AntiviralIn which debuting writer-director Brandon Cronenberg boldly mines the biological horror trope invented by his father David. The film is stylish and audacious to a fault, but also hopelessly underbaked and farfetched.

ANTIVIRAL did at least win at least two prestigious awards during its 2012 festival run. As for its brief theatrical bow, it took place in Spring of 2013, during which ANTIVIRAL had the misfortune to be released alongside the similarly themed ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY and UPSTREAM COLOR, the latter of which was a vastly superior effort in every respect.

At the Lucas Clinic people pay to be injected with diseases taken from the bodies of celebrities. The viruses are manipulated by the clinic’s technicians so they’re non-infectious, and hence “copy protected.”

Syd is a young Lucas Clinic employee who to make money on the side infects himself with many of his company’s diseases, which he then sells to a pirate outfit. Syd’s latest self infection is a disease taken from the actress Hannah Geist, an unknown pathogen she contracted in China which has a number of painful side effects. Before long Hannah apparently dies, which understandably freaks out Syd.

He learns that Hannah is actually still alive, with her death a cover story fabricated to throw off the media. Syd also discovers that the virus afflicting Hannah might have emerged from the Lucas Clinic. As the disease desiccates Syd’s mind and body he experiences what appear to be elaborate hallucinations involving Hannah Geist, and ends up interred in a rival clinic where the mystery virus afflicting Hannah and Syd truly originates.

With its unnervingly staid and colorless interiors, tightly controlled filmmaking and dialogue like “Her eyes seem to reach beneath your skin and touch your organs,” this film is creepy and clinical to a degree that few filmmakers—including Brandon Cronenberg’s father—have ever approached. Cronenberg also evinces a real talent for skin crawling grotesquerie achieved through extremely subtle and unshowy means (such as close-ups of hypodermic needles piercing skin). Cronenberg is aided immeasurably by the expertly crafted sterile imagery of cinematographer Karim Hussain (of SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY and HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN) and Caleb Landry Jones’ committed lead performance.

But the film has problems, starting with its absurdly quaint and old-fashioned take on celebrity, which is represented largely by smiling faces on billboards and poorly shot video footage (reality TV and sex tapes seem completely foreign to this film’s reality). For that matter, there’s no sense of any sort of culture outside the hermetic lives of the protagonists, leaving us questioning the sort of world in which this film’s interesting but terminally loony premise could ever possibly take place—it certainly isn’t this one!

Vital Statistics

Alliance Films

Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Producer: Niv Fichman
Screenplay: Brandon Cronenberg
Cinematography: Karim Hussain
Editing: Matthew Hannam
Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Douglas Smith, Joe Pingue, Nicholas Campbell, Sheila McCarthy, Wendy Crewson, Malcolm McDowell