Perhaps the key reason Canadian director David Cronenberg has remained the most intelligent and effective horror stylist of his generation is that his stories, however outrageous and gruesome, are often just a hairsbreadth from the everyday. Samantha Eggar's mutated offspring in The Brood are the product of a failed marriage, Videodrome taps into television's undeniable hypnotic power, and Crash literally fused two ordinary passions, cars and sex. eXistenZ, his clever and witty take on virtual reality, is built on the not-altogether-implausible premise that if a video-game system is cool enough, users will gladly have it plugged into their spinal cords. In the near future, players have "Bioports" installed in the small of their back and "UmbyCords" attaching them to an organic "game pod" made from synthetic DNA and animal matter. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as the world's premier high-tech game designer, but the title creation has caused extremists (and competitors) to place a $5 million fatwa on her head. Cronenberg was inspired by Salman Rushdie's plight, and the comparison is apt: Whereas Rushdie's Satanic Verses threatened to undermine a belief system, Leigh's invention undermines all belief systems, as it constructs an entirely new, convincing reality of its own. Though Cronenberg makes some creepy insinuations, eXistenZ is more effective as a black comedy than as a visceral shocker. Video-game addicts will appreciate the kinks of the interactive universe, such as characters looping their actions until they get the correct user response or graphic landscapes (a trout farm, a drab Chinese restaurant) that don't live up to their billing. Cronenberg's first original script since 1983's Videodrome relies a little too much on expository dialogue, and he finally outsmarts himself in the disappointing finale. But eXistenZ is still a provocative entry in a recent trend of paranoid thrillers—including The Matrix, Dark City, and The Game—that view reality as an elaborately orchestrated joke.