31 Days of Hell: Antiviral (2012) - Reviewed


As Canadian writer-director Brandon Cronenberg’s psychedelic transgressive freak out Possessor continues to send seismic radioactive shockwaves through the horror and film community, earning the top spot for my personal favorite film of 2020 I decided to double back on the director’s feature film debut.  The son of the great Canadian horror provocateur and master filmmaker David Cronenberg, Brandon has all but completely picked up the torch lit by his father’s work and carried it all the way into the sun and beyond. 

Initially I was apprehensive to what became known as Antiviral, a film which from the outset looked like a young newcomer’s attempt to impress his daddy.  Though an unfair assessment, it looked not all that dissimilar from another father-to-son filmmaking endeavor which came out the same year called Greystone Park.  After Possessor however, a film which knocked yours truly off his feet onto his back, I eagerly doubled back on the director’s first feature Antiviral.  While this one admittedly doesn’t quite reach the artistic and horrific heights reached by his latest film, Brandon Cronenberg shows immense promise as a filmmaker with his first feature and shows he knows more than a thing or two about how to get under the viewer’s skin and into their bloodstream.  As long as you don’t eat anything while watching this, you’re gonna be fine.

Presenting a near future as complex and otherworldly as his follow up, Antiviral zeroes in on Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones from Get Out), a young employee of an elite industry which sells celebrity illnesses to superfans so they can share in the sickness.  Behind the company’s back, however, Syd has been harvesting pathogens on the side for extra cash and selling them on the black market.  One day he is tasked with harvesting a pathogen from Hannah Geist (Cronenberg regular Sarah Gadon), an immensely popular celeb recently taken ill.  Almost immediately it turns into a bizarre internal physiological battle between himself and the invading virus.

Taking place in a world where pathogens are grown into meat steaks that are sold to customers to eat, Antiviral is less interested in plot than creating a stark dichotomy between sterilized white rooms ala THX:1138 and the messiness of crimson red.  Like Possessor, the film is designed to create stomach churning discomfort and disgust within the viewer with images of pale celebrity meat steaks doing all they can to make you recycle your lunch.  Based on an original idea of Cronenberg’s involving the queasy relationship between host and viral body, Antiviral is a slow, methodical exercise in unleashing implacable grotesquerie with body horrors that would make the director’s father grimace.

Antiviral though populated with many cast members is mostly a triumph of production design by Arvinder Grewal who makes virtually every office, lobby and room in this film look like a doctor’s office if it were imagined by Stanley Kubrick.  Lensed with sterilized distance by Possessor cinematographer Karim Hussain, the look of Antiviral is extremely clean almost like an open canvas waiting for the director to spill buckets of entrails all over it.  Then there’s the moody and at times pulsating electronic score by E.C. Woodley which creates an atmosphere of unease and unfocused dread.  Like Cosmopolis, everyone is extremely well dressed until the film’s protagonist begins to lose his grip on his health and becomes like a disfigured cripple over the course of the movie.

Featuring a stellar cast including but not limited to Malcolm McDowell and Cronenberg regular Nicholas Campbell, the film rests almost solely on the shoulders of Caleb Landry Jones whose long ponytailed hair and eyes glowering up from underneath will give viewers spooky A Clockwork Orange vibes.  Much like James Woods’ antihero in Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the film follows our protagonist (or antagonist?) as he inserts needle after needle into himself, his clients and his adversaries shown lovingly in extreme close up just to make you cringe more than you thought you could.  Then there’s Sarah Gadon who is tasked with giving off the image of artificial physical beauty, sharply contrasted by her gruesome bedside bloodied vomit. 

Chilly and gross in the same ways his father’s work was characterized, including but not limited to skin grafting which will remind viewers of Rabid, Antiviral represents a strong first feature which just shies away from going the full obscene distances treaded by Possessor.  A good but not great film that will make you feel a little sick while watching, Antiviral is a prime example of creeping malaise as body horror slowly burrowing itself into your subconscious and eventually your internal organs as well.  Not even running to the toilet to throw up will make this gutcruncher of a film go away so easily.

--Andrew Kotwicki