saw David Cronenberg's 1981 horror Scanners for the first time this morning, and seeing the Betamax-busting film sharpened a thought that's been festering in my mind for quite some time now ... what on earth has happened to his work? The explosive horror that broke a thousand pause buttons was everything I could've hoped for and more from this once-great director: not only was the auterial style that marked his early career firmly intact, but it also had still-great effects, brilliant one-liners, several (I think largely unintentional) comedic moments, a touch of melodrama, and, not only the rare treat of the wonderful Patrick McGoohan, but the even rarer treat of the awesome actor himself deeply immersed in a hammy monologue or two.
Even without the extras, Scanners embodied the cinema Cronenberg was producing at the earliest, and, I think, best part of his filmmaking career. I appreciate that a director's work can and will progress and diversify and that, in fact, you can trace an advancement of ideas within his films, that the types of films that made his name were a product of an era both in cinematic style and content, but even so, the direction he's taking seems increasingly less compatible with his talents.
Where Cronenberg shone, where there's validity to attach auterial status to his work, was when he was producing the early corporeal horrors that were so distinctly 'Cronenberg.' From Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), through 1981's Scanners, even The Fly (1986), he brought us not only the physicalities of 'body horror', but horror that was executed through the ideas and effects of transmutation. The study of the human body under attack, the fear, denial, then ultimately acceptance and concealment all worked through still-human, if diseased, mental faculties is what is most horrific. Cronenberg made uniquely terrifying the idea of the mutation of the human physical form as a process at odds with and then accepted and manipulated by the human psyche, itself adapting, coupled with an exploration of social fear and panic.
Where he has had a gradual move away from this cinema which typified him, progressing through less overt body-shock techniques in a move towards a more inverse exploration of a similar theme, via Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996), he seems to have arrived, through 2002's Spider to 2005's A History of Violence to a more dramatically and psychologically driven narrative. A History of Violence, his last release, whilst heavily lauded, was nothing more than botched-together sensationalism, a grubby grab with a cheap-shot at some unearned praise and a bit of financial payback, but the critics were either too fleeced to say so or just plain unprepared to go against the grain. Maybe this is the direction Cronenberg has gone in, is going in, but when you're re-acquainted with his original works, to really be reminded that he had the power to disturb with an atmosphere that felt like even the screen was infected with sickness, a shabbily violent sex-scene wrenched in with a crowbar for a spot of much-needed controversy, coupled with some misplaced graphic violence amid the near-shamefully clichéd set-up that was the narrative, you can't help but think he's trying too hard to reach a level he once gained so readily. Please, a natural diversification and social and cinematic progression is no excuse for selling yourself and us short.