Brandon Cronenberg's feature film debut, Antiviral, should be up there in the canon of classic body horror films, but it suffered from being too indie, too cerebral, too arty, and too Canadian. The Cronenberg last name may have helped get Antiviral into Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, but even that couldn't get it into many American movie theaters.
Brandon's father David Cronenberg is a king of body horror; Seth Brundle's metamorphosis from human to hybrid fly creature in the 1986 film The Fly won an Academy Award for its grotesque transformative makeup. Brandon, in contrast, is less concerned with what the human body can become than how beautiful and disgusting it already is — and what we're willing to do to get close to the bodies of those we adore.
Antiviral follows a young man named Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) in a near-future Toronto. Syd works at the Lucas Clinic, which looks like the sort of clinic you might visit for botox or minor cosmetic surgery. Everything is perfectly white, perfectly clean, perfectly in order. Surrounded by screens displaying beautiful, ethereal celebrities, the clinic's patients are the odd ones out. They, in contrast, are not perfect. But at the Lucas Clinic, one can approach that perfection.
The Lucas Clinic specializes in celebrity diseases. For a fee, you can be injected with the same strain of influenza or herpes that the object of your obsession has — directly from their body, to the clinic, to you.
Given the popularity of these illnesses, and the money that can be made from them, the Lucas Clinic has stringent copy-protection built into these viruses to make them incommunicable. Once injected into the customer, they can't be transmitted to another person. Lucas is selling a biological connection, but there's obviously a fantasy to it too. Syd convinces a young man to buy the herpes virus from Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) by telling him he can have it injected on the left side of his mouth, right where he would get it if she had kissed him. She hasn't, of course; he'll never meet her. But that virus is as close of a connection as he'll ever get.
Syd's been making money on the side using a stolen console to break the copy protection on diseases from the clinic and sell them on the black market. When he's called in to visit Hannah Geist personally and get samples of her new virus for the clinic, he can't resist injecting himself with some of her infected blood. Unfortunately, this virus is a lot more serious than the others, and both Hannah and Syd are in more trouble than they expected. This virus breaks Syd's machine and leads him on a chase for a cure through butcher shops specializing in celebrity cell meat and porn theaters with naked virtual reality celebrities telling you they'll do whatever you want them to. After a slow, contemplative first half, the movie turns into a thriller.
Syd's an amazing salesman. He understands his customers and their desires. His sales pitch focuses on letting the customer touch a god: "She's perfect, isn't she? More than perfect. More than human." But as the movie continues we see that even though he is the man behind the curtain, Syd is not above that same obsession that brings customers to the Lucas Clinic. He could have stolen Hannah's blood without injecting himself but he wanted that biological communion, too. At one point in the film, there's a shot of Syd stroking Hannah's rash on his arm as if it were the skin of a lover.
Critics of the movie have said it's too slow and too intellectual. It's all about ideas, not characters. And that's true. Syd is still a mystery right through to the end of the movie. Hannah Geist is essentially a blank slate, or a doll that her fans can manipulate and tell their own stories about. We don't ever learn what she's famous for, but we don't really need to. Early in the film, the founder of the Lucas Clinic (Nicholas Campbell) asks, "What does it mean to deserve to be famous? Anyone who's famous deserves to be famous." There's no measure of worth when it comes to celebrity; it doesn't matter what they did to become famous, whether they're an actor or a musician or a serial killer (yes, you can get their viruses at the Lucas Clinic, too).
All that matters is that people care about them. Their fans care enough to pay obscene amounts of money for a small piece of them. And do we need to know who those fans are either? Or is that enough to tell us who they are?
Viruses and pathogens make for amazing body horror. There's shot upon shot upon shot of needles entering skin, blood flowing into sample tube or out of a sick person's mouth. The copy protection on viruses is illustrated by grotesque faces, blurred just enough that we can't tell if they're screaming in agony or pleasure. Syd has a sickly hallucination of himself becoming a machine. It's funny that the one thing that makes David Cronenberg squeamish is needles, which his son uses so liberally in this film. The camera is remarkably still in Antiviral; in some shots, all that's moving is a needle slowing piercing perfectly pale skin. It's incredibly effective.
Part of the perfection of the celebrities in the film is that they're actually imperfect — that imperfection is what makes them relatable. It's literally what the fans can share with them: sickness. Hannah's personal doctor, played with remarkable restraint and softness by Malcolm McDowell, demonstrates his love of Hannah and other celebrities by grafting their skin onto his arm. Through this biological communion, he himself becomes perfect.
Antiviral is austere and serious, maybe even a bit too serious and unsubtle in its ideas. What elevates it is the beauty of the production design and the power of Caleb Landry Jones' acting. He's in almost every scene in the movie and he absolutely carries it. His face is fascinating to watch. When Syd visits Hannah Geist to take her blood, he conveys so much with a single blink: how much he loves her, and how he has to physically force himself to stop staring and do his job. Jones is beautiful in an incredibly eerie way. He's perfect for horror movies.
Despite all this, Antiviral didn't get its due. It did well at festivals, nominated for the Golden Camera and Un Certain Regard awards at Cannes, several Canadian Screen Awards, and even winning Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival. But that's the thing about Canadian movies — Canada celebrates them, but nobody else watches them. They can be well crafted, well acted, and beautifully shot, but you're not going to see them in an American movie theater. Especially not a debut film, even with a director named Cronenberg. It's available on Hulu, so if you want a creepy movie about the horror within humanity, give it a watch.