Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Using the tools at hand: Off-model casting in Cronenberg's "Shivers"

Almost everything that could be said about Shivers (1975), Canadian sicko-visionary David Cronenberg's pioneering debut feature, had probably been said long before I finally saw it last month at the Museum of the Moving Image's Cronenberg retrospective. So if you don't already know what it is, I'll just note that it's a low-budget, high-gore, deceptively smart science fiction/horror/black comedy set in an ultra-modern Montreal apartment complex infested by a mutant venereal parasite that drives the residents to crazed excesses of sex, rape and murder, and that I prefer its more evocative and specific U.S. release title, They Came from Within. If you want more about the movie as a whole, including the original Yankee trailer, here's a good critical overview at the A.V. Club Toronto.
(Image: Photofest & Museum of the Moving Image)

I'm just here to chew over how the movie illustrates one of the silver linings of shoestring filmmaking - the serendipitious oddities that come out of filling the cast with whoever the hell is available. As Cronenberg has noted in interviews, you could count on one hand the number of professional actors in Shivers (the best of them, far and away, is the marvelous Joe Silver - you may recognize his schnoz, bat-wing eyebrows and voice like gravel dredged from the mud at the bottom of a well, if you watched TV in any substantial amount between the '50s and '80s).

Joe Silver demonstrates his specialty: being rumpled and splendid.
(Image: Aveleyman)
The rest are just, you know, folks - some of them acquaintances of the writer/director who had been in his film student shorts and early mini-features, others probably found in supermarket aisles or the bushes in his backyard or wherever. This has the drawback you'd expect: most of them are pretty bad by any conventional, critical standards of acting. But it also imparts to them an unactorly, off-model quality that contributes to the movie's fascination. Real life, after all, is not populated due to the efforts of a casting agency with standardized notions of what, say, a cop or a doctor looks and sounds like, and you often run into people who, on the surface, buck stereotyped notions of their roles. That the grab-bag cast of Shivers fits the latter pattern helps ground the movie's bizarre goings-on in a workaday reality.

So far, this is just what many have observed about the upside of casting amateurs. But at the same time, most of us do enter into a movie with largely unconscious expectations of the kind of people we're going to be watching; in Shivers, the way the cast diverges startlingly from those expectations (as well as their frequent inability to deliver dialogue like real human beings) enhances the film's queasy nightmare quality. That's the sort of paradox an interesting, even if flawed, piece of art can fruitfully sustain. It may be largely an accident, but the tension Cronenberg maintains between his non-pro performers' everyday authenticity and their strangeness is one of the film's unsung achievements.

For example, I haven't been able to figure out the name of the lady whose picture is above after the first paragraph, but she's stayed with me ever since a slimy phallic worm jumped out of the laundry machine onto her face. How likely is it that anyone with a face like that would go into acting professionally in the first place, let alone with any success? But it's a wonderful mug - she looks like someone you'd find hanging forlornly around the laundry room. And would someone who looked more like a movie actor be as alarming when she subsequently drags a food deliveryman into her apartment, cooing obscenely, "I'm hungryyy... hungry for loooooove"?

Then there are Camil Ducharme (below) and Hanka Posnanska as a confused old French-speaking couple caught up in the chaos - I like to imagine they're just a couple sweet old people barely aware of what kind of project Cronenberg has dragooned them into (I'll bet their grandkids thought they were a lot cooler after this, to their startled ambivalence). Their abstracted quality is probably just a form of wooden acting, but it effectively conveys their helplessness, maybe more than the studied emotional reactions of trained method actors. They gave me a slightly panicked urge to reach into the screen and shake them: "You don't get what's going on, do you?! Stop looking worried, start looking freaked out!"

(Image: Zombie Movie Database... yes, Zombie Movie Database)

But my favorite example is Ron Mlodzik as the rental agent Merrick. Are you yawning already? Don't. Incarnated in the gangly, Snidely-Whiplash-mustachioed, effeminate Mlodzik, Merrick comes across as a blend of Victorian stage villain and gay nightclub lothario, masquerading awkwardly as an ordinary drone in a suit. This is even before he's infected. He sticks out from his scenes like a sore thumb, for better and for worse - signposting the fact that there's something not quite right in this place, but also making me say, "Well, yes - you would occasionally run into a guy like this in a perfectly ordinary office in a big city."

Would you rent a home from this man?
(Image: Cronenberg fansite The Plasma Pool)

Naturally, these personnel rough edges would get smoothed out as Cronenberg became more successful and respectable - thirteen years later, he'd be directing a magnificent Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (still easily my favorite Cronenberg). That is largely for the best, of course - few directors want their audience cringing through line readings - but he loses a little something in the process too. The one time I'm aware of that he perfectly blended odd off-casting with actual good acting was with Jeff Goldblum's nerd-god antihero in The Fly (1986). Actually, makes that two times: Cronenberg himself is perfectly cast in just this manner. After all, would you give a man who looked like this money to make a movie... unless it were exactly the type of movie he makes?

(Image: HorrorDirectors.com)

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