As someone with an above average interest in contemporary horror, I'm not entirely sure how I missed Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral. I think I probably confused it with some other films (either titles like Contracted or the social media horrors that were starting to gain popularity around that time). Whatever the case, it's 100% my loss because Antiviral really is in a league of its own. While not a film that will appeal to people who expect a core genre film, horror fans with a broader appreciation of the genre and a taste for the unusual owe it to themselves to give this one a fair shot.
It doesn't happen that often that people in parent/child relationships end up in the director chair. There's Goro & Hayao Miyazaki, Sofia & Francis Ford Coppola and Kenta & Kinji Fukasaku (who also co-directed a film together - even rarer). I'm sure there are more examples out there, but that's how far I got off the top of my head. I mention this because Brandon is the son of legendary Canadian cult director David Cronenberg. That's quite a legacy to live up to, on the other hand having strong connections with the film industry was no doubt a big help when Brandon was busy trying to get his first film off the ground.
Even without the obvious family ties, I'm pretty confident people would've connected Antiviral to David Cronenberg's body of work. After all, body horror is a genre niche that isn't all that popular nowadays. In combination with the very conceptual, obsession-driven premise of Antiviral, it's a film that could've been made by David himself. At least on paper, Brandon goes for a darker, more serious approach, cutting out many of the pulpy elements that characterize his father's films. The result is a slower, more atmospheric and ultimately more disturbing film that left me quite perplexed.
The film revolves around Syd March, an employee who works in a special clinic where fans of celebrities come to get infected with their diseases. Celebrity obsession has reached such extremes that it's become a viable business, with people paying big bucks to share their idol's most recent infection. Syd has a little (shady) business on the side and when one day he is tasked with collecting the latest virus from their biggest star, he seizes the opportunity to smuggle the disease by infecting himself. What he doesn't know is that the virus is lethal and copyrighted, putting him in a very dangerous position.
It's not too surprising that Cronenberg chased a very clinical look here. Lots of bright whites, clean architecture and stark framing give the film a strong visual identity. It makes the body horror that much creepier, as blackish blood and toned down skin colors take away from the humanity of the characters, increasing the nauseating effects of the diseases and deformities. The camera work also deserves an extra shoutout, with lots of impressive tracking shots trailing the characters from the back. It adds to the ominous feeling and makes for a more claustrophobic experience.
The soundtrack goes extremely well with the visuals. It's not the most notable score, also a little expected, but perfectly executed. The gritty and grimy sound creates a strong feeling of discomfort, while heightened sound effects further pile on the unease. It's a perfect example of a score that doesn't really go above and beyond, nor does anything particularly special, but still manages to maximize the effect and ends up being an important cornerstone of the overall experience.
It's rare to see one single actor have an essential impact on a film, but Caleb Landry Jones deserves the credit. His performance is simply amazing. Creepy, desperate, uneasy, forceful … there's a myriad of emotions bubbling beneath the surface, coupled with an impressive visual appearance it makes for one of the most memorable roles I've seen in a while. The rest of the cast is on point too, with notable performances from Malcolm McDowell and Sarah Gadon, though Cronenberg was smart enough to keep a primary focus on Jones' character.
While the plot and setting may appear outlandish and farfetched, the unhealthy idolization coupled with obsessive behavior is all too realistic. Cronenberg's exaggerated vision of the future is the perfect vehicle to ground this piece of social critique. It's pretty grotesque and surreal, at the same time it's really not that big of a stretch. The second half is a bit more focused on plot and intrigue, working in a couple of smart twists and reveals, but it never takes away from the film's core themes and Antiviral builds up towards a very satisfactory finale.
Cronenberg's first isn't extremely graphic or explicit, still some scenes are pretty sickening and disgusting. It's not a horror film in the traditional sense of the word, but it still fits the genre, which probably explains why the film hasn't received the recognition it deserves. Cronenberg proves himself a talented director. Antiviral is unsettling and disturbing, an uneasy take on obsession and celebrity culture that mixes moments of surreal body horror with an extremely stylish delivery. A great film that only makes me more excited for Possessor, Cronenberg's latest film.