A COLD LOOK AT CANADIAN HORROR IN BRANDON CRONENBERG’S ANTIVIRAL

When Americans think of Canada, they usually think of preternaturally-polite hosers sitting in igloos, drinking Molson or Labatt beer, watching hockey on the CBC as they dunk their Tim Hortons doughnuts in maple syrup, all the while dreaming of clubbing seals (much to Morrissey’s dismay). I don’t think Americans give much thought to Canada at all, and that’s okay. We’re not a threat to national security (despite our nationwide legalization of cannabis), we supply you with a steady stream of actors and comedians, and we’re your #1 economic trading partner, so what’s to worry about? Except that Canada concocts your nightmares, dear friends, and the irony is simply delicious: who would expect a bland nation-state of moose-loving people to be sinister sadists? It’s particularly omnipresent when watching Canadian horror films. Our film industry is, well, a speck of dust compared to the mighty Hollywood machine, but, occasionally, our celluloid chillers travel south of the 49thparallel and feast on your delicate minds. Since 1961’s The Mask (in 3D!), Canada has impacted the horror genre with its domestic terror: Black ChristmasMy Bloody ValentineProm NightThe ChangelingCurtainsBlood and DonutsCube, Ginger Snaps, and more recent fare like American MaryPyewacket, and the Wolf Cop films. Who else would make a movie about an insane killer with a pickax terrorizing Moosehead-swilling Nova Scotia miners? Only in Canada, eh? This collection of Canadian horror helped inspire a new generation of talent to make big impressions with small budgets with such films as Beyond the Black Rainbow and Antiviral, the latter a film so American in its examination of celebrity worship, but at heart very Canadian, with a distinct connection to its filmic past.

In order to examine Antiviral, one cannot ignore the influence of Canada’s greatest and best-known filmmaker, David Cronenberg. With his over-sized glasses and gangly appearance, Cronenberg looks like an English major who shuns sunlight in order to read Angela Carter stories in a library basement, but his dark creativity has no equal. If the term body horror applied to any one filmmaker, it’s Cronenberg.  With his full-length debut, Shivers (made with Canadian government money—”screw you, taxpayer”, as the Kids in the Hall used to say), Cronenberg created a nightmare vision of an isolated luxury Montréal apartment tower gone awry; not unlike J. G. Ballard’s novel, High-Rise, but with a parasitic-organism twist. Despite its low-budget exploitation origins, Shivers was more than just schlocky fun—it heralded the arrival of a unique cinematic voice in a national film industry known more for documentaries than narrative cinema. With each film, Cronenberg expanded his obsession with the human body and technology, culminating with Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986), arguably his two most acclaimed films. Cronenberg’s breakthrough in the USA helped fellow Canadian filmmakers like Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Bruce MacDonald, Guy Maddin, Lynne Stopkewich, and a handful of others impress the American independent film community; Canadian film budgets were on par with the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley. By the ’90s, Cronenberg moved away from horror, but horror never truly left him: from adaptations of two of his literary heroes, William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1993) and J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1996), to eXistenZ (1999), Spider (2002), A History of Violence (2005), and his last (and possibly final) film, Map to the Stars (2014).  Outside of The Fly, his films have never electrified the box office, but they have always been profitable worldwide, allowing him to remain in Toronto with his loyal film crew; a rarity in an industry that often forces Canadian creatives to flee to Hollywood for exposure and employment. Cronenberg has been an influence on aspiring Canadian filmmakers and his influence on contemporary Canadian cinema, including Antiviral, is evident.

Antiviral is the product of artist/filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, so it’s no coincidence that the film draws influences from Cronenberg Senior’s work. I’m reminded of a quote from Superman, “The son becomes the father, and the father…the son.” I don’t seek to diminish Brandon’s work in Antiviral by referencing his famous father, but rather acknowledge a debut so accomplished, even as raw as it is, that it can be attributed partly to the influence of his father’s work. And make no mistake, there are elements in Antiviral that wouldn’t seem out of place in Papa David’s work. The film played at Cannes and TIFF in 2012, received mostly good reviews, and then disappeared, which is a shame, as it’s a rewarding low-budget film that will connect with film aficionados who like their cinema on the cold and satirical side.

