Antiviral

Caleb Landry Jones in Antiviral

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

29 February

 

 

Rare Disease Day

This day every leap year is Rare Disease Day. Initially chosen because the day itself is rare, and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Orphan Drug Act in the USA (which makes it easier for therapies for designated diseases to be developed), it was first observed in 2008. When there isn’t a 29 February in the year, the day is observed on the last day of the month. A rare disease is technically defined as one found in fewer than five people in 10,000, but there are more well known rare diseases than might at first be thought – cystic fibrosis, conjoined twins, Creutzfeld Jakob disease to name three beginning with the letter C. The day is largely used to raise awareness and increase access to facilities and treatment, but is also seen as an opportunity for lobbying and fund-raising. The organisation’s website is at www.rarediseaseday.org

 

 

 

Antiviral (2012, dir: Brandon Cronenberg)

Meet Syd. He works at a strange medical facility which deals in celebrity infections. Not the curing of infections that celebrities have, but the culturing and selling on of infections – herpes seems to be a favourite – which a particular celebrity has had, the idea being that the adoring fan will buy anything, and especially something so intimately connected with fame. So that’s Syd’s job – selling famous people’s diseases. He’s at the fragrant high end of a market which, lower down the pecking order, deals in cloned celebrity muscle tissue, offered up on the black market at a handsome price to the fanbase. They eat it, apparently. In films where the “hero” works in some highly mechanised and not particularly savoury occupation, at some point he generally makes a break for it, or sets about bringing about a revolution. Syd does neither. Instead he sneaks some infection home from work inside his own bloodstream, with the intention of either doing some black market trading, or having his own private facetime with a celebrity virus, we’re not sure at first. But Syd’s theft has consequences, and he’s soon fighting the very thing that other people are fighting to get.
The time is the near future; the place is a sort of aseptic steampunk version of the present; the influences are the dystopia of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the body horror of David Cronenberg. And the director is Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, who could be accused of having cloned his dad’s sensibility, if we were being cruel. I suspect that Cronenberg Sr had some ancillary input in Antiviral – the technical work, the mis en scene, and the support cast are all perfect – but there is more going on here than Mini-Me horror. Cronenberg Jr builds a convincing universe, uses his cast well (Caleb Landry Jones as the pasty salesman/technician/thief; Malcolm McDowell affirming the Kubrick connection; Sarah Gadon blonde and charismatic as the Madonna/Gaga-esque star the plot hinges on). Brandon Cronenberg also has his own vision, tells his own story and follows his theme of vampiric celebrity culture – they live on us, though fans believe it’s the opposite – through to its pitiless satirical conclusion (OK, that last bit is definitely the father’s style too). More importantly, he fuses the clean-tech high modernist sci-fi look – the opening shot is of a white light and white is the key colour throughout – with something much more organic, wet, dark, even hairy. Enjoy.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The directorial debut of another Cronenberg auteur
  • Powerful, disturbing body horror
  • Old-fashioned physical special effects extremely well used
  • Part of the rise and rise of Caleb Landry Jones

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Antiviral – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

What Is an Aseptic White Room Thriller?

Julian Richings in Cube

 

The simple answer to the question “what is an aseptic white room thriller” (AWRT) is Cube, Vincenzo Natali’s cult Canadian sci-fi movie from 1997. More abstractly, it’s a film that takes place on a single set, usually white though not necessarily. Lighting will be clean, clinical, fairly devoid of shadow. Soundtrack music will be scarce or absent. As for sound design, a background hum of air-conditioning is standard. Clanking, the whooshing of doors, “noises off”.

It’s the plot that is most definitive. In the AWRT no one really knows what’s going on. Typically the film opens with the characters who don’t know each other waking up somewhere far from home, to find that off-screen somewhere, in the bowels of the spaceship they’re on, or in a dark corner of the warehouse they’re in, something is out to get them.

Banding together is the sensible option and it’s usually the person who is most vocally against this course of action who gets it (whatever “it” is) first.

