The year is 1953. New York exterminator Bill Lee (Peter Weller) discovers that his wife Joan (Judy Davis) has been swiping his yellow bug powder to inject into her breast as a drug.
Bill is a heroin addict himself, and detectives haul him downtown (because the bug powder is an illegal substance) and introduce him to the first of several monster bugs – which are really mutated typewriters that help tell him what to write and what to do.
There are enemy agents afoot, they claim. His wife Joan is one of them and has to be killed, and it “has to be done real tasty”.
Lee flees New York after the accidental shooting of his wife in a William Tell stunt (William Burroughs’s wife died under similar circumstances), for the dubious safety of Interzone – modelled on Tangier, where Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch.
Interzone is a drug-induced nightmare world of spies and junkies that shape Lee’s fantasies as he tries to write himself out of his guilt while being harangued and molested by a variety of giant insects, centipedes and less identifiable creatures.
In Interzone, Lee is drawn to Kiki (Joseph Scorsiani), a gay hustler, and Yves (the ever-creepy Julian Sands), a Swiss debauchee.
The drug of choice is the ejaculation of Mugwumps – emaciated creatures with head protrusions that emit a milky fluid when sucked.
The distribution of the drug involves the evil Dr Benway (an over the top Roy Scheider) and the housekeeper Fadela (Monique Mercure, who out-hams Scheider).
Fadela works for Tom Frost (Ian Holm) and his wife, Joan (also played by Judy Davis) – expatriate writers loosely based on Paul and Jane Bowles.
When Lee and Joan write seductive words to each other on a typewriter, the machine turns into a quivering sex blob that covers their bodies in ooze.
William Burroughs’ drug-induced literary dreamscapes were considered unfilmable, but David Cronenberg took ideas from the 1959 novel Naked Lunch and created quite a straightforward storyline, albeit one with few elements of reality and plenty to scare off the uninitiated, including a giant centipede that rapes and devours a gay boy in a birdcage.
Joan Frost/Joan Lee