It’s the 1950s, and Bill Lee is a pest exterminator. He’s in trouble with his employers because he’s been using suspiciously large quantities of bug powder. His wife has been injecting it. In fact they’re both addicted to it. Then he kills his wife accidentally, but it’s no accident. There are no accidents. He was programmed to do it. His wife is really a foreign agent, and possibly not human. Bill is a secret agent too, in the mysterious port of Interzone, in North Africa. He types his reports on a Clark Nova typewriter which talks to him through a sphincter-like opening beneath its wings. There are sinister plots afoot in Interzone. The paranoia is palpable. Of course none of this is real, and Bill Lee’s reports are in fact a novel, Naked Lunch.
David Cronenberg’s 1991 film Naked Lunch is based partly on the works of William S. Burroughs, including his novel Naked Lunch, and partly on Burroughs’ life. Burroughs really did accidentally kill his wife, in exactly the manner depicted in this movie. That event was crucial to his life and to his work as a writer and it’s crucial to the film. The extremes demanded of the creative artist, the intoxication of words and drugs, the writer as a spy or a subversive, Cronenberg captures beautifully. The sense of the flesh as something monstrous, something with a hideous life of its own, probably comes as much from Cronenberg as from Burroughs. Peter Weller captures much of the disturbing quality of Burroughs himself in his emotionally flat performance as Bill Lee. Judy Davis plays his wife and also one of the denizens of Interzone with whom Lee comes into contact. Her performance is the highlight of the film. The special effects are pre-CGI and all the better for that. They have a tangible quality that makes them truly horrifying and repulsive – something that CGI effects could not have achieved. The typewriters that are at the same time giant bugs are particularly memorable and the idea of the writing machine as something alive and monstrous is very effective. At one stage Bill Lee finds himself using a typewriter in the form of a monstrous head with appendages that ejaculate when he types something it likes. Whether Burroughs is really filmable or not, and how much of the film is Cronenberg rather than Burroughs isn’t really the point – if you accept it as David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch than it’s a brilliant movie. In fact it’s one of his best movies, along with the equally disturbing Spider and Crash.
8 out of 10