MY FAVOURITE HORROR MOVIE: IVAN KAVANAGH
After several award-winning short dramas, Irish filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh tried his hand at horror with the underappreciated Tin Can Man (2007). However audiences will probably best know him for his superbly creepy 2014 mystery-horror 'The Canal'. Here, he talks about his favourite horror movie - and one of Cronenberg's most powerful movies - The Fly (1986)
I was twelve years old the first time I saw David Cronenberg’s The Fly. It was at a friend’s house, just after it was released on VHS, and when it was over I felt totally devastated, with a deep sense of melancholy that I couldn’t shake for days. This film packed a wallop, not only on a visceral level, but also on a deep emotional level too. To say it was unlike any horror film I had seen before, would be an understatement. Watching it now, and the many times since, I see it as a very moving and harrowing film about disease, about a young life struck down in its prime, about the terror and tragedy of death. David Cronenberg, on his commentary track of the DVD, talks about the scene where Jeff Goldblum’s character, Seth Brundle, looks in the bathroom mirror and discovers that his fingernails are coming off. Here the character realises and admits for the first time that something is terribly wrong with him, that he is probably dying, “Am I dying” he says in horror, almost collapsing in terror, “Is this how it starts?” Cronenberg said that when he wrote this scene, he thought of the many people who must have looked in the mirror at home, in their bathrooms, and found a lump or a bump under the skin, and correctly “gave themselves death sentences”, before they even saw a doctor. This moment captures the loneliness and the sheer terror of this realisation brilliantly, and it is a moment that has stayed with me ever since, adding to my own anxieties about illness and death. This scene is terrifying because there is a truth to it. It’s the moment when this young man realises that his time may be up, that the end is near, that death is no longer something abstract that happens to other people, but has come for him, now, rather than later.
"This film packed a wallop, not only on a visceral level but also on a deep emotional level too" As a screenwriter, I now see the brilliance in Cronenberg’s script, which, like most of his films, is pared right down to the bare essentials. There really isn’t a single scene in there that goes on for too long or has no purpose. The brilliant effect of this technique comes fully into play during the dream sequence, in which Cronenberg cuts from Geena Davis telling her sleazy ex-boyfriend (played by the always brilliant John Getz) that she is pregnant with Brundle’s baby, to her being rushed into hospital and being told she is about to lose it. Here she gives birth to a two foot long maggot, and then she wakes up screaming. What makes this dream sequence so effective (apart from the indescribable power of the startling imagery) is that there are no indicators that we have just cut abruptly to the dream sequence at all, there is no real difference between the way it is shot than the rest of the film, and the purpose of the dream sequence is twofold. First, to give the audience the jolt of shock and fear that it wants and expects from a horror film (although, for some, more than they bargained for), and, secondly, to show us the fear that drives the character to want to get rid of the baby, which she immediately puts into the action upon waking, calling her ex-boyfriend, telling him she wants an abortion. There is a stark and graphic way Cronenberg handles violence in this and his other films. The camera never blinks, it does’t cut away, it lingers, showing us its true horror. But the violence always comes at the right time and Cronenberg always earns it. Look at the very first instance of violence in The Fly. It comes after Cronenberg has invested one third of the film into getting to know these characters, shooting the film in his usual deceptively simple way, and when it comes, when Brundle arm-wrestles a man in a bar, Cronenberg doesn’t change the way he shoots. He shoots the close up of the man’s arm as simply and as matter-of-factly as the way he shot the close-ups of Brundle’s cup of coffee in the cafe scene a few scenes earlier. Which makes the sudden splitting of the man’s skin, the breaking of the bone, his high pitched screaming, all the more shocking. It has the effect of waking us from a dream, shocking us into a new reality, in which horrible violence can happen at any moment, and then returns to normal again, the shooting style never changing. My favourite scene in the film is the one where Brundle, in the final stages of his illness, discusses “Insect Politics”. This famous speech (monologue really) is obviously heavily influenced by Kafka and Burroughs, but it is brilliant in its own right. It is both extremely effective in a genre sense, but it is also profound too, and placed at the perfect moment in the film, coming as the final emotional gut-punch in the couple’s relationship, before all hell breaks lose. Watching the film with someone you love can also be an uncomfortable, unsettling, experience, as I found out recently. It deals with a blooming relationship and love affair, but one that is ripped apart by illness. I don’t want to spoil it, in case you haven’t seen it, but it doesn’t end well for these lovers, but then again, as Cronenberg knows, it won’t for any of us. As Orson Welles said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop the story”. Cronenberg chooses to end his story at the moment of heartbreaking, horrifying, death, where the Geena Davies character is left shattered and totally devastated, as are we by this stage of the film, the end credits coming as a kind of a relief for us, only to realise, as we walk away, that the film is still with us, lingering, refusing to go away.
All of this was, of course, much more than my friend and I bargained for when we rented the VHS back in 1987. Neither of us spoke afterwards. Eventually he said he hated it because it was “depressing”. But I was haunted and inspired. Cronenberg is a great director, a true artist who pays no attention to good or bad taste, genre rules or conventions. He just makes the films he wants to make, in the totally unique and uncensored way he sees them, which makes the fact that he is finding it increasingly difficult to finance his films, including a proposed second remake of The Fly, a real tragedy, for him, for cinema, and for us.