In an unnamed Canadian metropolis, Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), an employee of Lucas Clinic, aids people in becoming closer to their favorite celebrities by injecting them willingly with various viruses collected from the rich and famous. Lucas Clinic’s number one celebrity, Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) is nearly too popular to keep all their clients happy. Syd steals viruses to sell on the black market by injecting himself surreptitiously, transferring them into the Ready-Face console, a revolutionary machine that identifies the “face of the virus” for copyright protection from competitors, removing it from the incubator—Syd—and preventing the virus from spreading to another host. When a fellow Lucas Clinic salesman is arrested for viral theft, Caleb is instructed to obtain a strange new virus Geist has contracted in China that is sure to be highly profitable. Syd wrecks his machine trying to transfer the new virus and the media has reported that Geist has died. Realizing that he’s dying from the same disease, Syd tangles with corporate competitors and black marketeers in the hope of finding a cure. 

Brandon Cronenberg doesn’t make it easy for the casual filmgoer to enjoy Antiviral: it is, by intention, a cold film—we’re talking Kubrickian cold—so it’s not one to pop into the Blu-ray player on a sleepy weeknight. The film’s characters and setting don’t provide humanity or warmth and it’s highly apparent in the desaturation of color: the Lucas Clinic (likely named in honor of George Lucas and his first film, THX 1138, a fellow dystopian film drained of color and humanity) is a sterile monochromatic shrine to all things white. Syd’s apartment is also white and spartan, save for the Ready-Face console hidden away in his closet. Lucas employees, mostly men (save for a woman who’s in charge of the clinic’s pathogen storage), all wear dark suits and white shirts uniformly—there are no pops of color, stylish glasses, or fun pocket squares. Even Lucas Clinic’s competitor, Vole and Tessier, is no less drab, its corridors equally lifeless and industrial. Everyone looks pale, particularly Syd, even before he injects himself with viruses; people everywhere appear ghoulish because they’re not living, they’re merely existing, consuming nothing but celebrity news (and maybe a side of celebrity brisket). Most shots feel like fluorescence was used for lighting and it aids in the ghoul factor, if not making for a beautiful image. Antiviral’s exterior shots of Toronto and nearby Hamilton (often—and unfairly—ridiculed by Torontonians as being the “Pittsburgh of Canada”) indicate a cold, drab, overcast sky over a city without beauty—nothing but an industrial wasteland (sorry again, Hamilton). 

The film borrows from several famous dystopian sources, but it’s Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World that Antiviral shares the strongest connection (not to disrespect George Orwell’s 1984, which I think is a fine dystopian novel, great for teachable moments in school, kids, but I’ve always felt Huxley’s novel is far more subtle and insidious of a society that lacks genuine human interaction and emotion, courtesy of soma and feelies).  In Antiviral, there is no connection between people—everyone stares transfixed at TV screens that display endless celebrity gossip. Drugs don’t appear to be a distraction—it’s the allure of feeling connected to a celebrity that’s as powerful as any drug. Everyone is subdued, and there is little in the way of emoting unless it’s reacting to a celebrity’s death or accident. Before he can transfer his purloined pathogens to the Ready-Face console, Syd’s landlady observes that he looks like he’s becoming ill (something his co-workers state repeatedly), but not out of care or concern; his well being is an obstacle to her perpetual gossip consumption. Outside of minutiae, the only thing discussed between the two is Hannah Geist. His co-workers discuss with him the types of maladies suffered by celebrities, but nobody asks personal questions. They stand in line to pick up the latest disease (Aria Noble, another deified celebrity, has a flu virus labeled S-915) to pass along to their customers; no small-talk about weekends spent or marital problems, just work work work. Syd speaks softly to his clients, inspiring them with the chance to be close to their favorite celebrity via a unique disease, but it’s just a polished sales pitch. Black marketeers assault Syd in order to steal a virus (oh and a sample of that rash) in casual fashion because humans are a commodity, thanks to the rich and famous who sell their illnesses to greedy corporations. Humanity is not a never-ending series of adventures, it’s a means to one end: feeling like being in a celebrity’s skin. 

