Horror comes from demons of the mind as well as of the body. Few filmmakers understand that as well as David Cronenberg, the Canadian master of cinematic fright and unease. His latest film, "Spider," is a shocker for devotees of stylish angst and psychological torment. You'll have to watch it with patience and great attention, but it richly rewards that patience.
Cronenberg is the often brilliant, sometimes off-putting and sometimes stomach-turning modern fear artist of "Scanners," "The Fly" and "Naked Lunch." His new film takes place in a typically askew and menacing world: the urban terrain of empty streets and bleak skies of East End London in the 1980s. There, we watch a strange shambling man with dead eyes wander through a drained life of joyless routines and horrific childhood memories.
The man is Dennis Cleg, nicknamed "Spider." Played by Ralph Fiennes with a mastery of psychotic, disjointed behavior and a bizarre, almost swallowed-up mumble, Spider is a creation almost painful to watch. He's a disturbed 40ish loser living in a halfway house where longtime mental patients are sent on their way back into normal society.
Spider's community is ruled by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), a formidable woman with a battleship brow and no visible sentiment. His fellow boarders are lost souls, trapped between imagination and reality - as is Spider. In his case, reverie takes him back to the past, in that same patch of London, when he was 10. Young Spider (Bradley Hall), lived then through a domestic tragedy involving his dad, Bill (Gabriel Byrne), and his mother and stepmother (both played by the marvelously skilled Miranda Richardson).
The two Mrs. Clegs are women of very different character. His natural mother is a shy, soft-eyed and lovable woman, left alone during her husband's bar binges. His stepmother is a barroom floozy with loose eyes, lewd lips and an ample bosom. But it becomes obvious early on that young Spider's world - the flashbacks we see - is subject to distortions, sometimes severe. His memories, however concrete they appear, are highly suspect. So, in a way, is the world of his present.
Midway through "Spider," Cronenberg begins to shows us scenes of torture, bloodshed and even murder, in the past or present. But we can never be completely sure whether what we're seeing is the horror of the real world or Spider's nightmares. That mind remains, for most of the picture, as inaudible as the adult Spider's mumbles, as opaque as his eyes. Yet those worlds remain compelling, with some of the bone-dry minimalism of a Samuel Beckett play or a painting by Hopper or Lucian Freud.
What we see here are the ashes of a ruined life, though how it was destroyed becomes clear only gradually. The film courts audience estrangement by immersing us so thoroughly in the barren world of a disturbed mind, but there's also eerie poetry in Cronenberg's vision and also the vision of Patrick McGrath, the British author who wrote the novel "Spider" and adapted the screenplay for Cronenberg - and who, as the son of the medical inspector of Broadmoor Hospital for the criminally insane, knows these nightmares well.
In the film, McGrath and Cronenberg make a major plot adjustment, moving the story from the 1930s and 1950s (the respective eras of the book's child and adult Spiders) to the 1960s and 1980s. This adjustment seems smart: Making "Spider" a '30s period piece might have given it a hint of nostalgia, whereas here the settings are bleaker, scarier.
But, finely crafted and intelligent as "Spider" is, there still seems to be something missing, and when you read McGrath's novel, you can see what it is: the narration. McGrath wrote "Spider" in the first person, from Spider's viewpoint. In contrast to his shambling, inarticulate surface persona, Spider's yarn-spinning and descriptions are witty and vivid; the movie could really use them.
The narration certainly would have deepened Fiennes' role and performance. As Spider, stripped of his inner narrative voice, Fiennes gives us a man who barely seems to inhabit the same world as the other people there. The film's first scene hammers home his isolation: Peter Suschitsky's camera moves down the cars of a recently arrived train in Kensington, catching the preoccupied expressions and alert gaits of a stream of disembarking passengers, until, at the end, we see Spider, alone, awkward, his eyes vague and wild, muttering to himself.
Fiennes' performance is annihilatingly flat and dry. Richardson, on the other hand, does something even richer: a double role in which she plays both the gentle Mrs. Cleg and the lascivious stepmother. It's a mark of her intelligence and craft as an actress (and also of her humanity) that she can reveal two such different characters as well as the jarring consonance between the two.
In the other main roles, Byrne, Redgrave, John Neville and young Hall offer a breadth and solidity that make the nightmare take on texture. More is added by Cronenberg's typically menacing visual style: those empty streets, those drained hearts and souls. "Spider" is not a project he originated, but it suits him better than some of the films he's done recently.
Since his early cult triumphs in organ-twisting horror movies like "Shivers, "Rabid" and "Videodrome," Cronenberg has always been adept at tearing his world inside out. And in "Spider," he and cinematographer Suschitzky do it again. This isn't a film for all, or even most, tastes; Cronenberg violates most of the modern commercial movie canons. Yet, cold as the film may seem, Cronenberg's nightmare talent has rarely been at such a high, terrifying boil. "Spider" pulls us into a world of darkness and pain, a sticky web of fears.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Patrick McGrath, based on his novel; photographed by Peter Suschitzky; edited by Ronald Sanders; production designed by Andrew Sanders; music by Howard Shore; produced by Cronenberg, Samuel Hadida, Catherine Bailey. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, March 14. Running time: 1:38. MPAA rating: R (language, violence and sensuality).
Dennis "Spider" Cleg - Ralph Fiennes
Mrs. Cleg - Miranda Richardson
Bill Cleg - Gabriel Byrne
Mrs. Wilkinson - Lynn Redgrave
Terrence - John Neville Baby Spider - Bradley Hall
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.