Dipping into Burroughs' other novels, as well as his private life, Cronenberg came up with a framework to channel the author's mostly plotless book. The hero is William Lee, the writer's pen name, played with Burroughsian panache by Peter Weller. Lee is a pest exterminator addicted to his own chemicals, but when a stunt with a pistol goes wrong he escapes to a strange, exotic city called Interzone.
Between Shivers in 1975 and Dead Ringers in 1988, David Cronenberg was peerless in the world of horror, a revolutionary thinker who transformed the genre without seeming to work within it. His extraordinary vision set him apart from his still slasher-flick-fixated rivals, so when it was announced that he was tackling William S. Burroughs' scabrous, heroin-drenched 1959 cult novel, fans of both expected a masterpiece.
Sadly, it wasn't. Though he used the technique to greater effect in Crash (1996), Cronenberg's attempt to meld his style with an established writer didnít exactly pan out.
Strangers to Burroughs' writing will be all at sea with a story that sees Weller - as Burroughs' alter-ego William Lee - escape to an exotic city called Interzone when a stunt with a pistol goes wrong. Posing as a secret agent, Lee meets 'mugwumps', takes orders from his insect typewriter and infiltrates the seedy ex-pat community.
Anyone who's read Ted Morgan's Burroughs' biog Literary Outlaw, however, will simply see veiled scenes from that book linking together the novel's best monologues. That in itself may be Burroughsian, but Cronenberg and Burroughs don't fuse in other ways; for the most part this is a reductive and messy riff on the novel's exploration of addiction as a control system, with the morally dubious (and not entirely true) conclusion that Burroughs only became a writer by killing his wife.
Provocative, but never as clever as it thinks it is, Cronenberg's film is ultimately a misfire.