80’s horror writer, Andrew Neiderman, published his novel Pin in 1981. Described as a waspy gothic drama with incestuous undertones, the dark themes resonated with fans of fellow horror novelist, V.C. Andrews. Following her passing in 1986, Neiderman was the natural choice to become her ghost writer. The novel Pin was passed to a Canadian doctor suddenly turned horror director, Sandor Stern. Stern found Neiderman’s characters to be tragically alluring. Especially the story’s focal point, a medical office’s anatomical dummy. With the author consulting the good doctor, Stern would adapt the book for the big screen and direct Pin for New World Pictures.
A Plastic Nightmare
Brother and sister, Leon and Ursula, grow up in a life of luxury and emotional repression. Mother hovers over her children with a vacuum and dustpan. Strict and sterile, furniture covered in plastic and crisp white clothes. The wealthy Dr. Linden is their father, cold and buried in his work. In his private practice, he keeps a life-sized anatomical model. A visible man named “Pinocchio” or Pin for short. Using ventriloquism, Dr. Linden converses with Pin to entertain younger patients and educate his children. Leon and Ursula learn the facts of life as explained by Pin, with warmth and affection. The emotional qualities that Dr. Linden denies his own son and daughter. Pin becomes a parental surrogate, always thoughtful and knowing just the right thing to say. Offering gentle words of advice to comfort the friendless siblings. Ursula discovers Dr. Linden’s illusion early on, but her brother believes Pin is truly alive. Leon even begins sneaking into his father’s office to beg Pin for conversation. But the endearing fantasy becomes awkward and unnatural with age. Awakening a sinister gaze from the medical dummy’s plastic eyes. Pin suddenly seems to be everywhere and answering Leon’s requests for advice, even when Dr. Linden isn’t around. Meddling in relationships and putting ideas in Leon’s head. Unlike Pinocchio, Pin’s nose never grows because he never tells a lie. Everything he does is in the best interest of the Linden siblings. He is a member of the family, after all.
David Hewlett plays the often-guileless Leon as an adult. Hewlett is recognizable from other sci-fi thrillers like Splice, Cube, and Scanners II: The New Order. Cynthia Preston is the beautiful Ursula. Having previously starred in the 1999 television series Total Recall 2070 as Olivia Hume. Dr. Linden is played by Terry O’Quinn. Favorited to horror fans as the sinister Jerry Blake in The Stepfather and Stepfather II: Make Room For Daddy. Character actor, Jonathan Banks, lends his voice to Pin. Going from the gruff figure he’s best known as in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, to the calm and inanimate titular villain. Writer and director of the movie Pin, Sandor Stern, is best known as writer of the original screenplay for 1979’s The Amityville Horror. He had even adapted Duplicates, another Neiderman novel, as a made for tv sci-fi thriller.
By the time the movie Pin had finished shooting and editing, New World had dissolved their feature films division. The Roger Corman company had intended to release it as one of their last films but decided against it, last minute. Sandor Stern had to travel to San Francisco for a delayed post-production, where the first screening flopped at Century City. Not wanting to put any more money into it, New World released Pin direct-to-video in January of 1989.
As with all good films with rotten luck in distribution, the movie Pin slowly gained a cult following. In December of 1991, a print had found its way to the Manhattan Film Forum for a two-week run. Receiving excellent reviews, Pin was picked up for another two-week run in a San Francisco art house theater. Critics raved that Pin was severely overlooked when it comes to split personality horror films. Sharing the familial repression of Hitchcock’s Psycho and slasher thrills in 1978’s Magic. Themes of grief and identity loss can also be seen in the ventriloquist drama, The Great Gabbo.
“I have never lied to you or for you.”
In early 2011, Bloody Disgusting confirmed that Sandor Stern would be returning to direct a remake of the movie Pin. Andrew Neiderman had retained the original rights and together they set to rewrite a script closer to the novel. Updated and with more horror elements but no interest in a re-do manifested. Writer, Jack Reher, reached out to Neiderman and Stern begging to pen the first draft. Reher was a long-time fan of the movie and novel, claiming a re-imagining was his passion. Unfortunately for him, Stern and Neiderman hated it and told Reher to forget the whole thing. A few years later, producers were contacting the men about wanting to do this movie. Discovering that Jack Reher had been fanning a script around on social media without permissions or rights. In an interview with Flickering Myth, Reher assured fans that the remake would elevate the movie with Nicholas Bogner scheduled to direct. After a few cease-and-desist letters, Reher gave up on the remake and seems to have reinvented himself a few times since then.
