Syd March works for the Lucas Clinic, a company that sells exclusive infections from the bodies of celebrities – a “biological communion” with the famous. Despite the Clinic’s obsessive security in ‘copy-protecting’ their products, Syd has been using his own body to smuggle new infections onto the black market.
After visiting reclusive star Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) to take a sample, he infects himself and hides out in his apartment to sleep off a fever, only to wake to news that Geist has died from the infection. Harbouring the priceless virus that killed a major celebrity, Syd finds himself a wanted commodity for the black market, as well as alarmingly unwell.
Antiviral is the debut feature of Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, and once you’ve taken in the first twenty minutes of that scenario, it turns out to be a refreshing surprise that instead of self-consciously dodging his dad’s distinctive brand of intellectual body-horror, he has instead embraced it in such a direct and engaging way that any similarities seem beside the point.
It’s also helpful that Brandon is more than capable when it comes to writing and directing (which is a relief to those who caught Sean Stone’s Asylum Tapes). The unfamiliar world of the film is introduced as unobtrusively and swiftly as possible; if it all sounds a bit much, the austere tone is nicely balanced with some perverse black humour.
Antiviral is not so much sci-fi as future prediction but rather an askew take on today’s culture – “celebrities aren’t human, they’re group hallucinations”. In this case the shared fantasy includes rolling news reports of celebrity bowel complaints and gossip about the abnormal genitalia of a major star. Then there’s the exclusive meat in the butchers shop that fronts the black-market dealers… not since Fruit Chan’s Dumplings has there been a less-enticing horror snack for your Halloween buffet.
Anyhow, along with all this it’s Caleb Landry Jones’ brilliantly physical performance as Syd March that’s the centre of the film. A sickly, sour-faced Nosferatu, Syd is a character with no backstory and a bland apartment that reflects his own emptiness; hidden beneath this is the suggestion that he might be just as hopeless as the fans who will buy almost anything that makes them feel close to their idols.
Though there’s plenty of potential for sustaining things in the film’s last third, unfortunately it’s here that Antiviral tests your patience. With the dying Syd caught up in the conspiracy surrounding the virus, the film – perhaps in line with his slow decline – takes a more meandering path. The final scene is satisfyingly perverse, but sadly also comes as a relief after so much has been indulgently drawn out – not even a cameo from Malcolm McDowell can perk things up enough.
Hopefully you’ll forgive these faults because Antiviral is more twisted and inventive than many of the horrors you’ve seen for some time. Beyond the hype attached to the name, this is only Cronenberg Jr’s first film, so we can look forward to what he comes up with next.