Crawling into the mind of a madman

Eric Hoyt

Few filmmakers are as fiercely debated in the film community as Canadian director David Cronenberg. Some critics have accused his films of being misogynistic, tastelessly violent, morally void and hugely exploitative. Others see him as an auteur who boldly taps into the nightmare worlds that we all dream about and, occasionally, live in. Either way Cronenberg’s films possess a visceral power that make them impossible to ignore. The director himself has said that his films are more than visual — they are physical.

Cronenberg’s new film “Spider” is one of his best yet — a psychological thriller that takes us inside the mind of a schizophrenic named Spider (Ralph Fiennes) as he remembers, relives and ultimately re-imagines his troubled childhood in England. The recent release of “Spider” coincides with a five-film Cronenberg retrospective playing on alternating Friday nights this quarter at Block Cinema.

“Spider” explores the theme of liminality or limbo. The adult Spider stays at a halfway house, a buffer between a mental institution and the rest of society. He appears as a silent observer in his flashbacks, straddling the gap between the past and present. Every scene is filled with tension between what is real and what is imagined.

Early in the film there is a long shot of the adult Spider walking down his childhood street past an abandoned building with bricked-in windows and doors. As the film continues, the windows, which become a key motif, are metaphorically reopened. A shot of Spider looking out the window of the halfway house mirrors a shot of the young Spider (Bradley Hall) looking out of his bedroom window at his mother and father passionately kissing. The young Spider’s inability to reconcile his mother as a Madonna figure with his discovery of her active sexuality triggers the paranoid delusions that ultimately destroy him.

Every technical aspect of the film is superb. The acting is impressive and features a tour-de-force performance by Miranda Richardson as three separate characters. Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography utilizes dreary colors that underscore the film’s dark tone and create rich visual textures with stained, peeling wallpaper and decrepit buildings. Patrick McGrath’s screenplay, adapted from his novel, is oblique and sparing in dialogue.

“Spider” is the latest addition to Cronenberg’s long lineage of suspenseful and atmospheric films, five of which are playing in the “Dark Daves” series this quarter at Block Cinema. The series began last Friday night with Cronenberg’s most recent film before “Spider,” the sci-fi thriller “eXistenZ” (1999), which holds similarities to the director’s early infamous sci-fi/horror films like “Shivers” (1975), “Scanners” (1981) and “Videodrome” (1983).

“The Dead Zone” (playing Friday, April 18 at 8 p.m.) ranks alongside Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” as the best Stephen King screen adaptation. Cronenberg’s emphasis on character development raises the emotional stakes of this psychic thriller, which stars Christopher Walken as a man who awakens from a coma with the power to see the future.

Cronenberg’s highest grossing film, “The Fly” (playing Friday, May 2 at 10 p.m.), stars Jeff Goldblum as a scientist whose genes are spliced with a fly. While the make-up effects by Chris Walas are sensational, they provide merely the surface level of the film. Deep down, “The Fly” is both a metaphor for human disease and a moving love story involving Goldblum’s then real-life love interest, Geena Davis.

Cronenberg’s disturbing masterpiece “Dead Ringers” (playing Friday, May 16 at 8 p.m.) stars Jeremy Irons in dual roles as Drs. Elliot and Beverly Mantle, identical twins and gynecologists who become involved with the same woman (Genevieve Bujold). The movie is emotionally wrenching and undeniably cinematic, with rich use of color and a lush, romantic score by long-time Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore.

Like the controversial “Crash” (playing Friday, May 30 at 8 p.m.), “Spider” is open to many interpretations and gets better with each viewing. Unlike rereading a mystery novel, “Spider’s” pleasure the second time around doesn’t come from watching the clues reveal themselves with advance knowledge of the ending. It comes from challenging the conclusion you have already made.