It’s just as well that first-time director Brandon Cronenberg is on record as being perfectly comfortable being compared to his father, as feature length debut Antiviral definitely makes a case for that old Cronenbergian qualifier becoming a full-blown sub-genre.
The shared creative chromosomes of the Cronenberg clan see Brandon touching with clammy hands the discomforting body horror of Rabid and Shivers and the self-absorbed, heavily allegorical near future of Cosmopolis – even sharing a co-star in the form of Cosmopolis‘ Sarah Gadon, here playing porcelain mega-star Hannah Geist.
X-Men: First Class and The Last Exorcism‘s Caleb Landry Jones is obviously making a bid to become the next Crispin Glover with a spate of outsider roles (his other big genre role in 2013 is Neil Jordan’s reduced take on vampires in Byzantium) – the slicked-back hair and ghoulish demeanour of his disease technician Syd March eerily similar to the equally obsessive Willard in the cult 2003 film of the same name.
Given Landry Jones spends most of the film shambling, sweating, sticking a swab up his nose or coughing up blood, he’s utterly compelling as the skeletal huckster of celebrity herpes to besotted fans, whose black market sideline in leaking trademarked infections (celebs officially license their colds and viruses to specialist clinics, and he sneaks the infections out inside his own body) places him right at the centre of an assassination attempt on a much-loved pop-star, who is in turn part of a much wider plot.
It is as much a sci-fi thriller with a Minority Report-style conspiracy at its heart as it is a Chinatown-style neo-noir, complete with a tendency for the luckless protagonist to be beaten up and thrown from situation to situation, belittled and bullied, and as much a wicked postmodern satire as it is a horror film – Blade Runner with weeping sores, perhaps. The latter comes the closest to defining Antiviral purely through the constant nail-scraping sense of unease – the extreme close-ups, the sterile white set design splashed with bodily fluids, the buzzing score, fever-dream sequences of Marsh trussed up like a marionette on the tools of his trade, and the voyeuristic framing of the shots as we peer into his world through doorways or down corridors.
The relationship between Geist and Marsh is strangely tender, the strangeness really coming to the fore with the fully icksome twist. Considering she spends the majority of the film comatose and he spends it mute, there’s a sense that he’s slipping into the adoring world of the mega-fans he’s made his living from – their shared contagion a level of intimacy lamp-shaded by the close ups of her blood-flecked lips, and an exchange with the family’s creepy doctor, Abendroth (Malcolm McDowell).
Rarely does genre cinema offer up such a complete package of ideas and execution – incredible visuals that linger in the mind’s eye long after viewing and concepts ever more socially relevant in an age where we gormlessly watch F-listers munch kangaroo bollocks on ITV or tabloids turn speculation about eating habits, happiness and weight into a profitable revenue stream. Throughout Antiviral, there’s a sense that though we, the public, own these shining, aloof celebrities and their perfect lives as depicted on commercials and news reports – their cold sores made to order and the cold cuts cloned from their muscles – they too own us, and that’s a relationship going nowhere pretty.