by Tony Dayoub
Like the shoestring webs Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) weaves in his room slice space into fragments, Cleg's mind is splintered, broken. Those who fail to see evidence of Cronenberg's "body horror" aesthetic in Spider are fixated on the gore and violence of his early career. One need only look at how Cleg's mind betrays him—a subtler but just as threatening betrayal to his identity as Seth Brundle's reluctant metamorphosis in The Fly (1986)—to see that the physical has now become metaphysical. Spider is a turning point where the maturation of this director fuses many elements from his oeuvre, internalizes them, and launches his body of work in a new direction.
Just as in The Dead Zone (1983), where Christopher Walken's Johnnie Smith plays silent sentinel to the future—able to inhabit his visions if not participate in them—Spider also stands vigil inside his mental apparitions. What is different is Smith's ability to see past, present, and possible future of those he comes into contact with—not his own; Spider is mired in his past, the moments in his youth which surround the point of rupture in his personality. In his mindscape, his older self voyeuristically oversees the circumstances behind the death of his saintly mother (Miranda Richardson) at the hands of his brooding and unfaithful father, Bill (Gabriel Byrne).
But wait, that's not how it happened, is it? Cronenberg inverts the trustworthiness of the hero in The Dead Zone by giving us a thoroughly unreliable narrator in Spider. An impact to the head put Smith in a coma for years and prompted his ability to "see." The impact which breaks Spider is a soul-crushing one, a chance intrusion in which he catches his mother and father making love then transposes her identity with that of the town slut, Yvonne (also Richardson), in order to cope with the dissonance of seeing his sweet mother in the throes of carnality.
In Spider, the only penetration and distortion of flesh Cronenberg exerts is the one Cleg imposes on his mother in his recollection. Spider sees his father at the local bar, asking Yvonne out. He sees Yvonne fucking Bill in a shed outside town. And most devastating, he sees his father kill his mother with a sharp blow from a shovel, burying her in a beet garden just outside the shed. Except, his memory is twisted; little Dennis (Bradley Hall) is still at home waiting for his mum and dad to get home. So he couldn't have witnessed any of this. Spider justifies his new assessment of his mother as a "tart" by replacing her with the image of Yvonne and inventing a backstory for how she usurped his mother's place.
Sex as infection has always loomed fairly large in Cronenberg's mythos. From the physical parasite in Shivers (1975) to Marilyn Chambers' protrusion in Rabid (1977); from the angry progeny of The Brood (1979) to the outlaw television channel in Videodrome (1983); even the metaphorical damage inflicted on successful scientists by the distraction of a sexual relationship both in The Fly and Dead Ringers (1988); all are examples of a disgust with sex that permeates Cronenberg's filmography. In this case, it is the horrific discovery of sex between his father and the overidealized mother which fractures Spider's mind, leading to his schizophrenia.
And while Spider may be the first film to internalize the "body horror" so prevalent throughout Cronenberg's work, displacing the physical with the spiritual or the mental, it is also a work which propels the director past his problematic concerns with sexuality. A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) continue, in the same vein as Spider, to investigate the splintering of identity, moving past the obsession with venereal deterioration as a result of the body's betrayal and looking for such causality in the mind. Cronenberg's next film explores the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, a definite indication that the director is still mining this bit of subtext, for now.