Though largely overlooked as another early 90’s video slasher, the movie Pin remains a favorite. Highly regarded as a psychological horror gem, genuinely disturbing and twisted. The audience will find themselves sympathizing with every tortured character throughout their lives. Each scene is a puzzle piece that makes up a larger motion picture that will stick with you.
As a card-carrying surrealist with an introverted philosophy, Jan Švankmajer is one of the most influential and obscure multimedia animators of Central Europe. The Czech director’s techniques in puppetry and stop-motion animation tap into the souls of everyday objects, characterized with deadpan tones. The unforgettable absurdity of his films and spiritual references, disgust and delight fans of the avant-garde and horror alike.
The Surreal Life
Jan Švankmajer was born in Prague in 1934, describing himself as an introverted child. Enthralled by traditional European puppetry, he spent most of his time creating worlds within his imagination and giving life to unconventional objects. Often recalling his love for a Punch & Judy booth he received as a Christmas gift. In the ‘50s he pursued his interests in theater, studying at the School of Applied Arts in Prague and enrolling in the Academy of the Performing Arts’ puppetry department. But it would be the multimedia theater, Laterna Magika, that would introduce Švankmajer to film. While not particularly known for creating horror, Jan Švankmajer’s uncomfortable aesthetic and understanding of surrealism as psychology invokes a horror from within. Utilizing diverse techniques that allow the audience a peak through the lens of grotesque divinity. His body of work favors gothic literature and Slavic mythology. Reimagining multiple works of Edgar Allen Poe in more contemporary settings, he offers a unique take on surrealist horror that will haunt his audience for years.
Fall of The House of Usher
In 1980, Jan Švankmajer released a short film based on Poe’s Fall of The House of Usher. Staying faithful to the original story, he replaced the characters with a system of objects in an exploration of tactile stimulus. Claiming that the sensation of touch is often utilized in Poe’s psychological studies of characters. Švankmajer’s result was shot in black and white without actors, focusing on longing pans across patterned surfaces and stop motion animation. With a foreboding film score that’s reminiscent of American b-films, a free roaming coffin crawls through a thorny briar and sentient furniture sinks itself in a swamp. Transforming the classic tale of grief into a very pure definition of surrealist horror.
The Pendulum, The Pit, and Hope
Švankmajer’s 1983 surrealist horror short borrowed from Poe’s The Pit & The Pendulum and Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s story, A Torture by Hope. Filmed from a grainy monochrome POV, our protagonist is captured by unknown enemies. A hooded figure leads the audience through claustrophobic catacombs to a mechanical torture chamber. With whimsical renderings of hell painted across the scenery, it vaguely gives the impression of a carnival funhouse ride. Bags of grain act as counterweights to the swinging pendulum as our prisoner struggles against his restraints. Resisting the slow domination of machines, he dances back and forth with little sparks of freedom. Brief rays of hope taunting the audience beyond the faint shadow of exhaustion.
Updating Goethe’s version of the German legend of Faust, Švankmajer simultaneously honors Franz Kafka with 1994’s feature length film of the same name. Set in a mundane metropolis, the film deviates from the erudite title character by portraying him as a depressed drudge stuck in a looping rat race. Ignoring subtle harbingers at first, he is lured into an otherworldly puppet theater where he finds himself in the dressing room, holding a script. In a very meta scene, he defines himself as “Faust”, by reading lines out loud. Jaques’ famous line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It is made gospel with an opening cue and Faust takes the stage. Approached by life sized wooden marionettes of an angel and devil, Faust is goaded at the cross roads. Will he pursue a path of righteousness or devote himself to the dark arts? Worldly pleasure and unlimited knowledge prove too tempting to refuse, and so Faust strikes the infernal bargain. Staged in a dilapidated guignol, the jerky motions of human puppets are unsettling for anyone that grew up watching the Puppetmaster films. When the cue light blinks red to alert Faust that the Devil has come to collect his due, he finds himself just another marionette hung on the wall. Controlled by the hands of fate, the quest for power always comes with strings attached.
2005’s Lunacy is Švankmajer’s surrealist horror comedy, thematically focused on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” and “The Premature Burial“. This feature length movie parallels The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as well as utilizing historical elements of the life of Marquis de Sade. Since his mother’s passing in a mental institution, Jean regularly has nightmares of being dragged off by hospital orderlies. Struggling with his loss, he encounters a strange fellow while making funeral arrangements. The man claims he is the Marquis de Sade and had also recently lost his mother. Forging an acquaintanceship, he suggests Jean voluntarily commit himself to help ease his grief and nightmares. Desperate for penance, Jean agrees and admits himself to an asylum managed by a friend of the Marquis. As a patient he is subjected to extreme methods of treatment ranging from indulging in decadent pleasures and vice to vicious corporeal punishment and acts of violence. All part of Dr. Murlloppe’s vision of freedom by balancing mind and body. There is a great deal of misdirection with the introduction of each character and blurred lines of who are the patients and who are the doctors. Some aspects of Švankmajer’s Lunacy feel like a melancholy drama as seen through the eyes of Clive Barker, while other scenes echo the loneliness within Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre.
