You probably wouldn’t guess by looking at or listening to David Cronenberg that he’s capable of creating some of the most gruesome, disturbing, and downright icky images ever put to cinema. I mean, he’s an unassuming, pleasant guy from Toronto, but you have to be doing something pretty out-there to receive the monikers “Dave Deprave” and “The King of Venereal Horror.” Did you even know that Venereal Horror had a monarchy? I thought they were an autonomous collective. At any rate, Cronenberg’s canon features some of the most thoughtful and deeply psychological horror in all of cinema, and he’s able through special effects to make those fears as visceral and tangible as possible, which ends up featuring a loooooooot of goo. His movies mostly all touch on a very real fear most of us have, which is fear of the decay of the flesh, be it real or “new.”
Below are my Top 7 films by Cronenberg. Like all Directors Cuts, they represent only my opinion. If yours differs, fantastic; let me know in the comments below.
7) Naked Lunch (1991)
Cronenberg has made a few of these paranoid-perception movies (like eXistenz and Spider), but this one is my favorite for its sheer what-the-hellery. Based on William S. Burroughs’ subversive and highly controversial 1959 novel, Naked Lunch visualizes all of Burroughs’ prose in a really funny, weird, and beautifully grotesque way. I’m not a huge fan of bugs, so this movie certainly creeps me out a bit, but Peter Weller is magnetic enough to make me forget it. He plays an exterminator who steals the special bug-killing spray so he and his wife can use it as a drug. The result is a horrifying series of hallucinations that would make Hunter S. Thompson freak out.
6) Dead Ringers (1988)
I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to say Cronenberg is slightly obsessed by Freudian and Jungian psychology (he even made a movie about those two men called A Dangerous Method) and he seems intent on exploring deviant and destructive sexuality as much as he can. Few get as creepy as this film where Jeremy Irons plays a pair of identical twin gynecologists specializing in helping women with fertility issues. They do weird, creepy sex stuff and frequently “trade off” in the middle of sex while the woman doesn’t realize it. Eventually, they begin sleeping with a nymphomaniac and one brother falls in love with her, offsetting their equilibrium. He gets into drug use with her and eventually is a junkie. The other brother attempts to help, but takes drugs himself to “synchronize their bloodstreams.” A set of artistic and grotesque metallurgic gynecological instruments are then commissioned when the one brother starts having hallucinations about women with mutated and monstrous genitalia. I mean, and it just gets more effed up from there.
5) Shivers (a/k/a They Came From Within) (1975)
This is Cronenberg’s first horror film, but it’s amazingly impressive, and intensely disturbing. A lot of the imagery presupposes Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, I think, and takes some of Romero’s earlier The Crazies, not least-wise the casting of Lynn Lowry who appears in both films. This is about a new, fancy high-rise apartment building in Toronto which is massive and can house hundreds of people. A nasty parasite gets into the hotel and begins getting inside the residents. The parasite can only be passed through sexual activity so eventually, everyone in the building become cackling, sex-crazed zombies. Though they don’t literally devour people, they do engulf each other and eventually the film ends in a swimming pool with a massive, body-colliding orgy that’s presented as oddly alluring and undoubtedly horrific to our highly virginal and puritanical hero. Sex Zombies. How very ’70s, and how very Cronenberg.
4) A History of Violence (2005)
You’ve probably all seen this one, or most of you have, so I won’t go into too much detail about the plot, but I will talk about it being based on a graphic novel probably few people have heard of. While not a horror movie, per say, Cronenberg does present violence as something swift, uncontrollable, and immensely unpleasant. He doesn’t try to make the killings anyone does, not even our hero Viggo Mortensen, seem cool or heroic in any way. Violence is brutal, violence is messy, and violence can destroy people’s lives, no matter which side of the act you’re on. There’s nothing glamorous about anything that happens in this movie, but it does feel pretty real even at its most heightened. Great movie, and a great screenplay by Josh Olson. Also, fun fact, the last major motion picture released on VHS.
3) The Fly (1986)
This is Cronenberg doing his most Cronenbergy stuff but for a major studio with a much bigger budget. Oh, I love the ’80s, when horror was big business. In a film that resembles the original 1950s B-movie in almost no way at all, and produced by Mel Brooks, The Fly is a strange anomaly in the genre, being something almost uncategorizable. Jeff Goldblum gives a remarkable and incredibly weird performance as Seth Brundle, the brilliant and mad scientist who attempts to be the test subject of his teleportation machine, but ends up slowly mutating until he’s a mixture of fly and man. The original had the fly and man swap heads, but here, they meld into one. Seth’s strength and insatiability increases exponentially and soon he can climb walls. Great, right? Well, less great when his skin starts bubbling, he begins oozing viscous material, and bits of his body start falling off. It can be seen as a metaphor for the growing problem of AIDS, but if you don’t choose to watch it on that level, it’s just an uber grotty body horror movie with one of the best central figures in modern times.
2) The Dead Zone (1983)
Almost as ubiquitous as horror itself in the ’80s were the adaptations of Stephen King novels and stories. He burst onto the writing scene in a big, big way only recently and Hollywood was scrambling to make as many of his beloved works of terror as possible. One of my favorites has always been Cronenberg’s understated, bittersweet, and eerie take on The Dead Zone, made even creepier by the casting of Christopher Walken as central figure and possessor of second sight, Johnny Smith. Cronenberg gets to the center of what hell it would actually be to be able to see someone’s future by touching them, usually revolving around that person’s death. But then he gets the Cassandra Syndrome as well; he knows the future, and he tries to stop the future from happening as best he can. The film is chilly throughout and only gets moreso once Johnny shakes the hand of Martin Sheen’s character, the seemingly good-hearted local politician with high hopes for his career. That vision of of the almost-doomsday is one of the film’s most chilling.
1) Videodrome (1983)
Aaaaand, if you want to sum up Cronenberg in one film, or at least his early career, look no further than the OTHER movie he made in 1983, Videodrome. It’s all about our disturbed desire to see more and more disgusting and depraved things on television. James Woods plays Max Renn, the sleazy proprietor of a local access TV network who is always looking for the most salacious programming to run. He one day gets access to a secret live feed called Videodrome and his life slowly becomes hallucinatory and terrifying. As the Videodrome feed infects his mind, his body begins to become one with technology or, as he eventually calls it, “the new flesh.” It’s a mystery where the point-of-view figure is about as unreliable as they come, and we’re never quite sure after a certain point if he’s actually seeing what we think he is. This is Cronenberg’s essay about the effects of violence and sex (and sexual violence) has on people’s brains, and he takes the makers of those things to task, himself very much included. I never have a great time watching Videodrome, but I’ve seen it four or five times and even now I think “Hmm, maybe I should watch that again.” Videodrome has infected my mind too.
And there we have it, friends; my seven favorite David Cronenberg films. There are certainly some big ones that I left off, because Scanners doesn’t really do it for me. Let me know your seven favorites in the comments below!