Brandon Cronenberg’s vision of a celebrity-obsessed culture gone very wrong is an ugly one, even though the film spends much of its time in glassy white environments of perfect design and symmetry that would make Steve Jobs proud. Syd March –breathily performed by an appropriately mumbly, pale Caleb Landry Jones– works for a high end boutique that carries an exclusive inventory of diseases harvested from the world’s most sought-after celebrities, and sells clients the experience of sickness, just as your favorite model or actress felt it. This company is something between a high-end plastic surgery firm and a Tiffany’s jewelry store, though its clientele seem to come from all walks of life and income levels, as if suggesting that the sickness of celebrity obsession is as much a refuge of the average joe as those with too much money on their hands.
Right away we begin to see that this industry has a seedy underbelly, and that the same technologies that allow for the mutation and licensing of specific celebrity diseases has empowered a cottage industry of disease patent dodgers that exist somewhere between hackers, pirates, and journalists. This black market is fueled by corporate two-timers like Syd who smuggle exclusive disease strains out through their own bodies, crack the biological copyright protection in strange, hacked-together machines, and sell them to other firms and even celebrity butchers- a strange gray-market in which celebrity DNA is used to grow fleshy “steaks” that desperate fans buy and consume. Imagine paying Kobe Beef prices for a pale, fibrous slab of Paris Hilton, or competing with other genetic pirates for the “scoop” on Fergie’s herpes.
The debut film from Brandon Cronenberg, it’s appropriate that Antiviral represents the son choosing the father’s body horror playground in which to make his initial splash. Much slicker than much of his father’s earliest work, it is a thoroughly contemporary film that exists in its own little world and follows its own rules. Though it perhaps lack some of the iconographic flair of the work it will inevitably be compared to, it’s unfair to put an 80s highlight reel of gore effects from collaborations with grue-masters like Rick Baker up against one single, initial feature film.
That said, Antiviral holds its own with that specific catalogue of films, and definitely stands apart in today’s modern horror landscape. Much of horror these days remains fixated on how to reinvent the haunted house yearly, make audiences stare at static shots until something happens, or get characters into gruesome traps so much that we’ve forgotten that, like scifi, horror can be a playground of ideas and social subtext. Horror doesn’t have to come just from visions of violence or our fear of the unknown- it can come from the fear of ourselves. As you might expect though, the gruesome stuff does not leave horror fans wanting. The gore and filth are executed with consistent, tough to watch precision- those adverse to needles kindly warned to prepare themselves for the worst.
As for the story, Antiviral gets kicking quite quickly, as we get the immediate impression that Syd’s effort to smuggle out diseases is a routine, and that he uses his dedication to the industry to both get ahead in his firm, and to keep an edge over other pirates. We see his back alley connections, his closet-hidden devices, and his general comfort with feeling like shit. This is all backdropped by the snow-white offices and Syd’s perfectly sterile home, which make the spits and splats of crimson blood all the more vivid. Almost immediately though, Syd gets himself tangled with a pathogen of unusual potence- one that not only confounds his machine and stirs up his underworld connections, but also sends him down a spiral of worsening health that he might not recover from. It’s here that the film starts leaving behind the clean white environments and plunges our protagonist into grimier and grimier locations- the film visually decays with him. Soon we discover Syd has stumbled upon a conspiracy that will claim lives and shake-up the celebridisease industry for good.
Though it doesn’t tightly pay them all off, Antiviral succeeds by creating a world with an interesting texture that again draws on everything from journalism to science, to piracy. Granted, some of these bizarre machines, esoteric laws, and corporate paradigms are given rather murky exposition, and are all ultimately weighted towards what looks cool or fits the bizarre aesthetic rather than the most possibly tight world building. A single scene of hallucination sets up some disturbing, unreal imagery that one expects the film to payoff or explore further but never does, leaving it as an unsatisfying flight of disturbed fancy. That said, the central point that our modern world is fixated on media personalities of questionable value to an unhealthy (in this case literally) degree always drives the film, and its ultimate image makes no bones about just how sick that relationship can be.
This film is a trip through the diseased looking-glass of obsession and ambition, one that sends Syd to some beautifully bizarre places. Along with the promise that a great new horror director has arrived, Antiviral is the sharpest, smartest and most unique horror film of the year, and one of the most intellectually disturbing horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of twisted vision of our even more twisted society that will make you look at everything a little bit differently once you’ve seen it. And if you’re a horror fan, you must see it.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars