The Special Effects of Early David Cronenberg Films


Shivers (1975)

The pinnacle of Shivers, Cronenberg’s first commercial, fully professional feature made in 1975, was a scene, shown right, of Alan Migicovsky lying in bed, speaking softly to the parasites writhing inside his body. Massive lumps traverse his stomach and abdomen as if moles were burrowing through his flesh. The mood Cronenberg establishes with the sequence is extraordinary, totally strange, and all the more powerful because it appears to be convincingly real. This scene, and others, like the shot of Migicovsky’s wife cuddling up next to him only to discover one of the parasites oozing from his mouth.

Blasco had to create the effect of parasites moving around inside actor Alan Migicovsky. To do this, he took a cast of the actor’s chest and stomach, and made from it a thin rubber appliance. He then meticulously laid hair upon it to match the pattern of Migicovsky’s own hair. The next step was to tape the air-bladders (rubber condoms connected to plastic tubing) to the actor, running the tubing down each leg of his pajamas and out to hand pumps (not the high-tech compressed air pumps they have now, but empty enema syringes and hair-tint squeeze bottles).

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The appliance was tightly laced on over the bladders so that it conformed with Migicovsky’s own musculature. When the air was pumped into the condoms by the technicians (Blasco and Dittmar with their squeeze bottles), they would expand perfectly, causing lumps to seemingly crawl across the actor’s stomach as if something were trying to burrow out.

“Given the time and budget we had,” said Cronenberg. “Blasco’s effect was just amazing.” Cronenberg filmed all the scenes of Migicovsky in bed in a single day, and spent the full morning shooting the special effect of the moving parasites, working on past lunch. Migicovsky had to remain in bed and have his food brought in drinking through straws, because the company didn’t have time to break down and then set up the effect again to resume filming.

“We specifically did a shot where you see Migicovsky having a spasm and his whole body jerks upward,” said Cronenberg. “Blasco really wanted me to do that one because he said people who were watching the film might think there was a false chest, that the actor’s head was stuck up through the bed with a false body in front of it. That movement made it harder to figure out how it was done.”

Joe Blasco-creatures creator / special makeup artist
Louisette Champagne-makeup assistant
David Dittmar-assistant special makeup
Suzanne Garand-makeup artist


Rabid (1977)

Bizarre, disturbing images are the root of David Cronenberg’s effectiveness in the horror field. A frozen nurse, shown left, one of Marilyn Chambers’ victims found inside a hospital refrigerator, became the key image of RABID’s advertising campaign. This 1977 film went on to make $7 million on a production investment of little more than $500,000. providing Cronenberg with an impressive track record after just two pictures, and making him the most bankable director in Canada.

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RABID is Cronenberg’s unique slant on the vampire genre. Marilyn Chambers plays the innocent victim of a new surgical technique which causes her to develop a retractable, syringe-like organ in her armpit, shown inset top. used to obtain the fresh human blood she needs to stay alive. Make-up artist Joe Blasco devised the effect and sculpted and molded the needed appliances for Chambers in Hollywood; they were attached during filming by Byrd Holland in Toronto. For close ups, Blasco made a false chest, including a mound of puckered tissue for the organ to slide in and out of, manipulated off-camera from behind. For long shots, a simpler appliance of the organ in its “out” position was used.

Blasco also designed the effect for one of Cronenberg’s cleverest sequences in the film, when a plastic surgeon goes berserk after being infected by Chambers and slices off the index finger of a nurse right in the middle of an operation, shown inset middle. The scene nicely touches upon a primal fear of being helpless during an operation, “I watched a plastic surgeon at work for three hours in preparation for that scene,” said Cronenberg. “If this wasn’t for publication, I could tell you a lot of funny stories about that experience.”

Like a vampire bat, attacks by Chambers begin to spread a dread form of rabies, causing people to foam at the mouth and attack others, shown inset bottom, “That was a very simple effect,” laughed Cronenberg. “We used Bromo Seltzer. It foams and fizzes. We just added a little vegetable coloring.

“I must tell you though,” he added, “it was very interesting to see the psychological reaction of the actors, especially the extras, when we asked them to put this stuff in their mouths! A lot of people just couldn’t allow themselves to let this stuff dribble out over their clothes, even though it wasn’t their clothes, it was our clothes. We had dozens of those incidents.”

