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SPIDER and the uncanny web of David Cronenberg's career

In 2002, David Cronenberg’s SPIDER, which airs Friday night at 12:30A, seemed like a departure for the director. He was known primarily as a genre expert – one who had taken standard horror and thriller motifs and turned them into very personal expressions of post-modern unease in films like his remake of THE FLY and his adaptation of Stephen King’s THE DEAD ZONE. (Even his masterpiece DEAD RINGERS, though ostensibly a more serious film, was at heart a monster movie about twin gynecologists whose wild beliefs about the body and human nature resulted in their horrific deeds.) Although the director had made some forays into more “respectable” literature along the way, SPIDER felt different. And it was. It was also a harbinger of things to come.

SPIDER tells the story of Denis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a schizophrenic who has just been released from an institution and winds up at a halfway house of sorts, not far from where he grew up. Over the course of the film, his stay at the institution, his days in and around the halfway house, and his childhood are intercut in a narrative that resonates across several different periods and states of mind: The boy in Denis’s flashbacks to his family life is a seemingly normal child, which begs the question of whether he later experienced a psychic break or is simply imagining himself differently. Then there’s the whole question of the events of his home life – what his father did to his mom, and what happened afterwards. The film is structured like a puzzle – which is echoed in its visual style as well.

SPIDER is a tense, grim, claustrophobic film – from the king of tense, grim, claustrophobic films. It’s also an adaptation of a very challenging novel, by British novelist Patrick McGrath, and as such another feather in Cronenberg’s cap: For this director likes tackling so-called “unfilmable” novels. This is, after all, the man who turned William S. Burroughs’s bizarre avant-garde Beat novel THE NAKED LUNCH into a surprisingly coherent movie (utilizing events from the novel and from Burroughs’s own life), and who also brought J.G. Ballard’s groundbreaking, controversial novel CRASH to the screen. And just this year, he released COSMOPOLIS, a startlingly faithful adaptation of Don De Lillo’s powerful, claustrophobic study of moneyed privilege in an increasingly apocalyptic world.

Of course, Cronenberg never quite abandoned his roots: THE NAKED LUNCH comes complete with typewriters that transform into giant bugs, CRASH came with disturbing, tense scenes of car crashes, and COSMOPOLIS, among other things, is a clinic in suspense. The same could be said of SPIDER. True, it’s an adaptation of a novel by a prestigious writer, and it tackles an important, complex subject – the inner life and memories of a disturbed, broken man. But there’s a dark, fable-like quality to the film, particularly in the scenes of Denis’s childhood. At the same time, it also marks the moment in Cronenberg’s cinema when he truly left genre behind: Whereas before he had primarily been a director of thrillers and horror films who punctuated his films with surprisingly literate moments, from now on he would be primarily a director of literate films who punctuated his films with genre elements.