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(Credit: Toronto Film Festival)

Film

The most influential film of David Cronenberg's life

Hailing from Canada, David Cronenberg is one of cinema’s pioneering figures in the body horror genre, popularising the concept within films such as Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), and The Fly (1986). His first breakthrough film was Rabid (1977), which came after several art-house features such as the black and white silent film Stereo (1969). Rabid ended up becoming one of the highest-grossing films in Canada upon its release, garnering $100,000 after its first ten days showing in Montreal.

Yet Cronenberg has demonstrated his ability to create a diverse number of films that weren’t just psychological and body horrors. In 1979 he released Fast Company, an action film about car racing, which received mainly positive reviews. However, Cronenberg continued to cover controversial topics and by 1991 had adapted William Burroughs’s infamous novel Naked Lunch, which had always been declared ‘unfilmable.’ Yet Cronenberg’s attempt to bring the story of a drug addict to life combined parts of the novel with elements of Burroughs’s real life, resulting in a surreal blend of fiction and biography.

Since, Cronenberg has kept exploring personal transformation within his films, often using disease as a catalyst for change. In his film Crash (1996) for example, Cronenberg stated that characters injured in a car crash view the events as “fertilizing rather than a destructive event.” Other successful Cronenberg films include A History of Violence, which stars Viggo Mortensen, who declared the film “one of the best movies [he’d] ever been in, if not the best,” as well as stating that it is a “perfect film noir.” Another Mortensen collaboration came in the form of A Dangerous Method in 2011, which explored the relationships between psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein, the latter one of the first-ever female psychoanalysts.

It is clear that Cronenberg is influenced by many great and innovative figures, from Vladimir Nabokov to Philip K. Dick. Furthermore, his influence is clear on recent films such as Julia Ducournau’s Titane, a mind-bending body horror that depicts a woman who, after being fitted with a titanium plate in her head after a car accident, develops a psycho-sexual affinity for cars. Evidently, Cronenberg (whose next film – Crimes of the Future is set to release this year) is an essential part of the horror genre, yet he wouldn’t have gotten to where he is now without the influence of certain films that shaped his ideas of filmmaking.

Despite ground-breaking films such as The Seventh Seal, Freaks, Vampyr, and Un Chien Andalou, there was one film that greatly inspired the director to pursue filmmaking. This was Winter Kept Us Warm, a 1966 independent romantic drama, directed by Cronenberg’s classmate David Secter, which was the first English-language Canadian film to be screened at Cannes Film Festival. Winter Kept Us Warm, taking its name from a line in T.S Eliot’s seminal poem The Waste Land, follows two wildly different students attending the University of Toronto that develop a close friendship.

The film was based on director Secter’s real-life experience of falling in love with a fellow male student while at university, however, the homosexual themes are strategically coded in order to gain a wider audience. The director stated that some of the film’s cast were unaware whilst filming that the story was even about homosexuality.

Secter was inspired by the French New Wave movement, which was largely comprised of film critics who decided to try their hand at filmmaking on low budgets. The film was granted $750 from the University of Toronto’s Student Union, and Secter had to find much of his cast by putting out adverts in the university newspaper. In total, the film was made on an $8,000 budget, yet Winter Kept Us Warm has ended up becoming a landmark in Canadian cinema, even if it is not as widely remembered as it deserves to be.

Answering questions for The Guardian, Cronenberg was asked by fellow University of Toronto alumni Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, if anything about the university inspired him to make horror films, such as the disturbing collection of goods in the zoology building. Cronenberg started out studying organic chemistry, stating that he intended to be a cell biologist, yet he fell out of love with the subject as he felt disconnected from his fellow students, instead preferring to hang around with English and philosophy students.

However, it wasn’t until David Sector, a fellow student, began making Winter Kept Us Warm which starred some of Cronenberg’s friends, that he felt inspired to pursue the medium himself. The director stated that “it never occurred to me that you could make a movie. It was unlike someone growing up in LA where everybody’s parents were in the business. In Toronto, no one’s parents were in the movie business because there wasn’t a movie business.”

Another question came from An American Werewolf in London director John Landis, who asked which five films he particularly admires. Instead of giving five, Cronenberg yet again asserts the influence that Winter Kept Us Warm had over him. He said: “It wasn’t a horror film – it was a drama about students coping with life at the University of Toronto – and it wasn’t because of its artistry. It was just the fact it was made. It’s hard to reproduce the shock I felt when I saw my classmates on screen in a real movie, acting. It was like magic: you are watching TV and suddenly you are in the TV, acting in some TV series. It was that kind of shock.”