Kathy Flynn-special make-up effects assistant
Byrd Holland-special make-up artist
Mireille Recton-key make-up
Sharron Wall-2nd make-up
Mike Bacarella-sculptor lab work (uncredited)
Joe Blasco- special makeup effects artist (uncredited)


The Brood (1979)

The film’s closing scene revolves around revealing the actress Samantha Eggar’s body spectacularly altered by prosthetic and make-up effects. The moment of revelation functions as the climax of the scene but also as the climax of the entire film, providing a variation of the opening scene between Raglan and Mike. Throughout, Cronenberg follows a strategy of strategic delay. While Frank Carveth enters his wife Nola’s bedroom, Raglan tries to retrieve Candy, Frank’s and Nola’s daughter, kidnapped by the monstrous offspring that Nola’s body has been gestating as a result of overly successful psychoplasmics. The crosscutting between Frank’s conversation with Nola and Raglan’s progress into dangerous territory interrupts events in the bedroom at crucial moments, lengthening the scene, building tension, and allowing a postponement of the audience’s unobstructed gaze at Nola’s altered body. Nola is shot exclusively in medium close-up, placing emphasis on her upper body, which, in turn, suggests that the truly awful and spectacular transformation, concealed beneath her clothes, has taken place outside the frame. When the conversation, which has revolved around Nola’s confession that she is on a strange “adventure” or “journey,” gives Frank an opportunity to assure her, “I want to be with you all the way.” Nola says dismissively, “Do you?” Then she asks, “Do you?” and finally exhorts him, “Then look!” At this command, which echoes Raglan’s invitation to Mike (“Show me!”), Nola lifts her gown and the camera pans down, still in medium close-up, to her lower abdomen. We see the prosthetic effect-finally—that most viewers remember as the film’s signature shot-the externalized foetal sac supported by Nola’s folded legs, framed dramatically by the wings of her white nightgown.Screenshot

 As much as Cronenberg’s films demonstrate generic use of special effects in their adherence to visual escalation, there are points of departure as well, some of them recurring with such consistency that they invite closer inspection. While the integration of special effects into the plot is relatively conservative, the visualization of the individual effect, its stylization by means of camera work and editing, is idiosyncratic. What is remarkable, for example, about the moment in The Brood in which Nola reveals her externalized reproductive organs is that, after an interval of only a few seconds, Cronenberg cuts to a medium shot that distances us from the uncomfortable proximity to this freakish image. While the preceding medium close-up generates anxiety by placing the viewer uncomfortably close to Nola’s horrific body-literally at arm’s length (her arm’s length, one might add) the retreat to the medium shot seems to undermine this effect. However, the medium shot also sustains our emotional investment because, though it creates spatial distance, it returns us to Frank’s point of view.

 He gives as the viewer whose subjective experience we are to share (“Then look!”), a position confirmed when Cronenberg eventually cuts to the reverse-angle shot of Frank’s face registering horror and disgust. But then again, the camera faces Nola straight on, slightly displaced from Frank’s point of view, and its spatial removal allows for a composition that emphasizes not the affective immediacy of the image but rather its strict formality. What the initial close-up conceals, and what only the medium shot reveals, is a strictly symmetrical composition of Nola lifting the two folds of her nightgown. They frame her lower abdomen left and right, the symmetry heightened by Eggar folding her legs straight under her as she sits on the bed. Bed, nightgown, and body are arranged as elements on a stage. The proscenium is lit evenly from the front, for a high degree of visibility, for further dramatic effect from above, and, like a Hollywood glamour shot as well, from the back. All elements draw attention to the sobriety and formality of the composition, to which Cronenberg seems willing to sacrifice shock and affective immediacy.


Samantha Eggar giving birth to one of the brood,” shown right, is an example of the remarkable images that regularly distinguish David Cronenberg’s strikingly original work in the horror field. This climactic view of Eggar’s external womb in THE BROOD (1979) is surprising and shocking and beautiful, all at the same time. “The visual image for this scene crystallized for me in sort of a waking dream,” said Cronenberg. “It didn’t come from sleep. It came from whatever unconscious place these images arise.”

Special effects make-up artist Dennis Pike made the external womb by using a section of weather balloon. A synthetic outer skin gave it a shriveled, organic look. Pike filled the balloon with studio blood and spaghetti and his model baby. The balloon was needed to contain the considerable weight and pressure of the womb ingredients. Eggar had a small piece of an Xacto knife glued to her finger so that she could make a small incision during the scene in which she bites the womb open. For all that attention to detail, the biting was censored in Canada, and still other parts are missing from the U.S. version.

