For the horror aficionado, the name Cronenberg is venerated (or despised—if you’re Robin Wood) and held in its own unique realm as the nearly sole master of the venereal body horror. That exclusivity is what drew me first to Antiviral, which caused waves in the body horror community when the trailer was revealed to be the work of Brandon Cronenberg—the king’s son.
“Venereal” is a good word for Antiviral, which begins with a disease dealer selling the herpes simplex virus, previously carried by a movie starlet, to a devoted fan. “It continues to live on in the cells of it’s host,” he promises, as a pseudo-romantic sales pitch, “For the rest of their life.”
The premise/promise is simple—celebrity culture and consumption, taken to the extreme. In a future where diseases and viruses caught by celebrities are sold for a premium to devoted fans and bug collecting connoisseurs, competing virus companies patent their products and vie for A-list clientele. Celebrity steaks—the cultured muscle cells from celebrity tissue samples– are sold at deli counters, and a celebrity death or scandal causes a rush on the product for barbecues. Celebrity skin cells are cultured and sold, to be grafted onto the fan’s body, which even hyper-rational psychiatrist (legendary Malcolm MacDowell) describes as a religious experience.
Our anti-hero, Syd March, works one of the largest celebrity virus clinics, which owns the exclusive copyrights to viruses carried by blonde bombshell Hannah Geist. The words “unhealthy obsession” would probably sound contrived here, but it’s what begins to develop, as Syd pirates stolen diseases to resell on the black market and, finally, steals a mutated disease exclusive to his idol and injects himself with it.
What follows is a twisted story of sick, hallucinatory imagery, capitalist extremes, and disease sexual politics, as the line between celebrity and product is explored, crossed, and, finally, erased. “The afterlife is getting extremely perverse,” a celebrity butcher intones, invoking the immortal Henrietta Lacks, whose real-life cancer cells are still multiplying all over the world.
Antiviral combines the best of David Cronenberg—think the hallucinations of Videodrome, the body politic of The Fly, and the sterility of Dead Ringers—with an antiseptic visual style akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey. All of this is combined lovingly and twisted with a flair and faint humor all Brandon Cronenberg’s own. The ethereal, sickly Caleb Landry Jones is perfectly cast in the film, his androgynous beauty set off the classic Monroe-esque Sarah Gadon, as Geist.
The message may not exactly be subtle, but neither was papa Cronenberg’s oeuvre, and there are a number of satisfying threads woven throughout the film, which never becomes stale or predictable. The film is visceral and, while lacking the dirty grit of the elder Cronenberg’s early work, it still feels pleasantly authentic in a time of sanitized thrillers.
Unique, aesthetically stunning, and thought-provoking, Antiviral proves a welcome introduction to, hopefully, a new Venereal Horror Master.
Antiviral is currently streaming on Netflix Instant.