(director/writer: David Cronenberg; screenwriter: from the book by William S. Burroughs; cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky; editor: Ronald Sanders; music: Howard Shore; cast: Peter Weller (William Lee), Judy Davis (Joan Frost/Joan Lee), Ian Holm (Tom Frost), Julian Sands (Yves Cloquet), Roy Scheider (Dr. Benway), Nicholas Campbell (Hank) and Michael Zelniker (Martin); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Jeremy Thomas; The Criterion Collection; 1991-UK/Can.)
“Stands on its own apart from the book.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs’ classic 1959 novel is adapted to the screen by the peerless cult horror story director David Cronenberg (“The Fly”/”Dead Ringers”), who chooses to bypass the rampant homosexuality in the book and concentrate in a novel way on the hallucinatory experiences of the writer living among those in an expatriate artistic community of Tangier. It’s surprisingly cinematic, probably because it takes off on its own instead of staying married to the book, though incoherent and certainly not for everyone. Cronenberg does a decent job in getting to the details of the free-wheeling intellectual junkie writer by graphically telling his story and exploring his alienation, loneliness, and depressions. The result is a unique trip into hell that stands on its own apart from the book.
Peter Weller is William Lee, Burroughs’ alter ego, a NYC cockroach exterminator. His loony wife, Joan (Judy Davis), becomes addicted to the bug powder dust, and not to be outdone he joins her in getting high by injecting the dust; he soon visits the mysterious and sinister Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider) and walks away with his first dose of the black meat — a narcotic made from the flesh of the giant aquatic Brazilian centipede — a fictional drug. The drug use causes monstrous beetles to be whispering conspiracy theories in his ears while his nerdy writer friends Hank (Nicholas Campbell) and Martin (Michael Zelniker) are boffing his wife. The writers are loosely drawn substitutes for the author’s real-life friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. After accidentally shooting his wife over a party game called the “William Tell act,” while high, her typewriter transforms into a cockroach and he takes flight to Interzone, more or less a mental state than an actual Mediterranean city, where he’s in a horrid nightmarish world run by bureaucrats who control the sale of the rare Black Meat drug on the world market. The place is crawling with an assortment of oddballs.
The shooting of the author’s wife was a real event, though if it happened like filmed is speculative.
Lee’s hallucinatory state due to his use of the drug, makes him loose his grip on reality thinking he’s a secret agent as he reports to the insect typewriter for new orders and to file meaningless reports. From these outrageous scenes, Cronenberg creates a most potent visual metaphor for getting into the author’s head and uncovering his repressed homosexuality and how he alters reality and explores the creative process.
This loose adaption of the novel gets to mind-bending things a more direct version of the book would have had little chance of accomplishing. As Bill grows increasingly less sane it’s a good idea to keep in mind the film’s dictum as stated by the exterminator: “Exterminate all rational thought;” that and a healthy imagination are the only ways to get what’s going on in this pic. It plays as a cult film that needs to find its right audience to be appreciated for the great skill that went into its creation.
REVIEWED ON 1/21/2004 GRADE: B +