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“I had a long and loving close-up of Eggar licking the fetus that was quite fantastic,” said Cronenberg, “I really regret that it’s not in any final version of the film. The ironic thing is that when the censors, those animals, cut it out, the result was that a lot of people thought she was eating the baby! That’s much worse than what I was suggesting. What we’re talking about here is an image that is not sexual, not violent, just gooey, gooey and disturbing. It’s a bitch licking her pups. Why cut it out? I really resent the inability of the censors and the rating boards to come to terms with something like this.”

Cronenberg tried to get midgets to play the brood creatures seen in the film, but after finding only two, one locally and Felix Silla from Hollywood who plays Twiki on BUCK ROGERS, he gave up and hired 10 seven-year-old girls, gymnasts from a school in Mississauga, Ontario, to fill out the compliment of 12 needed. The girls were just old enough to sit still for the three hours required for make-up artist Jack Young, shown below, to apply their latex masks, wigs and body humps. It is the young gymnasts who are seen jumping all over poor Oliver Reed at the end of the film, trying to rip out his throat. Newspaper reports indicated the kids had a great time during filming and were disappointed when they were prevented from seeing the R-rated film.

Dennis Pike-special makeup
Jack H. Young-special makeup (as Jack Young)


Scanners (1981)

The first of the film’s two signature scenes takes place in an auditorium during a demonstration of “scanning,” a technique that allows one person to gain physical control over another’s body. On a stage similar to the one on which Raglan and Mike perform their psychoplasmics session, a scanner and a volunteer sit side by side, both facing the camera. Though eventually Cronenberg cuts to a shot from behind the two showing the audience, the opening sequence is photographed like the one in The Brood, foregoing an establishing shot in favor of close-ups of one speaker brightly lit in front of a dark, featureless background. As the demonstration starts going awry, and the audience realizes that the volunteer is, in fact, an assassin taking control over the scanner’s body, Cronenberg uses a two-shot and then reframes so that each combatant appears alone, centered in the frame, while the camera cuts, in shorter and shorter intervals, back and forth between the two. At the crucial moment, in a spectacular display of prosthetics, the scanner’s head explodes, blood and tissue splattering in slow motion toward the camera.

 Despite critical appraisals of the film as a whole, this scene enjoys particular fame among horror fans. And yet, at the moment when the special effect is displayed, the camera pulls back from a close-up to a medium shot. It shows the scanner’s upper body, horizontally centered in the frame and vertically cut off by the tabletop on which he is resting his hands, clenched into fists. This would roughly be the POV of one of the audience members, several of whom the camera has been singling out when it cut in the preceding moments to reverse angle shots to show the audience’s collective sense of growing alarm. But not exactly no single observer sits this close to the stage, and nobody in particular was shown to sit directly in front of the man. Instead of placing the viewer in an audience member’s position, it constructs an ideal observer whose placement is determined by considerations of symmetry and balance. Just as the film shifts into slow motion for the moment of the explosion, the handling of spatial relations signals a separation of the image from a subjective point of view. Hence, the shot draws attention to its own compositional deliberation and formal strictures. As in The Brood, Cronenberg favors aesthetic formality where he could have opted for more visual and affective immediacy.

Like his earlier work, Cronenberg’s new film for Avco-Embassy. SCANNERS, opening at theaters in January, features set-pieces involving elaborate makeup effects. One of the most startling is an exploding head seen early in the picture, shown far right, which establishes the telepathic powers of the “Scanners,” an ESP underground.

“The make-up guys really surprised me.” laughed Cronenberg. “I came back to my apartment one night, and here was this head sitting on the table! It was so life-like. It was soft to the touch and dented just like real flesh when you touched it. It was the most realistic head possible. I knew right then that this was the one I wanted. Cronenberg had already blown up a number of heads for the shot without getting the realism he was seeking: he tried heads made of plaster heads made of wax, heads made of gelatin, but nothing worked.

The remarkably life-like head seen in the final film was created by Chris Walas in collaboration with Montreal make-up artist Stephen Dupuis, assisted by Tom Schwartz They also created life-like hands for the dummy which stands in for Del Grande during the explosion. Effects man Gary Zeller exploded the head by shooting it with a S.W.A.T team shotgun like those seen in the film.

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“Gary was shooting from behind and at an upward angle,” explained Cronenberg. “When the blast hits the head, the face comes inside out and sort of swings down under the neck. Then the body slumps down under the table. It’s an incredible shot. Incredibly gruesome, but also quite beautiful. It’s so surreal that it’s also quite lovely in its own way”

Cronenberg’s producers were alarmed by the effectiveness of the shot when they saw the rushes, and wanted to film less graphic takes as insurance. “I said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ They shot three more heads blowing up in various ways, but I wasn’t there to watch them. I just went back to my Winnebago and took a nap. It’s the first time I’ve ever done something like that. But I wasn’t interested. I had the one I wanted.”

The scene has such impact that it puts audiences on edge for the rest of the picture, just what Cronenberg had in mind. In ten seconds the pressure mounts; in I twenty seconds the pain builds, in thirty seconds your head explodes! To bring his extra sensory spectacle to the screen, David Cronenberg assembled a talented crew of effects makeup personnel. The crew was headed by effects man extraordinaire Chris Walas, Tom Schwartz and Stephen DuPuis, the leading makeup man of Canada.

Schwartz is a man who loves his work. He was once before called upon to make a human head erupt in The Alpha Incident, in which an alien disease is responsible for the brain boiling. The Wisconsin born Schwartz began doing stage makeup at an early age. Moving to Hollywood in 1972, he worked for Don Post’s Productions, as do many aspiring prosthetic and effects makeup people. Soon films began coming his way. We have seen his work in Your Ticket is No Longer Valid, The Capture of Bigfoot, and The Giant Spider Invasion to name but a few. Scanners brings the advent of a new technology to special makeup effects with the use of gelatin as a medium. Schwartz explained how you blow a man’s brains out.

“We apply a substance called alginate to an actor’s face to get an impression for a plaster casting. Alginate is used by dentists to make dental impressions; it is very cold to the touch and hardens in just three minutes. Then we make a plaster mold casting and melt clay into the mold, for easy sculpting. A silicone rubber positive mold is made with a plaster backing for rigid flexibility. Industrial gelatin is heated and poured into the mold.”

“Gelatin is a relatively new material in special effects,* pioneered by Tom Burman. Dick Smith was our consultant on the picture. Amazingly, he never uses gelatin. We met him at his home and were ushered into his workshop. He grabbed me and yelled ‘Look at this! Suddenly Regan’s ghastly head from The Exorcist was thrust at me! I love Dick’s enthusiasm, he is my hero.”

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“We would be working in quiet diligence, when suddenly a voice would shriek out, ‘It’s alive… ALIVE!’ Chris is a great guy. He taught me how to do cable work to articulate a face, make the eyes work and everything. Stephen DuPuis and I were stuck on a scene. We just couldn’t figure it out. Chris came over and drew it out for us quick and easy. I thought to myself, my god it’s so simple, why couldn’t I think of that? Chris grew up with Rick Baker and really knows his stuff. I loved working with him and hope we can do it again soon.”

“The end result in Scanners gave me an odd sensation that we had actually taken this actor out and killed him. Chris decided to fill the inside of the head with garbage and blood red gelatin. When it explodes it is incredibly gross. We blew it up three different ways trying different gelatin and plaster combinations. Explosive charges were used with two of the heads, but if you look closely at the pictures of the head exploding, you can see Gary Zeller, our pyrotechnics man lying down behind the head with a shot gun. He blew the head apart and when we reached him he was laughing hysterically, covered in red gelatin!”

Dick Smith was called in to make the film’s shocking conclusion come to life. “The ending has a man burning to death from the inside out. Dick made an articulated fiberglass head. As the pressure builds up, the face begins to bleed then the resin glue eyes explode outward. Dick told us each detail every step of the way. Finally the head begins to light up as if on fire from within, before flames consume it. I was so proud to work with all the best makeup people. I guess you could call it a mind blowing experience, literally!”

The centerpiece of Smith’s concept for a ending was to use expanding, blood engorged veins on the two telepathic duelists, shown on the face of Revok, played by Michael Ironside. On the face and arms of Vale, played by Stephen Lack, the veins were to burst and bleed. Smith spent six weeks developing this effect. which does not involve the use of inflatable bladders like his work on ALTERED STATES. Instead, the veins are inflatable channels inside the makeup appliances.

Since foam latex was unsuitable it was too elastic and opaque, and Smith wanted to be able to see the darkening of the veins as the blood expanded them-Smith used a translucent plastic material made of ethyl methacrylate, called Dupont Elvacite 2042. dissolved in M.E.K. with BDP as a plasticizer. Smith brushed this into molds and created the vein channels by laying on polyethylene drop cloth material, 3 mils thick, as a separating agent, cut into the vein patterns desired, then covered over with further coats of Elvacite.

Stephan Dupuis-special makeup
Brigitte McCaughry-makeup artist
Tom Schwartz-special makeup
Dick Smith-special makeup effects consultant
Chris Walas-special makeup

The Special Effects of Early Cronenberg Films
Spectacular Optics: The Deployment of Special Effects in David Cronenberg’s Films Steffen Hantke – Film Criticism
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