Alien has elements of the Aseptic White Room Thriller, though in the purest manifestation of the form we never get to see the antagonist, the creature. Because the creature is, in effect, other people. And if that’s tickling a memory of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “hell is other people”, then you’ve arrived at the modern source of all Aseptic White Room Thrillers, Sartre’s Huis Clos, a vision of hell in which three people are punished by being locked up with each other for eternity, where they must struggle not to become an object of someone else’s consciousness, the great existential burden.

Put another way, Sartre was a grumpy bugger who didn’t get on with other people.

 

Some examples of the Aseptic White Room Thriller:

 

Cube (1997, dir: Vincenzo Natali)

Seven people of various classes and backgrounds wake up in a hi-tech cube consisting of white room off white room. Periodically reconfiguring itself to lethal effect, the cube forces the initially unco-operative bunch into “pull together or die” survival mode.

Before checking out Cube, it is worth being aware that the acting is very ropy, the script is possibly even worse. But the simplicity of its premise, the starkness of its judgment, the implacability of whatever it is that’s doing whatever it is that it’s doing makes for a highly flavoured, and highly influential piece of sci-fi.

Cube – at Amazon

 

Moon (2009, dir: Duncan Jones)

Moon looks to me as if Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, was halfway through watching the George Clooney version of Solaris and thought “nah, I could do better than that.” And that’s what he’s done with this brilliantly told story of the lone astronaut (Sam Rockwell) up on the moon who discovers he’s not alone at all.

Kubrick’s 2001 provides some of the look, and the inspiration for the faintly mocking computer, voiced here by Kevin Spacey. And Alien provides the idea of the human very much the subordinate to the company’s systems.

All this wrapped up in a story that like Russian dolls within dolls, or turtles standing on the backs of turtles, goes down and down and down towards infinity.

Moon – at Amazon

 

Antiviral (2012, dir: Brandon Cronenberg)

Brandon, son of David, Cronenberg updates dad’s “body horror” shockers with the story of a lab rat who steals a bit of DNA from the facility where he works. The DNA is from someone rich and famous and the lab where he works sells, among other things, cold sores of the rich and famous. Because in Brandon Cronenberg’s world the great unwashed will do anything to get close to a celebrity, including infecting themselves with their herpes.

Antiviral is a grungy satire rather than a philosophical examination of the friability of the individual, though the sense of isolation, the clinical setting and Cronenberg’s expert fostering of a sense of dread all bathe the movie in the chill glow of the Aseptic White Room Thriller.

Antiviral – at Amazon

 

The Facility (2012, dir: Ian Clark)

A low-budget British chiller about a gaggle of disparate guys and gals who have all signed up for a weekend of drug testing at some remote clinic. Things, obviously, are going to go wrong, and they do.

It’s the way that this bunch of largely self-obsessed young people unknown to each are thrown together that is most reminiscent of Cube, but there’s also the sight of a director taking the very scantest of storylines and making something compelling and tense out of it.

If that doesn’t mark Ian Clark out as someone to watch I don’t know what does.

The Facility – at Amazon

 

Panic Button (2011, dir: Chris Crow)

Four winners of a competition run by a social networking site meet for the first time in the VIP lounge in an airport. Before long they are in a private jet being taken, ostensibly, to a holiday destination. Of course they’re going to no such place.

Shot on one camera by the look of things, then edited on a dying laptop and overdubbed with music seemingly grabbed at random from a fourth-rate music library, Panic Button doesn’t have production values going for it. But it does have purity and simplicity. And throwing a bunch of people together and then subjecting them to psychological torture – which is what the movie does – at 35,000 feet (or however high private jets go) is a nice high-concept touch.

The film falls apart spectacularly in its final reveal – which also knocks back its AWRT rating a bit – but much leg-knotting fun has been had on the way.

Panic Button – at Amazon

 

Pontypool (2008, dir: Bruce McDonald)

A thoroughly gripping low-budget thriller set pretty much in the one room of a radio station, where a former big noise in the DJ world is starting on his first day at a tiny local radio station, some terrible disgrace having busted him down to private.