Antiviral also shares a connection to Philip K. Dick with the Ready-Face machine, something the infamously-paranoid author could have easily conjured in one of his many fever dreams. Like much of Dick’s classic science fiction novels, the Ready-Face is a remarkable piece of technology and innovation, but its collection of gears and clunky parts suggest otherwise. The idea that a private corporation has developed a technology to identify person’s unique disease and prevent its “unlawful” duplication is also something akin to Dick’s world of tape-spewing simulacrums used for corporate profit. Lucas Clinic’s founder, Dorian Lucas (Nicholas Campbell), repeatedly spouts bland corporate platitudes about serving the public’s celebrity worship and “propriety rights” of pathogens, selling his thinly-veiled dream of avarice to his employees in a staff gathering. The Ready-Face technology is incredible, but nothing else in the world seems as it should—some people think the film is set in the near future, but if so, it’s one in which smartphones and other personal devices don’t exist. I like to think of Antiviral as existing in a parallel reality, one in which HD TVs exist, but everything is analogous to analog technology—Syd uses a flip alarm clock radio (ask your parents, kids!). Perhaps budgetary limitations are at work, but I think it’s fitting: in a world where there is only celebrity obsession, how could innovation exist beyond the desire to exploit a profitable opportunity? Syd’s world is akin to the Earth as depicted in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the inspiration for Blade Runner), in which all the ambitious, innovative humans have left their home world for dazzling colonies in the solar system; the people who remain on Earth are the disenfranchised, the unambitious, the sick and elderly, and the criminal dregs of society. In the world of Antiviral, there is no societal progression, only stasis, as people are content only to be close to their beloved celebrity. 

As a piece of satire, Antiviral is truly horrific—people paying great sums of money, willing to endure painful maladies to feel close to a famous person is completely absurd, especially in 2012, when the film was released, but even seven years later, the volume of media focused on celebrity has grown exponentially. Many of us watch TMZ daily for celebrity news (or to be “culturally aware”, as Lynne, a dear former co-worker described it). We use smartphones and apps to track the movements of celebrities; traditional advertising using celebrity spokespeople isn’t just found on TV and magazines (while they exist), but in social media apps. People on Instagram are often called “influencers” (which truly makes my blood run cold), desperate to attract more followers by pitching companies’ wares for free swag or remuneration. The Kardashians, a cabal—sorry, a family–of craven, profit-hungry individuals who are not famous as the result of any creative endeavor, but because they’re simply wealthy (their dad knew OJ!) are the antecedent to Antiviral’s Hannah Geist. As a celebrity, she is nearly god-like: her image is everywhere and worshipped, but she’s unobtainable unless one experiences one of her diseases. Even her personal doctor, Dr. Abendroth (a wonderfully subdued Malcolm McDowell), a man of science, is not immune to her power as a goddess. He confesses to Syd that Hannah isn’t just a patient to him, and the viewer suspects he has genuine personal feelings for her, but, alas, he too is under her spell, as he proffers an arm that features several skin grafts of Hannah and others (Papa Cronenberg would be proud). Society continues to distract itself by “living” vicariously through a chosen few, stagnating at the expense of that devotion. All the positive attributes of humanity are missing: no pursuit of knowledge, no ambition to improve oneself, no progression of any kind. There is only corporate greed exploiting an inert society and the black marketeers want a piece of that action: “I don’t even think ‘dignity’ is still a valid currency,” remarks one unsavory marketeer, confirming how devolved humanity has become. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the butcher shop, Astral Bodies Meat Market. Oh, it’s a window into a different time, when a customer could go walk in, the jingle of the door bells alerting smiling butchers, and calmly pick up a couple of pork chops and a side of bacon. In Antiviral, ye olde butcher shop has transformed into something hilarious and yet terrifying: it sells celebrity meat (Soylent Green indeed)! During my initial viewing, I thought the butcher shop nicknamed cuts of meat with celebrity names, but no, it is literal human muscle tissue, grown from cells sold to them by said celebrities. The butcher, Arvid (a calmly creepy Joe Pingue), who moonlights as a pathogen black marketeer, slices celebrity skin nonchalantly, offering a sample to Syd, free of charge (it’s even wrapped in craft paper and butcher’s twine). When Hannah dies from her mysterious illness, the demand for her “meat” increases, creating a lineup outside of Astral Bodies, customers impatient to buy what few cuts remain (don’t worry—Arvid is harvesting those cells for a future limited-time-only sale). One could argue that Astral Bodies is a bit of heavy-handedness, but I think it’s demonstrative of the celebrity communion theme in Antiviral; it’s funny and creepy at the same time, but it’s a satirical note in the unhealthy devotion to unattainable people.

