David Cronenberg’s biographic listing on IMDB refers to him as “the King of Venereal Horror” or “the Baron of Blood,” because in his oeuvre those elements are so in-your-face, and yet there is always the sense that Cronenberg understands and appreciates maintaining a necessary remove, a dramatic distance that allows for a potentially clear-minded examination of the fetish on display. He wants his audience to consider the frightening impact of what lurks inside of us, coursing beneath the surface.
Cronenberg teased us early on with Scanners in 1981 and then two years later with Videodrome, but it should be noted that “teasing” is definitely a relative term when applied to what Cronenberg laid bare on the screen. There was a fascination with power of the extra-sensory sort and the inevitable abuses of said abilities. But Cronenberg sought to insert us inside the minds of those about to unlock this potential; he wanted us to feel the fear of letting go, of surrendering to powerfully dark urges, because it was about exposing the bloody horrors inside our psyches and our bodies. To be fair, though, most of the attention he drew arose from how he rendered the devastating effects on the body.
Who can forget the images from Videodrome featuring the melding of bodies and technology that were far more surreal than many of the science fiction-based depictions? Cronenberg enjoyed capturing oozing mutations out of psychotropic-induced dreamscapes. And he took us even further in The Fly (1986), forcing us to watch Jeff Goldblum’s metamorphosis into a giant fly/human hybrid, while never allowing the brilliant scientist’s complex humanity to disappear from view.
Following The Fly, he burrowed into the twisted minds for richer horrors waiting to be told.
Dead Ringers offered up twin gynecologists (Jeremy Irons) with the most unhealthy appetites when it came to studying the human body and the competitive (and weirdly symbiotic) links between them. Dead Ringers presented the horror of identity conflict; the battle of wills when outside forces (like love) threatened the fragile truce between what amounted to a shared consciousness.
On it goes, this thematic war, this chess match Cronenberg seems to constantly play with himself; sometimes wallowing in raw displays of violence wrought on either the flesh or the spirit, yet at other times dressing it up in genre garb — as in Eastern Promises, where he reined in the excesses by channeling them through a mob thriller exercise, or in A Dangerous Method, with its decidedly more literal exploration of the psyche. Even in A History of Violence, Cronenberg fashions a contemporary experiment for himself with a protagonist (Viggo Mortensen) seeking to walk away from his dark past only to be dragged back to his roots after an act of violence transforms him into a local hero.
He knows that you can’t escape the themes of your life, so it is fitting that Maps to the Stars, his latest effort, thoroughly embraces the churning stew of bodies and blood and broken personas (with screenwriter Bruce Wagner) by setting this freak show in Hollywood among a celebrity family forever chasing its ghosts and demons.
An obviously unstable burn victim (Mia Wasikowska) returns to the scene of the crime, choosing to wander the margins with a limo driver-cum-would-be-writer/actor (Robert Pattinson) until the time is right to reveal herself. An insecure actress (newly minted Oscar winner Julianne Moore) frets and pouts over the chance to play a role originally played by her more famous mother, who is now haunting her daughter from beyond the grave. And a far too mature child performer (Evan Bird) attempts to navigate his way through the industry pitfalls with precious little “real” support from his parents (John Cusack and Olivia Williams), who are too busy failing to maintain their own precarious hold over their secrets and lies.
What emerges from this intentionally empty mix is vintage Cronenberg, scenes of raw debasement abound from a precious bird’s eye view, but the discerning viewer will notice a new wrinkle. Maps to the Stars appropriates tropes from our current interest in the undead, cleverly defining this setting as a wasteland full of walking-dead types that are not quite the traditional zombies we know and love. Instead, these soulless creations belong exclusively to Cronenberg, who presents them with far more wit and, dare I say, affection than novelist Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) did in his adaptation of The Informers, which trafficked in similar territory. Maps to the Stars shows what happens when a native like Cronenberg leads the way. (Opens Friday) Grade: B (tt stern-enzi)