The Ossuary and Other Controversies
Jan Švankmajer’s films were heavily restricted for over 2 decades, as his disturbing imagery and gritty aesthetic were considered politically undesirable. Although his work was never officially banned in his country, the distribution was suppressed after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The regime installed in the fall of 1969 was infamous for its cultural repression. Filmmakers, particularly those of the “Czech New Wave,” were among the most severely persecuted. In 1970, Švankmajer was commissioned to document The Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora. Shot in black and white, the result was a 10-minute-long feature entitled, Kostnice (The Ossuary). Loosely described as a real-life “horror documentary”, the Sedlec Ossuary’s creation came from a mass grave of nearly 70,000 casualties of the 14th century’s Black Plague and 15th century’s Hussite Wars. Kostnice features long textured shots of tomb stones and intricate repurposing of human remains. Overdubbed with an actual tour-guide’s exhibit monologue as she addresses a group of children with flat frankness and warped humor. Svankmajer did not shy away from themes of exploitation and tourism, which was considered an unacceptable subversion by the Czech Communist authorities. The film maker was forced to replace the soundtrack with a jazz arrangement of the poem “How to Draw the Portrait of a Bird” by Jacques Prévert. A scathing critique of his short film, Leonardo’s Diary, arose in 1974 after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. A Czech film critic negatively regarded it as “a strange piece of fantasy without socialist content”. Švankmajer would again receive scrutiny for a spoof documentary titled Castle of Otranto. It featured a demented archaeologist interviewed by an actual well-known newscaster. The censors did not want Švankmajer to mix fact and fiction for fear of distorting the public’s view of news media. He was asked to instead cast comedians to which he refused.
Often, Jan Švankmajer has turned to Slavic folktales and the terrors of childhood for inspiration. Once suggesting that children stand outside of good and evil and seek the meaning of mortality within dark fantasy. His surrealist horror movies made for children, while mild to the average fan of the genre, tend to be the most disturbing in his catalog. The innocent perspective of a child breathes life into the mundane and sets the stage for the cruelest lessons in life.
Švankmajer’s most well-known film is his reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Released in 1988 and simply titled Alice, the film is a mesh of live action, stop motion, and puppetry. Actress Kristyna Kohoutova plays the title role and asks the audience to close their eyes at the beginning of the movie. Only by blinding their adult selves can the viewer really begin to truly see. Alone and bored in her bedroom, Alice witnesses a taxidermied rabbit on her shelf come to life. Breaking free from its display, the rabbit adorns itself in elegant clothes before disappearing into a desk drawer. Alice follows through a labyrinth of furniture and cupboards, filled with endless bones and bobbles. Before the notion of The Backrooms was ever acknowledged, Švankmajer’s Alice created a whole series of the sub-levels to out-creep any pasta. Enter the bottomless sewing bag of your great auntie! While remaining true to Carroll’s original story, the juxtaposing fears of a child are closely explored. In some undulating dream states, Alice becomes an animated porcelain doll. Helpless and ignored by the rest of the world while at other times creatures of bones and glass eyes seize her liminal form. Between doll and flesh, child and adult, Alice is lost in this menagerie all contained within a singular house. The film Alice is somewhat of a spiritual successor to Švankmajer’s 1971 film, Jabberwocky. Loosely based on Carroll’s poem and a children’s book by Vítězslav Nezval. While less brooding than Alice, it contains many of the same visual elements of rotting fruit, doll cannibalism, and sentient origami.
