“Philosophy is surgery; surgery is philosophy.” – David Cronenberg
Toying with mind-bending existential concepts that often go hand-in-hand with bulging practical effects, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg has had an indelible effect on the world of horror, contorting the genre to his own twisted liking throughout the late 20th century. Pioneering an appreciation for body horror that began with his 1975 feature film debut Shivers, Cronenberg heralded an appreciation for the oozing gunk of the existential subgenre, inspiring the likes of Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna and Shin’ya Tsukamoto among others.
Taming grand high-concept science fiction, Cronenberg’s films are often laden with visceral visual images, from the infamous bath scene of his debut feature to the iconic transformation scene of The Fly in 1986, though to consider his films as this skin-deep would be a mistake.
Laced between the puss, goo and pliable body parts of Cronenberg’s films is a conscious existential conversation that exists even in his most seemingly inane projects. Exploring the mutilation of self and the authenticity of the human conscious, Cronenberg destabilises the construct of disgust in modern Hollywood and establishes a new order of thinking that places his own films at the centre of 20th-century horror philosophy.
Evading the commercial slasher craze of America in the 1980s that focused on masked figures taking out various groups of idiotic teenagers, Cronenberg took a step back and focused on the real narrative behind the madness, assessing the situation from a different angle entirely. “When you’re in the muck you can only see muck,” the director once cryptically stated, adding: “If you somehow manage to float above it, you still see the muck but you see it from a different perspective. And you see other things too. That’s the consolation of philosophy”.
With an enduring, visceral interest in the existential role of one’s own life in the enigma of existence, Cronenberg assesses his own interests from several different angles to reach multiple conclusions on the same earthly matters. Whether it’s the role of personal identity in The Fly, psychological deception in Dead Ringers, the influence of media in Videodrome or the angst of authenticity in eXistenZ, each one of his films works to dissect the human mind as he visually deconstructs the human body itself.
As Cronenberg peels off the blistered skin of Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle in The Fly, he reveals an increasingly tender psyche and engages in a noble quest of discovery as he seeks to dissect and understand the inner workings of the human mind. As the filmmaker told The Guardian in 2014, “I consider myself a junior existentialist,” revealing that he’s a keen reader of Jean-Paul Sartre who said, “Forget about God, there is no God. We should accept that and if we did and realised that compassion and humanistic empathy were valuable – more than valuable but crucial – then the world would be a better place”.
Essentially, this is Cronenberg’s approach to cinema, as he works to imbue this philosophical belief through unconventional means into each and every one of his films that deal with the complexity of the human mind. As the director further details, “My imagination is not full of horrors at all. This is the misunderstanding of what my movies are…I think all my movies are funny”.
Embracing this nihilistic philosophy, Cronenberg forces the audience to consider their own position in the modern world that is being influenced by an increasing number of psychological tests, from the rise of technological assistance to the sociological problem of social media. Exploring the technicalities of the human mind in response to such change, Cronenberg is not unlike a surgeon, excavating the brain to discover existential truth and establish a new cinematic dialogue; “long live the new flesh”.