Why David Cronenberg’s Montreal – in all its modernist glory – is the creepiest city in cinematic history


Justine Smith: Among Canada’s most recognized filmmakers, Cronenberg has often used his homeland as a backdrop for horror

Author of the article:

Special to National Post & Justine Smith

Publishing date:

Oct 25, 2018



4 minute read“Scanners uses Montreal’s modernist architecture as a means of portraying a dystopian future.” Photo by Getty Images/National Post

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As Halloween approaches, there is no better time to scare yourself silly with a horror movie.As such, we asked National Post writers to reflect back on the movies that scared them the most, to tell us how horror movies are built to give us what we want and to deep-dive into aspects of the genre that we haven’t yet considered.

Between 1975 and 1981, when it was commonplace for films to hide associations with Canadian identity, David Cronenberg made three horror films that were decidedly set in Montreal. Shivers, RabidandScanners made no attempt to disguise their location, taking full advantage of Montreal’s distinct modernist architecture as the backdrop for body horror apocalypses.

Shivers opens with a slideshow advertising the luxury services offered at the newly built Starliner Apartment Complex on Nun’s Island. Just 12-and-a-half minutes away from Montreal, Starliner has all you need to live: a deli, a pool and a doctor’s office. Amidst the clean lines and box-like structure of the apartment building, the inhabitants are soon terrorized by a fleshy turd-like parasite that causes an orgiastic infection.

The film was shot in a real apartment complex designed by Mies van der Rohe, the Tourelle-Sur-Rive. Considered among the pioneers of modernist architecture, Mies favoured a “skin and bones” style, which sought to redefine interior spaces by emphasizing steel structures and glass enclosures. Shivers uses this perfectly ordered space as a backdrop to horrifying acts of violence. Cronenberg frequently intercuts domesticity, such as a young couple inquiring about an apartment downstairs, with a brutal murder taking place on the upper floors. This refuge from the horrors of the city, a fully modern building that provides you with everything you need, becomes a landscape of horror all its own.

The contrast between ordered space and primal instinct is a recurring theme in the works of Cronenberg. In Rabid, a young woman suffers a horrifying motorcycle accident and is treated with experimental skin graft surgery which births a rabies-like virus. Made in the shadow of the 1970 October Crisis, the film echoes the atmosphere of the era. As the disease spreads and people become increasingly violent, a Pierre Trudeau-like politician enforces martial law in the city.

The contrast between ordered space and primal instinct is a recurring theme in the works of Cronenberg.

Cronenberg’s preference to shoot on locati on means that much of the film’s action is centred around Montreal’s downtown core. Marilyn stays in a brown apartment complex on St. Mathieu, she goes to the since burned down Cinema Eve on St. Laurent and a claustrophobic scene takes place on the metro, beginning at the Guy-Concordia platform. The lines of the Montreal metro have often been likened to a circulatory system, and as such, it serves as a central travelling point for the Rabid disease.

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The movie also showcases Montreal’s architecture as an extension of the body. While scenes that take place at the plastic surgery clinic revel in modernist structures of glass walls and open spaces, much of the action in the city itself are dirty and organic. Montreal seems to be made of flesh and blood, fuelled by its inhabitants. The residents, to quote Vincent de Pasciuto-Ponte, the urban planner who designed Montreal’s underground malls, serve as “the cities’ red blood cells without whom a city pales and sickens and dies of anemia.”

Cronenberg’s third and final film shot in Montreal is Scanners. In this science-fiction horror, Scanners are a group of people with telepathic powers and ConSec, a weapons corporation, is attempting to harness their powers for profit. After a renegade Scanner threatens the project, ConSec sends Cameron, another Scanner, after him.

The film opens in the Montreal underground city, in a brown food court decorated with red chrome ceilings and walls. This is our first introduction to Cameron, who has not learned to harness his powers. As he tries to escape the scene, he makes his way up a series of crisscrossing escalators. Space is used to represent chaos as endless diagonals cut up the frame, amplifying Cameron’s sense of confusion.

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As the film moves into the ConSec headquarters, the cold brutalist architecture takes centre stage. The iconic Scanners “demonstration” scene, shot in Concordia’s DB Clarke Theatre, is set in an enclosed windowless space with fluted brown concrete walls decorated with blood-red carpets; evoking a feeling as though we’ve stepped into a futuristic womb. Much of the rest of the ConSec headquarters features modernist elements like glass partitions, open spaces and cold concrete.

More so than the two other films, Scanners uses Montreal’s modernist architecture as a means of portraying a dystopian future. As a movie about the next step in human evolution, the film treats the institutional qualities of architecture as dehumanizing. Similar elements are also featured in Cronenberg’s other films but here, they also stand firm as representations of a corporate-controlled evolutionary future.

Among Canada’s most recognized filmmakers, Cronenberg has often used his homeland as a backdrop for horror. However, no setting has established his cinematic perspective quite like Montreal. Using the city’s distinct modernist architecture, Cronenberg paints the city as a fleshy nightmare in his three Montreal movies, where just around any glass, steel or concrete corner there may reside an even darker realm of human consciousness.


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