2001’s Little Otik (also known as Greedy Guts) is Švankmajer’s most purposeful surrealist horror film that drips with dark humor. Based on the Czech fairy tale Otesánek, it bears a resemblance to Pinocchio and Little Red Riding Hood. Containing an ambiguous moral which leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Karel and Bozena are a miserable couple, unable to conceive a child of their own. While on vacation, Karel digs up a stump from the yard that somewhat resembles a baby. Initially meant as a joke, he presents it to his wife in an attempt to cheer her up. Bozena is instantly smitten with the log and swaddles it in her arms as if it were a real infant. Upon naming it Otik, the lump of wood comes alive. Suddenly she’s devising a plan to fake her pregnancy for when they return to their apartment in the city. Karel is horrified as Otik cries out in hunger, a thrashing mass of roots and branches screaming for food under the bare cabin bulb. Begging his wife to end the madness and chop it to pieces, the couple violently wrestle with an axe as Otik shrieks for sustenance. These fevered scenes of stop motion and minimal light mirror Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. One wonders if Švankmajer imagined what kind of child Cheryl would have conceived after her encounter with the deadite trees. Bozena’s motherly instincts triumph and the couple take their Golem-like child home. Struggling to keep the stump fed, Otik’s maw is a ghastly knot in the center of its would-be face. A swirling death portal of teeth and tongue. Its insatiable appetite nearly scalps Bozena and soon the family cat goes missing. Growing in size with each culinary sacrifice, roots reach out for another meal. Once the mailman goes missing, Otik is locked in the basement and discovered by a suspicious little girl next door. She understands exactly what Otik is and vows to feed him.
Walking away from the heavier tones of Švankmajer’s work, Manly Games is less surrealist horror as it is a violent comedy. A short film with the simple premise of a sports fan watching television. A former soccer player and devoted fanatic returns to his flat with a case of beer and snacks to watch his game. The athletic event itself is an animation style popularized by Terry Gilliam’s work on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. With upbeat elevator muzak, each athlete is brutally disfigured by everyday mundane objects like scissors, plungers, meat grinders and toy trains. Their collapsed skulls of clay are nailed shut in a coffin, only to return to the soccer field and resume the game. The crowd cheers wildly for each bloodless death. After an intermission of a basket of kittens (yes really), the game ball is kicked into the sports fan’s apartment. Manly Games is hilariously absurd, remarking on desensitization toward bloodsports in all their violent glory.
Jan Švankmajer retired in 2018 following the release of his film Insect. His unique aesthetic of cultural and spiritual allusion has influenced multiple generations of artists like Terry Gilliam, Guillermo Del Toro, and the Brothers Quay. The childlike simplicity of some of his short films feel strangely familiar, anchored in the shared subconscious language of memory. Faintly echoing Sesame Street’s psychedelic animations of the 70s and 80s. In his closeted world, Švankmajer almost seems to obsess over the horrors of childhood and disassociate with themes of food and death. When questioned about these fixations, Jan admitted he had not yet fully closed the door to his childhood and continues to have dialogs with that chapter of his life.
“If there were no such obsessions, that we have been dragging behind us from our childhood, then what would we create from?”
Medical quackery, mad doctors, and unorthodox lab experiments are the stuff science fiction nightmares are made of. The medical horror trope is rich with enough sub-genres to petrify patients for decades. With an endless supply of entries, this article gives a routine examination to notable healthcare horror films. Side effects may include chills, paranoia, and trouble sleeping. Currently, there is no known cure.
Human Guinea Pigs
Healthy bodies and unhealthy bank accounts often find themselves on the doorstep of pharmacology. Fortune favors the brave when renting out physical autonomy for experimental drugs. Yet the transparency of chemical messiahs should always be considered when the hazards of medicine are in play. The Biotrial Rennes clinical of 2016 resulted in 1 death and 5 injured. The 2006 UK med trial for TGN1412 caused organ failure in 6 men. The latter incident would inspire Ian Clark’s healthcare horror film The Facility. Seven volunteers enroll in a 2-week research project at a remote medical lab. Injected with a new drug called Pro-9, some of the first side effects to manifest are disconcerting, to say the least. The tension is ratcheted up by nightfall when the facility locks down. Most of the horror happens offscreen in this claustrophobic siege as test subjects fight to survive. This film could easily register as a prequel to 28 Days Later. Released the same year with a bigger budget is the Canadian-American horror film Bloodworx. College friends decide to earn side money for a spring break trip by signing up for pharmaceutical testing. RXZ-19 is a new allergy drug with regenerative side effects that are dangerously addictive. The lead researcher quickly loses control of her subjects. Primitive instincts are reactivated and the patients turn on staff and each other. But not all human lab rats get the choice to participate. Sometimes it’s mandatory in detention centers. In Patients of a Saint, also known as Inmate Zero, St. Leonard’s Island is a repurposed prison for the world’s most violent criminals. Extreme medical trials are conducted on prisoners and the experiment quickly goes wrong. Guards and inmates must unite to survive as the infection spreads in the penitentiary. Will zombie island stay on lock down?
