High-Rise' Marks the Return of Brutalist Horror

How both films offer a deeply unsettling view of modern society. 

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Early on in director Ben Wheatley’s new film High-Rise, a maniacal adaptation of author J.G. Ballard’s searing 1975 social satire, the architect of the titular building (played by Jeremy Irons) tells quasi-protagonist Dr. Robert Liang (played with a fresh-faced insanity by Tom Hiddleston) the reason why he’s gone through the trouble of designing a utopian living space for hundreds of people away from the city.

“I conceived this building to be a crucible for change,” he says, his cigarette literally and our world metaphorically smoldering in his hand.

It’s this idea of a experimental overreach that drives High-Rise, a movie about the savage civil unrest that develops between middle class cadres cooped up in brutalist playpen. It’s a motif some may recognize from Shivers, David Cronenberg’s 1975 feature about a parasitic venereal disease attacking the residents of a Canadian building block. The two films offer mirror images of the decline and fall of practical everyone.

Cronenberg, Wheatley, and Ballard are inexorably linked in tangential ways. Cronenberg adapted Ballard’s psychological thriller novel Crash in 1996, while High-Rise’s Irons was also in Cronenberg’s 1998 movie Dead Ringers. So there’s an obvious linear relationship between their collaborators.

But Shivers and High-Rise themselves share an unmistakable aesthetic, perhaps as Wheatley’s own winking nod to Cronenberg’s movie that came over four decades before it. The gaudy 1970s retro chic of High-Rise — with its characters outfitted in a plethora of bell-bottomed tweed suits, well coiffed mop-tops, and endless sideburns — is ironic considering the superficial styles of Shivers were how people actually represented themselves at the time.

It’s a kind of backwards twist for the gorgeous production design of High-Rise since it makes its anarchic statements in a 1970s setting convey that chaos is timeless regardless of what people are wearing, but it’s very much about how they’re living or deluding themselves into thinking how they should live. It’s no mistake then that the key artistic symbol of the two films are the structures where the action takes place.

Shivers and High-Rise begin with looks at their respective buildings, which jut out against an unobstructed sky like a kind of isolated concrete phallus. These buildings are supposed to be ultra modern utopias that allegedly alleviate the troubles of the identity-draining contemporary urban lifestyle. Live in the these high-rises, which the real estate agent narrator in the opening shots of Shivers calls an ‘island paradise,” and you’ll never have to leave. Every amenity you’d ever want is right at your fingertips whether you need to go shopping at the most upscale supermarkets, shop at the most fashionable boutiques, work out in the in-house gyms and swimming pools, and more.

Each uses these cloistered gardens of Eden and their segregation from society (and the class structure among the residents themselves) to let loose the chaos. In the views of both filmmakers, there seems to be some sort of twisted and inherent disorder within the order. When things start going south — people start getting murdered in High-Rise while people start becoming wanton sex zombies in Shivers — the audience must react to it based on their conception of civilized society.

And yet disgusting sex parasites going room to room by killing and resurrecting people or the social classes of a British high-rise turning against one another by inciting pure anarchy is seen as a normal process. Everyone and everything is a monster. Devolution is almost inevitable, which is a bleak way look at things, but that’s the point.

It’s not as if anybody can help either. Despite the potential for a hero character there is the most minimal amount of backlash, from actor Paul Hampton’s Dr. Roger St. Luc character in Shivers and Tom Hiddleston’s doe-eyed lead in High-Rise. Despite any level of blowback the wave of disorder throughout their respective buildings is something they can’t possibly stop. They must accept it because theyve accepted a falsely organized and debauched lifestyle. This is also represented in the erratic editing style in both, jumping from character to character and foregoing any sense of real emotional development. They’re detached because they always have been despite the supposedly warm and cozy confines of their domiciles, and we’re detached too.

Sex is also very much at the center of Shivers as well as High-Rise. Besides infidelity being among the inciting incidents of both films, gender roles are questioned too. The women briefly have the upper hand in Shivers, but to Cronenberg the corruption of everyone is the bigger idea here, and soon the entire building becomes infected. Wheatleys view is more empowering for the women, even if they too devolve into a kind of Amazonian tribe towards the end of the film. They still have some semblance of community, whereas the men are simply individualistic animals clinging to the symbols of their upper class status, sipping champagne while beating others to death somewhat at random.

Cronenberg’s movie definitely goes for schlock, an approach that he would refine more and more as a way to challenge intellectual readings of his later films like Scanners and Videodrome, but matched with Wheatleys savage framework both Shivers and High-Rise are a pair of deeply unsettling views on modernity. “Laing would surrender to a logic more powerful than reason,” Hiddleston’s voiceover coos in High-Rise, a line lifted from Ballard’s text. The “logic” of both movies seems to be that if we surrender to certain lazy societal norms, we’re all doomed.

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