Thursday, August 8, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix streaming: ANTIVIRAL (2013) and MY AMITYVILLE HORROR (2013)

(Canada/France - 2012; 2013 US release)

You'd be able to spot the David Cronenberg influence on ANTIVIRAL even without the knowledge that it's the writing/directing debut of his son Brandon.  It's a good thing to say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree here.  ANTIVIRAL juggles a lot of concepts--too many, in fact--but despite its minor flaws, it's one of the most original and disturbing films to come down the pike in a while, a scathing indictment of vapid celebrity culture fused with the "body horror" elements that figured so prominently in the elder Cronenberg's trail-blazing early work.  In a near-future, dystopian Toronto, celebrity worship has grown so huge that bored people with too much time and money on their hands now pay to be infected with viruses harvested directly from their favorite tabloid and entertainment magazine fixtures, as a way to be "closer" to them and be "part of them."  Lucas Clinic sales rep Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) spends his days selling celebrity sicknesses to pathetic customers and his nights selling those same viruses on the black market using equipment stolen from his employers at the clinic.  His most lucrative supply comes from beloved celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon)--and it's never really specified what Hannah does--she's just always in the news.  He pays her a visit to draw some blood during her latest illness (he's previously sold her various flus and even her cold sore virus to a guy who wanted to feel like he'd kissed her and contracted it).  When he injects himself with the virus in order to sneak it on to the black market, he becomes violently ill and quickly realizes that something is very wrong with Hannah. 

Growing increasingly horrific but not in the ways you expect, ANTIVIRAL is the kind of bleak film that really gets under your skin.  While Brandon's story ideas and scripting are an inventive outgrowth of today's culture, he utilizes the clinical methodology of his father's early work.  So many images recall the elder Cronenberg: the presence of THE BROOD and THE DEAD ZONE co-star Nicholas Campbell as the head of the Lucas Clinic; the cold, desolate look of Toronto, brilliantly captured by cinematographer Karim Hussain, is reminiscent of everything from SHIVERS to VIDEODROME to CRASH (there's also a lot of CRASH in the shots of endless lines of cars speeding along the freeway); Syd's black-market hustling and his business arrangement with disease dealer Arvid (Joe Pingue), who grows the viruses supplied by Syd into meat patties to sell to his customers, recalls the shady Civic TV wheeling-and-dealing of Max Renn (James Woods) and his tech-geek buddy Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) in VIDEODROME.  The increasingly sickly Syd comes across like a more introverted Max Renn, and Jones (THE LAST EXORCISM), with his pale skin and sullen demeanor, reminded me of younger, vaguely androgynous Brad Pitt.  Though it's a bit overlong and could've used some trimming in the second half, ANTIVIRAL is a bold and original work, despite the myriad of influences and references--in a way, it seems like it's doing the film a disservice to mention all the David Cronenberg callbacks, but it's impossible to not mention them.  It's almost as if Brandon Cronenberg is carving his own path while putting all the "Yes, David Cronenberg is my father" stuff on the table from the start.  For fans of the still very active Pops Cronenberg, it's reassuring to see that his legacy and the Cronenberg name will carry on at least one more generation and that his son obviously spent of lot of time observing and learning from Dad and is eager to honor that heritage.  And you can't help but smile knowing how proud the old man must've been when he first saw this.  Also with Wendy Crewson and Malcolm McDowell in small roles, ANTIVIRAL ranks right up there with Duncan Jones' MOON (2009) and Panos Cosmatos' BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2012) as the most promising genre debuts in recent years. It's a grim and depressing downer, but would you want anything else from a Cronenberg?  (Unrated, 108 mins)

(US - 2013)

The alleged haunted house at 112 Ocean View Ave. in the Amityville neighborhood on Long Island has remained a pop culture phenomenon for nearly 40 years since the DeFeo murders took place in 1974.  The house was purchased by the Lutz family in 1975, and they left after 28 harrowing days of unexplained and relentless paranormal phenomena.  That's been the story all these years, through several books and at least ten movies, though the whole thing is largely accepted to be a hoax (none of the five occupants of the house since 1976 have reported any strange happenings).  MY AMITYVILLE HORROR is a documentary that focuses on Daniel Lutz, the oldest of the three Lutz children, who was ten years old when they lived in the house.  Now in his late 40s, Lutz is still traumatized by his experiences, and he still claims all of the paranormal occurrences really happened.  Lutz is an angry man haunted by a painful childhood.  He talks at length about his resentment of George marrying his mother Kathy (which he would only do if Kathy allowed him to legally adopt the kids as his own) and severing ties with his biological father.   Lutz portrays George as a manipulative, bad-tempered, and often abusive man with an interest in the occult, with books on paranormal phenomena, hypnosis, and various religions.  Psychologists and paranormal experts alike question the validity of Lutz's claims, saying that he may be confusing the incidents from the books and the movies and that the negative memories and unaddressed trauma of his childhood have convinced him of things that may not have happened.

Regardless of where one stands on the Amityville story, MY AMITYVILLE HORROR is a film that probably would've worked better as a 20/20 segment.  The abrasive Lutz almost seems to be playing "Daniel Lutz" at times, a character that he's seemingly based on Ed Harris from the looks of it.  Director and Amityville historian Eric Walter frequently cuts to shots of Lutz jamming and shredding on his guitar, for no apparent reason other than to kill time.  Fans of the recent THE CONJURING will be interested to see Lorraine Warren (played by Vera Farmiga in the film) meeting with Lutz.  Lorraine and her late husband Ed went through the Amityville house in 1976, during which time an image was allegedly captured of the "demon boy" reputed to be the ghost of the youngest DeFeo child, when it was actually a member of their own investigating team.  There's some interesting observations about the power of a manipulative, controlling person on the collective psyche of a family (and it's worth noting that George Lutz died in 2006 and can't defend himself) and how that impacts entire lives (Lutz's two younger siblings declined to take part in this), but MY AMITYVILLE HORROR doesn't really have enough substance to warrant being feature-length. (Unrated, 89 mins)

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