The Doctor is In…sane
Medical professionals have always been a goldmine for the horror genre. Bringing us the world-renowned vivisectionist, Dr. Moreau, and the kinky side of Dr. Henry Jekyll. These psycho practitioners have some of the most intimate access to us. Oblivious patients willingly put their lives in rubber gloved hands. In The Surgeon, little Julian is a witness to his younger brother’s murder at the hands of a doctor. Traumatizing him into a career of mad science, he utilizes terminal patients for experiments until he’s reported by colleagues. Returning to the hospital that condemned his work, he takes revenge by harvesting the humors of the staff. Anyone that has gone to urgent care would agree that the mean girls from high school grow up to be nurses. Yet nobody considers these career paths being revenge driven. Lisa Zane stars in The Nurse, a cold-blooded home caregiver that slithers into a paralytic patient’s family. Holding him responsible for her father’s death, she slowly destroys his world from within. With all the high contrast grime of a 90’s slasher, Larry Drake is Dr. Giggles. An escaped mental patient is about to make a house call to the town that destroyed his family practice. Fixating on a teenage girl with a heart condition, he slashes through her friends as they begin their summer vacation. A healthcare horror comedy that can be downright slapstick at times, Drake steals the show as the demented doc. Delivering Freddy Kreuger-esque one-liners with a straight face, Dr. Giggles is tragically under-rated. When the Mid-Aughts’ grindhouse revival finally got its hands on nurse pulp fiction, it had to be 3D. Nurse 3D is referred to as the film that ruined Paz De la Huerta’s career. This healthcare horror casts her as Abby, nurse by day and serial killer by night. Seducing and butchering unfaithful husbands before deciding to mentor a recent nursing school graduate. A trashy throwback to 90’s erotic thrillers but with all the sleaze and splatter of a drive-in b-film.
I’m Afraid It’s Terminal
The patient is a role of vulnerability we all step into at some point. The anxiety from exposure and dismissal is the most common form of everyday healthcare horror. Medical gaslighting can separate us from the narrative, leading to distrust of the body and doubting perceptions. The Power puts these institutional ‘pecking-orders’ on full display. Set during the politically complicated UK power outages of the 70s, running parallel is a young nurse working her first night at the East London Royal Infirmary. A paranormal revenge tale taking notes from The Exorcist, Nurse Valery is haunted by hospital secrets as well as her own. Particularly vexatious with themes of abusing power and voices silenced by any means necessary. In the 80s slasher, X-Ray, a divorced mother is given the run around with her new insurance. Attempting to collect physical exam results from a hospital with a bad reputation on Valentine’s weekend. Susan is led through a medical labyrinth of humiliation, bouncing from doctor to doctor. No one ever bothers to tell Susan what’s wrong with her, nor do they listen to her cries for help as she’s strapped to a gurney and prepared for emergency surgery. Little does she know her records are being tampered with by a psychopath in scrubs! The psychological thriller, Visiting Hours, focuses more on developing the dark profile of the antagonist, yet speaks volumes on inherent misogyny in medicine. Following being attacked in her apartment, an outspoken reporter finds herself in the hospital. Barely allowed any rest by detectives and well-wishers, she receives a visitor that seeks to finish what he started. Knowing she’s in danger, her pleas are regarded as symptoms of stress as nurses and patients start dropping like flies.
Secret Society Sanitariums
From the Asclepius cults of ancient Greece to the Knights Hospitallers, occult elements of healing remain integrated in modern-day hospitals. These sanctuaries for the sick and injured are the ultimate liminal space on earth. Between birth and death, hospitals become imprinted with the intensity of human emotion. It’s no wonder there seems to be an endless supply of haunted hospitals across the world. But with faith comes followers, and sometimes they’re dogmatic edge lords. Secret societies and cults hiding within the medical profession gives us some of the best healthcare horror. Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance is a comedy thriller emulating hardboiled detective film noir. An aspiring comic book artist meets the woman of his dreams in the streets of New York City, just before she collapses. Quickly whisked off by an outdated looking ambulance, the artist discovers she hasn’t been admitted to any nearby hospitals. Others have started disappearing in a similar looking ambulance and they all have diabetes. Is it a human trafficking ring or a mad science conspiracy? It’s Victor from The Young & The Restless and his laboratory hidden above a disco. Anatomie is a German horror film starring Franka Potente (of Run Lola Run fame) as a medical student. Awarded a highly coveted scholarship to the University of Heidelberg, she recognizes the cadaver in her anatomy class. Upon investigating his mysterious death, Potente uncovers an ancient secret society that performs experiments on ‘undesirables’. On top of everything else, her grandfather is a highly celebrated professor. The Canadian horror film, The Void, is set in a half burned out hospital running on a skeleton crew. When a chaotic bloodbath begins, the radios go out and the hospital becomes surrounded by robed figures armed with weapons. Someone has opened a gate in the hospital’s basement that leads to another dimension. All the hidden medical experiments begin to mingle with the Lovecraftian abominations crawling out of the portal.
Those repulsed by allopathic medical practices often explore their other options of healthcare horror. Opening themselves to esoteric healing and mysticism that was popular with the Universal Medicine cult and The Source Family. At the height of the neon fitness craze of the 80s, it’s no pain no gain at the Death Spa. Beefcake Michael owns and operates a high-tech health club with his brother-in-law. But when Michael’s new girlfriend becomes a member, his late wife rises from beyond to possess the gym equipment. About as schlocky as it gets with bumbling detectives and weight machines mangling juice heads. Featuring Ken Foree in a side part, better known to the genre from Dawn of The Dead and From Beyond. 2016’s A Cure For Wellness is based on Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain. A financial services CEO vanishes to a Swiss “wellness center”, built upon an aquifer. Lockhart, an executive, is blackmailed by the board to retrieve him before a company merger. He discovers the eel infested institution has a dark history of incestuous bloodlines and medical experiments. Trapped among brainwashed patients, Lockhart realizes they’re all willing subjects for Dr. Volmer. Best described as a less lovable Dr. Phibes, operating from the Poolrooms. If you’ve ever believed the medical industry keeps people sick to financially drain them, this film will get to you. The British healthcare horror comedy, Horror Hospital, jumps right into treatments as 2 bandaged patients running through the woods are mowed down by a bladed Rolls Royce. When a young songwriter is kicked out of the band, he decides a holiday to Brittlehurst Manor might do him good. A pseudo “health farm” located in a gothic castle surrounded by an acid swamp. Michael Gough plays the head of the hospital, Dr. Storm, heavily stylized after Bela Lugosi. The faucets run with blood and dinner guests are prone to screaming fits. The film was an obvious favorite for Richard O’Brien. Hippies beware! Your health retreat might end with a lobotomy!
Over the course of the pandemic, it has become near impossible to trust the healthcare system. Devolving into a purgatory of bureaucracy and generating corporate profits, the amount of unnecessary evils makes it difficult to heal. While your chances of being a victim of mad science in this day and age are slim, they’re not exactly zero. Yet in the face of an emergency we have little options but to trust medical professionals with our lives. Stay vigilant and get well soon.
Canadian director, David Cronenberg, is best known to cinephiles for body horror of a particular kind of yuck. Whether it’s a parasitic relationship or a medical kink, his use of practical effects could make any gore-hound squirm. Others are drawn to Cronenberg’s cerebral adaptations of unfilmable literature. The not-too-distant dystopian unrealities of J.G. Ballard and Burroughs were brought to the big screen with Crash and Naked Lunch. Yet David Cronenberg’s amalgamation of technological unrest and quivering gristle may yet best envision the fictional worlds of Sci-Fi guru, Philip K. Dick.
Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab.
The producers of Alien had been trying to adapt a short story of sci-fi guru Phillip K. Dick since the 70s. “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” became the basis for Total Recall with David Cronenberg as the first director considered. Spending a year working on 12 different drafts, Cronenberg kept the script as close to Dick’s novel as he could. Remaining dark and paranoid, he contributed the concept of mutants and his own on-brand yonic imagery. But studio executives were looking for “Raiders of The Lost Ark goes to Mars”. Something much different than what he was willing to give and eventually left the project. Though the stories of Philip K. Dick would always have an influence over David Cronenberg. His pessimistic futures of isolation and counterfeit realities blended well with the director’s affinity for perversions of science. The foundations of Dick’s novels continue to manifest within the films of Cronenberg. Here we examine the similitude of their three most popular novels and films.
Hollywood continues to try and develop a film version of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik. David Cronenberg was at one point involved in discussions of an adaptation, even directly contacting the writer’s daughters. Though the director’s idea fell through, themes from the novel remained prevalent in another film. Through a combination of Cronenberg’s scripts for The Sensitives and Telepathy 2000 came the movie, Scanners in 1981. It’s a story of a mentally ill vagrant named Vale, captured by a private military company. They cure him of the voices in his head with their drug, Ephemerol, and then inform him of his super mind powers. As a “scanner”, he is recruited to stop an underground ring of rogue scanners through infiltration. Uncovering a plot of mass distributing Ephemerol to pregnant women and mutating the unborn. Transforming a new generation of scanners to overthrow the world. Philip K. Dick’s Ubik gave us the same gritty timeline where psychic powers are used for corporate espionage. Another downtrodden protagonist is employed by a company managing “precogs”. Cyberpathically securing their clients’ private information from telepathic hackers. A rival organization of psychics engage in guerilla style combat to eliminate business competition resulting in a liminal plot of time travel. Between life and half-life, the present or 1939, the characters become trapped Schrodinger cats. Doomed to deteriorate without the widely accessible store-bought product, Ubik. Both Scanners and Ubik would broadcast a faint warning of warring corporate entities and their disregard of consumer casualties.
