“The problem with doing a schlocky or big budget studio film is that it wouldn’t actually be fun for me. It wouldn’t be exciting.” – David Cronenberg
Characterised by his tendency toward mind-bending concepts and bulging practical effects, Canadian writer and director David Cronenberg has long been the overlord of sci-fi filmmaking, contorting the genre’s shape and manipulating its future. Famed for his pioneering approach to fleshy body horror, his influence on late 20th-century underground cinema was unparalleled, with the blood, pus, and oozing gunk of his victims at the very heart of his young fans’ deep appreciation.
With the ability to tame any high-concept idea, the gunky DIY horror of Cronenberg’s early career would metamorphosis into something far more realistic, raw, and explicit. Almost exactly at the turn of the new millennium, Cronenberg turned away from the body horror that had established his name in films like Videodrome and The Fly, and focused more specifically on the world of crime in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.
His sheer ability to shift across genres, tones, and styles is exactly what makes him such an important and admired filmmaker, let’s look into six of his most definitive films…
David Cronenberg’s 6 definitive films:
Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg’s 1970 sci-fi/comedy debut feature film would signpost the director’s future interests in high-concept fantasy, but it was his second film, 1975’s Shivers, that would be the first to establish his delight for the horror of the weird and otherworldly.
This sexually-charged horror follows the residents of a suburban block of flats, who each become infected upon the arrival of cosmic parasites that transform them into mindless erotic fiends. Small black slugs, around the size of a fist, slither around the apartment walls and suckle on the skin of their victims, overpowering their minds and bodies in unsightly yet often hilarious ways.
Shivers was a signpost towards David Cronenberg’s future success, pointing towards his love of body horror, sci-fi concepts, and darkly sadistic humour. Whilst it may not be one of his most polished works, it is in itself a canvas of ideas that the director would later draw from.
“I see technology as being an extension of the human body.” – David Cronenberg
The Canadian director’s obsession with supple flesh and damaging futuristic technologies would take him to his most influential piece of filmmaking, 1983’s Videodrome. Here, Max Renn, a TV station programmer on the search for a new, revolutionary programme, comes across a mysterious broadcast named ‘Videodrome’, a disorientating, bizarre signal that infects the viewer with violent sexual desires.
This thrillingly sleazy judgement on new media showcased Cronenberg’s body horror ingenuity that would go on to typify his filmography. With punk sensibilities, the director would amass a critical cult following for Videodrome thanks to the film’s outrageous counter-cultural position criticising popular media, whilst extenuating its enjoyable violent and sexual undertones.
The film would become a pioneer of body-horror filmmaking and a valuable playground for Cronenberg to test and experiment, before his wildly successful adaptation of George Langelaan’s short story, The Fly.
Dead Ringers (1988)
Following Cronenberg’s trio of body horror stories, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly, from 1981 to 1986, the director began to turn to adaptations of critically acclaimed yet divisive pieces of literature. Having directed The Dead Zone in 1983, 1988’s Dead Ringers wasn’t the first of his adaptations, though it was the first to tackle an altogether more dramatically layered story.
Lesser known than the garish sights of his body-horror outings, Dead Ringers tracks a set of acclaimed twin gynaecologists as their relationship begins to collapse over a woman. Whilst this is a film written with great balance of horror and drama by Cronenberg and co-writer Norman Snider, it is the central dual performance of Jeremy Irons that truly gels the film together and into a realm far more feasible. With medieval medical instruments of hook and claw, Cronenberg expertly sets up some brutally uncomfortable scenes, masterfully blocking some, but not all from view. It is a film that achieves success on a horror and dramatic platform.
Cronenberg’s career in the 1990s began going through a distinct transition, away from the pulpy practical effects that once defined him, and toward a more authentic, yet graphic style. An adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ ‘unadaptable’ Naked Lunch followed the director’s work on Dead Ringers, along with the 1993 release of M. Butterfly adapted from David Henry Hwang’s play of the same name. It wasn’t until 1996’s Crash, however, that Cronenberg saw real critical and commercial success.
Adapted from J.G Ballard’s controversial novel, Crash follows a TV director who discovers a sub-cultural group that uses car accidents, and the feral sexual energy they produce to rejuvenate their sex lives. Nominated for the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, and winning the specially created Jury Special Prize “for originality, for daring and for audacity,” according to jury president Francis Ford Coppola who reportedly despised the film, Crash received worldwide publicity due to the film’s graphic nature.
For Cronenberg, however, the film would mark a significant success and his greatest recognised achievement, even being told by Italian filmmaking maestro Bernardo Bertolucci that “the film was a religious masterpiece.”
A History of Violence (2005)
Cronenberg would dive back into his sci-fi roots with 1999’s eXistenZ an often overlooked success of his later career that perfectly combined his knack for sticky body horror with fast-growing video game technologies. The strange, but underwhelming Spider would release in 2002, but it wasn’t until 2005’s A History of Violence that his new brutalist style would establish itself.
Adapted from the 1997 graphic novel of the same name from John Wagner and Vince Locke, Cronenberg’s film captured Millbrook, Indiana with a certain facade that suggested everything was ‘normal’ whilst generations of violence bubbled beneath its surface. Following a mild-mannered man, played excellently by Viggo Mortensen, who becomes a local hero after defending his diner against violent criminals, the film perfectly captures the psychology of a broken man stuck in a dilemma when his past life unfurls in front of his family’s eyes.
Mortensen, so pleased with the film’s final cut, praised Cronenberg and the production itself by saying it was “one of the best movies [he’s] ever been in, if not the best”, before declaring the film is a “perfect film noir”. The actor would go on to star in the directors following film, Eastern Promises, an equally brutal crime/thriller that would pair nicely with A History of Violence to define Cronenberg’s career in the early noughties.
Maps to the Stars (2014)
In between Eastern Promises, Cronenberg toyed with two experimental adaptations, 2011’s study of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method, as well as 2012’s strange Cosmopolis that would mark Robert Pattinson as an exciting rising talent. In 2014 however, and in David Cronenberg’s most recent film, the director analysed and deconstructed Hollywood culture in only a way that he could.
Map to the Stars is a tour across the landscape of Hollywood, tracking a family chasing fame whilst evading the ghosts of the past, and a film which is inherently Cronenberg, not in any violent scenes of body-horror, but in a true satirical essence that both mocks and delights in the horrors of modern fame. Although received relatively poorly from the worldwide press, from fellow directors and film professionals it was praised, compared to “Sunset Boulevard, with sprinklings of Chinatown, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest thrown in for good measure” by critic Mark Kermode.
Even if Maps to the Stars is in fact David Cronenberg’s final film, his lasting legacy on the film industry and the horror genre particularly is immeasurable. Responsible for the creation of some of cinema’s greatest monstrous moments, and the creeping nightmares of individuals across the world as a consequence, he may be one of cinema’s most influential filmmakers.
Whilst Cronenberg has not made a film since 2014, his son Brandon Cronenberg has, releasing the critical successful Possessor in 2020 utilising the brutal sci-fi tone and body-horror thrills which made his father so famous.
“Long live the new flesh…”