What’s also very telling is that at no point does the viewer learn what specifically has catapulted Hannah into stardom. I thought she was a famous actor, but multiple viewings confirm her enigmatic celebrity. Sarah Gadon appears angelic (Brandon having borrowed from his father’s repertory company), but she doesn’t appear very much in the film; her character, however is always present in some form, always discussed, and the impetus for corporate espionage. The only flourishes of color involve Hannah, whether by flowers surrounding her bed as she recuperates from an illness in China (but not too sick to sell it to Lucas Clinic) and a video recreation of her (the film’s analog “virtual reality”) surrounded by red velvet curtains. Even Syd feels the pull of her power–in one pivotal scene there is a Christ-like communion involving Hannah’s blood that he performs in her honor. Color is only worthy of a god—Hannah’s worshippers can must remain in a monochromatic existence. Her mother, Dev (Sheila McCarthy), and Dr. Abendroth are concerned about her health as she succumbs to the disease, but it’s not so much for her well being as it is for her value as a commodity and status as a god. Dev Geist is a stand-in for Kris Jenner, she of the nauseating sobriquet “momager”, a woman with a vested interest in her daughter in order to acquire additional wealth and power. Dev and the doctor concoct a bit of subterfuge by faking Hannah’s death, as it’s revealed that Vole and Tesser are behind Hannah’s unknown illness, compliments of corporate sabotage. Syd is the key to finding an antidote, so he has value, but not as a person, but as another means to an end; altruism is very dead in Antiviral. The faked death has unintended, but profitable consequences for some: Syd, slowly deteriorating from Hannah’s disease, is kidnapped by one black marketeer in order to film his descent into death: “Since her tragic passing, many of Hannah’s admirers have experienced what could be described as an uncomfortable narrative gap between her life and funeral.” Syd is to be a living-yet-dying testament to Hannah for all to see: he’s placed in a sterile white room containing only a cot and Hannah’s visage adorned to each wall. It’s all part of an elaborate corporate scheme of legal loopholes and immorality that is depressing and inhuman as one can imagine. Everyone is a commodity, voluntarily or not.

Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral is a clever piece of satire, able to tell its story on a modest budget and it succeeds. Syd is not a likeable character by design; he’s a vessel, literally and figuratively, to narrate an unnerving tale of a society that has ignored its own needs for the sake of worshipping others. The film is unrelentingly bleak, much like David Cronenberg’s best films, and there is no happy ending—it exists as a Swiftian warning to the viewer: wake the hell up! Focus on your own life, don’t be a sycophant or a disciple who shrivels away in distraction. Beware of the false idols, lest ye sacrifice thine own humanity (does that sound Biblical enough?). Antiviral is an impressive introduction to Brandon Cronenberg and I’m giddy with anticipation for his second film, the upcoming Possessor (with Jennifer Jason Leigh!). Getting a film financed isn’t easy, particularly in Canada (I imagine a grant submission to Telefilm Canada is a nightmare in its own right), so Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral is an artistic accomplishment, itself an inspiration for the next wave of Canadian filmmakers, but one that wears the father’s influence proudly and reverently. 

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