Videodrome/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner is an acclaimed 1982 film adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Though an excellent piece of cinema, the1968 novel contained more complexities than a single film could possibly capture. David Cronenberg would expand on Philip K. Dick’s story beyond android bounty hunters with 1983’s Videodrome. A retro portrait of post humanism, the movie pokes fun at the idiot box and media identity. A sleazy cable-TV president becomes obsessed with a snuff channel broadcast out of Pittsburg. The addictive signal induces a brain tumor that causes hallucinations. These visuals are recorded and marketed as television programming. All under the guise of a false media prophet, Brian O’Blivion, founder of the Cathode Ray Mission. Existing only within video tape recordings, humans are reprogrammed into an analog hell-LIVE! Dick’s novel, Electric Sheep, gives us another society of stifling technology mimicking the organic. Literally dictating every human emotion with Penfield Mood Organs and a tech-based religion called Mercerism. Utilizing “empathy boxes” to simultaneously link users to a virtual reality of collective suffering. Centered on a Sisyphus martyr-like character who eternally climbs up a hill while being hit with crashing stones.
eXistenZ/The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
The David Cronenberg film most referenced in regard to Philip K. Dick, is 1999’s eXistenZ. A film that takes gaming beyond hobby or addiction and into a complete lifestyle alignment. Popular on the market in eXistenZ are fleshy VR pods that connect on a bio level with consumers. Gamers are surgically fitted with a spinal port that plugs into the console. Dueling game companies compete for control of the market while fending off an underground movement of “Realists”. Domestic terrorists that disapprove of these games distorting reality. A failed assassination on a game-developer’s life has her on the run with the only copy of her latest game creation. To ensure it isn’t corrupted she plays through with her bodyguard, only to enter a deeper level of virtual reality filled with assassins and spies. The addiction to escapism reflects Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. A novel about the miserable existence of manual labor where citizens are drafted to colonize other planets. Draftees self-medicate with the illegal drug, Can-D. A hallucinogen allowing a controlled simulation of a Barbie doll figure, “Perky Pat”. Continuing with the element of opposing business giants, a famed bio-modified merchant has discovered a better alternative called “Chew-Z”. Double agents fall through the looking glass into their own hallucinations as the battle of drug patents ensues. Both Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and Dick’s Three Stigmata have ambiguous endings that leave the audience wanting more.
Brandon Cronenberg: Like Father Like Son
David Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, follows in his footsteps as a director and screenplay writer. Deriving inspiration from alternate consciousness and the universes created by Philip K. Dick. His debut, Antiviral, takes celebrity worship and his father’s signature “venereal horror” to another plane. Familiar tropes of misuse of medical technology and quarreling corporate giants,the movie reveals a black market of genetic souvenirs from celebrities. Reminiscent of Ubik by way of a manufactured afterlife wrapped around the consumer market. Brandon’s 2020 film, Possessor, references Dick’s frequent use of imposters and multiple identities. An assassin tale where public persona meets shadow, and all sense of identity is lost in a role. Similar themes arise in Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and The Simulacra.
Long Live The New Flesh
Philip K. Dick was afraid of how technology would transform humanity, and that fear aroused something within David Cronenberg. He is the grimy lens of our mind’s eye that shows us a broken-society closer than not-too-distant. Where body horror is loss of autonomy when flesh melds with tech. Where humans become fake versions of themselves living in fake storylines. Philip K. Dick warned that this was going to happen, and David Cronenberg rubs our faces in it.
There are about a hundred movies that could be made from Dick’s stuff, but I think people are afraid of it still, which is a testament to the power his work has.
The 1930s were peak in Hollywood’s Golden Age of horror. Universal led the way with its legendary monster movies and Paramount added sophisticated suspense to the genre. In 1935, MGM decided to release the horror-thriller Mad Love, directed by Karl Freund and starring Peter Lorre in his American debut. Lorre, a highly publicized talent, harnessed a dark glamor with his emotive acting. Bringing an amalgamation of repulsiveness and vulnerability into each role that the audience sympathizes with against their will.
