You’ve seen the scene before: A jittery young addict leans back in his chair as his dealer sticks a needle in his arm. Only in the nasty, near-future horror film Antiviral, which opens today, the kid’s not shooting up smack. To get a little closer to his celebrity obsession – a blonde named Hannah Geist – he’s mainlining a viral infection that his dealer has siphoned from her body, hoping it will bring him closer to her. Starstruck, he gratefully caresses the bubbling sore on his lip, overjoyed.
Viral celebrity has never been so literal, or so disgusting.
The dealer, played by freckle-faced actor Caleb Landry Jones, works at a high-tech clinic that has exclusive deals with this brave new world’s biggest and sickest stars; he sells them for a pretty price. The truly sick twist, Jones tells Rolling Stone, is that the object of the kid’s obsession “is basically like the fucking Kardashians: she’s famous for no good reason. For all we know, she could be a porn star.”
Antiviral is the debut film from 32-year-old writer-director Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, and the film’s sickening sci-fi has the same devious, disturbing obsession with bodies and technology that animates his father’s films, from The Fly and Dead Ringers to Videodrome and Existenz. The son was infected with his father’s own sense of cerebral horror, and he is not rebelling against it. “I wrestled with it at first,” he says, “but you get affected by how you grow up: I’m genetically related to my father.”
Researching this superficial dystopia was easy. “We turned on TMZ and read shitty gossip rags,” says Cronenberg, “saying, ‘Oh my god, it’s horrific and fascinating and good material for the film.'” He cites a documentary about Trekkies in which a fan excitedly drinks from a sick actor’s cup of water, and a Jimmy Kimmel Live appearance in which Sarah Michelle Gellar was cheered after saying she might give the audience her cold. “If she’d said, ‘I’ll spit in your mouth for 10 dollars,'” he says, “they’d have lined up.”
The horror comes from three trends: the fetish for celebrity memorabilia “like John Lennon’s teeth,” the I Want a Famous Face-style desire to physically mimic celebrities and the way social media allows people to be “celebrity and paparazzi at once on sites like Instagram.” Pop celebrity, Cronenberg says, is the perfect terrain for a revolting horror film because celebrity images often have so little to do with the real people behind them. “Like Tupac’s hologram, celebrities aren’t people,” he says. “They’re hallucinations we choose to take part in.”