One room, two people, I think it’s three by the time that Dr Mendez turns up. He’s the frankly bizarre doctor who first voices the theory which might explain all the weirdness that’s been building up as the day has progressed.

Pontypool (the name is Canadian, not Welsh) is one of the more out-there manifestations of the zombie movie, with a high concept so strange that it’s worth waiting for. And its AWRT trappings – a few people, a single room, banding together, a hidden menace – only add to the sense of bated expectation.

Pontypool – at Amazon

 

The Killing Room (2009, dir: Jonathan Liebesman)

There are famous names in this chiller, a loose mix of Cube, the Big Brother TV series, a bit of Bourne, even a hint of the British 1960s spy series The Avengers.

Peter Stormare plays Mother (that’s the Avengers‘ bit), the freakish scientist delegating rookie psychologist Chloe Sevigny to go over the data of experiments which have just finished, experiments which look very like the Stanford Experiment (Wikipedia explanation here) into the inclination of human beings to obey orders.

Except the experiments might not be over, meaning Sevigny is stuck in a big white space while some mad twisted nut pushes her buttons. The Killing Room isn’t perfect but its big reveal, when it comes, is worth hanging on for.

The Killing Room – at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Antiviral

Caleb Landry Jones

What’s that, you say, Cronenberg? Surely not a relation of David? Indeedy, this is the son, Brandon, and, apples not falling far from tree, chips tending to fly from old blocks, he serves us up a rather lipsmacking portion of body-horror just like dad used to make. And the lips, as you might have guessed, are blistered with herpes.

We’re in a parallel world – it looks like today but the celebrity fever has got to such a point that people are happy, willing, desperate to be injected with herpes simplex virus harvested from rich and famous stars such as the Madonna-alike Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). That’s when they’re not buying and eating the cloned muscle tissue of the stars. These transactions, so the pitch goes, lets the star-obsessed get closer to the object of their fandom, a one-sided transaction that knocks a signature in an autograph book out of the park.

And into this slightly steampunky, dials-and-pistons world, Cronenberg injects the actor Caleb Landry Jones, a pasty youth – thin, odd-looking, intense, handsome in a drowned-body kind of way, a perfect piece of casting as it turns out, because he looks as vapid and unwholesome as the world he uneasily inhabits.

If you want to know what actually happens, check out this excellent, low-budget sci-fi thriller, it’s really worth it. All I can usefully, non-spoilerishly reveal about the plot is that Landry Jones plays a lab rat at a celebrity tissue clinic where there’s only one thing he really shouldn’t do. Which is take any bits of famous people home with him… so of course he does.

Sarah Gadon as Hannah Geist
Sarah Gadon as Hannah Geist



Nicely, Cronenberg Jr leaves quite a few things unexplained, which forces us to work out the dynamics of this world, the opaqueness adding to the sense of dread and mystery. In terms of visuals, Cronenberg has been heavily influenced by the science-gone-bad vibe of his dad (The Fly and Ringers, for instance) by Kubrick, by Philip K Dick, and by the Aseptic White Room Thriller genre (Vincenzo Natali’s Cube being the daddy).

In fact technically this is a very well accomplished film in every respect. The effects are done old-school, make-up and fake blood featuring heavily. This is merciful because CGI, in spite of all the Kraken-y, Hobbit-y things done with them, just aren’t good enough yet. The soundtrack is deliberately loud but not intrusive, builds tension brilliantly as the story works its way towards a grisly though entirely logical conclusion – there is no happy ending nonsense here.

Dad’s hand is everywhere but let’s give kudos to the son, who has made the sort of film that will be gulped down gleefully by the horror nuts, but also by anyone weary with the whole notion of “celebrity”.

A word about the casting in the minor roles, which is perfect throughout, all the support actors doing exactly what is required of them, which removes a layer of storytelling necessity from Cronenberg, leaving him to get on with the business of being nasty.



Antiviral – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012