His Love Was a Pitiful…Hopeless Madness
The famous surgeon, Dr. Gogol sits in private box at the “Théatre des Horreurs”, just as he has for the last 47 nights. Blissfully gazing upon Madame Yvonne Orlac as she is tortured on stage as the Duchess. Having sent flowers and notes to her dressing room for each performance, he finally approaches her dressing room on closing night. Yet he is crushed to learn she is married to concert pianist, Stephen Orlac. As he wraps up a tour, Yvonne retires from the stage to join him at last. The dejected Gogol comforts himself by purchasing the theater’s promotional wax figure of Yvonne from the lobby. Having it delivered to his private chambers to do with as he pleases, without fear of rejection.
While enroute to meet with his wife, Stephen is mangled in a terrible train wreck. Crushing his hands which must be amputated to save his life. Yvonne is desperate to preserve her husband’s livelihood and begs Dr. Gogol for a miracle. His surgical genius is struck with divine inspiration and Stephen is given a hand transplant. The donor of which being a recently executed knife thrower from the circus. The surgery is a success, but Stephen is repulsed by his transplants that require long and expensive treatments. They don’t take to playing the piano as they once did but now seem to have a talent for knives. The Orlacs are forced to sell all their valuables as the bills pile up, straining their marriage much to Gogol’s delight. With murder hanging in the balance, Stephen descends into madness. Luring Yvonne to Dr. Gogol for answers, like a fly to a carnivorous plant.
I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?
Mad Love was the first of many remakes of Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac). An Austrian silent horror film directed by expressionist veteran, Robert Wiene. This version focused more on the unraveling of Stephen as the protagonist. Rejecting his evil willed appendages and featuring a con man as the villain. Wiene’s film itself was inspired by a 1920 French fantasy/horror novel, Les Mains d’Orlac. Written by Maurice Renard, it is cited as one of the earliest appearances of body horror.
Mad Love is less faithful to Renard’s novel than Frankenstein or Dracula are to their origins in gothic literature. Which comes as no surprise that the script writer, John L. Balderston, had previously written on those film adaptations along with The Mummy and The Bride of Frankenstein. Balderston expanded on an otherwise minor character by combining the novel’s benign doctor with ‘Spectropheles’. A grotesque figure clad in white that haunts Stephen Orlac’s wife throughout Renard’s version. Regarded as the ghost of the train accident in the book and on screen as Dr. Gogol, a ghoul in white surgical scrubs. Both personal devils of Mrs. Orlac that must be faced before all is lost.
Balderstone had composed the film’s dialog with Lorre in mind, at points calling for the actor to deploy his “M look”. Referring to Lorre’s breakthrough role as Hans Beckert, a child murderer in Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller, M. A Weimar Republic-era movie that would type cast the actor for the rest of his career. The tortured Stephen Orlac is played by, Colin Clive. No stranger to horror as the memorable Dr. Henry in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Keye Luke appears as Gogol’s assisting surgeon, Dr. Wong. Best known for his role as Lee Chan in the Charlie Chan films and appearing with Peter Lorre in 1938 film Mr. Moto’s Gamble. Edward Brophy plays Rollo the knife thrower, on his way to the guillotine. Brophy had also played a knife throwing circus performer named Rollo in the 1935 movie Freaks. Possibly setting the cult film within the same cinematic universe as Mad Love.
Other film adaptations include The Hands of Orlac (1960) directed by Edmond Grevilleand Hands of a Stranger (1962) directed by Newt Arnold. The premise of a killer transplant inspired a number of other films such as The Crawling Hand (1963), The Hand (1981), and Les Mains de Roxana (2012). On television it had influenced a segment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and the Doctor Who serial, “The Hand of Fear”. A variant of the theme was used in an unproduced project of Alfred Hitchcock, The Blind Man and parodied in The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror IX”. It has even been suggested that Mad Love directly inspired the visual style of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
“Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves”
Though upon initial release Mad Love was a commercial failure, it has grown a devout following through the years. Amassing an audience that appreciates Freund and Balderston weaving as many horror tropes within their movie as they could. From set designs to borrowed lines, the film pays tribute to its expressionistic roots and other heavy hitters in the genre.
The film title Mad Love is more obviously in reference to the sadistic obsession Gogol has for the actress and the skin-crawling scenes of his entitled wooing. Perhaps it also regards Yvonne’s devotion to her husband, Stephen. Resorting to desperate measures to care for the wreck-mauled pianist. Including reaching out to a repugnant stage-door johnny and admittedly trading on his unrequited feelings. Unknowingly evoking a madness in their lives that can only come from “love”.