In honor of David Cronenberg’s birthday, our staff celebrates his work, sharing the films that most affected us from five decades of revolutionary genius.
“I’m not looking to make comfortable cinema, there’s enough of that around and that’s the easiest and safest stuff to do. Somebody’s got to do the other stuff.” – David Cronenberg
Intro by The Angry Princess (Editor-in-Chief)
A fiercely independent auteur, Cronenberg has made a remarkable career out of wrapping art around the inexorable connection between the mind and the body. His particular genius is reflecting humanity’s deep-seated fears about change, the perils of progress, and our inability — in spite of all our mental capacity and virtually limitless knowledge — to control or hold back the forces of nature and the inevitable deterioration of the human body.
Cronenberg is the master of body horror and how psychological stresses can manifest into physical changes. His films blur the lines between reality and madness, often reflecting the very real horrors of the time. His masterpiece, 1986’s The Fly, is a pointed metaphor for the AIDS epidemic (which was at its height during the time of the film’s release), while one of his earliest films, Shivers, is a searing take on paranoia, sexual mores, and threat of the cold and isolationist society we were slowly becoming at the time. It’s as relevant today as when it was released in 1975.
Throughout his career, Cronenberg’s deep reflections on human nature, violence and sexuality have made him an undisputed master of contemporary cinema. His films reveal the horror of man’s fragile identity. Unflinchingly brutal and uncomfortable, he makes us confront the abyss of the human soul and forces us to take an honest look at our true nature.
Join us as we honor the unparalleled genius of David Cronenberg, celebrating some of our favorite twisted masterpieces.
A tribute by Matthew Currie Holmes
“When I’m preparing a script, I don’t look at movies for inspiration. I read. And I mostly read philosophy and science.” – David Cronenberg
If I could imagine David Cronenberg as a child, I would suspect he was that technology-obsessed kid, considered weird by some, who was more interested in what happened if Clark Kent ingested kryptonite than he was about watching the wondrous adventures of Superman. That’s not to say Cronenberg is rooting for the destruction of the good guy. On the contrary, he’s rooting for the good guy the whole time… his lens, though has always been ‘observational’.
Cronenberg seems more interested in asking: “What would happen if Superman was thrust into his absolute worst case scenario. What would that look like?” And then he takes it just a little further.
Cronenberg has always had the unique ability to perverse what we hold sacred in pop culture.
He makes profane what we enjoy most in mainstream entertainment. It’s almost as if he delights in making us feel uncomfortable. One of the best examples of this is his 1981 Sci-Fi conspiracy thriller Scanners.
Scanners is about a group of telepathic and telekinetic people known as ‘scanners’ who are being recruited by ConSec (an evil corporation who wants to use them as weapons) and Darryl Revok (Micheal Ironside), a renegade scanner, who wants to build an army of his own. Revok not only wants to wage a war against ConSec, but to eventually take over the world.
A simple, elegant ‘superhero’ film that, by all accounts could have been a pretty straightforward, kid friendly, sci-fi thriller. Its concept alone could have made the film a box office smash.
In Cronenberg’s hands, however, Scanners is a very adult, unpleasant, nihilistic, gore-fest that borders on depressing.
Scanners is essentially a low-fi X-Men movie with a heavy dose of counter-culture parable, and grisly special effects meant to disgust and unsettle. That’s actually a good thing.
What makes Cronenberg unique and captivating as a filmmaker is that he never shies away from the visceral — taking delight in revolting the audience. He is an artist who needs to find a very specific set of answers, and in doing so, constantly offers us the alternative view of what could be a very pleasurable, mainstream thriller. In this way, he satisfies both his own morbid curiosity as well as ours, whether we want to know these answers or not.
Scanners is not a great film, but it is definitely a great film to see if you are at all interested in getting inside the head of a filmmaker — one who, though he consistently eschews them, clearly does love mainstream movies. But as a scientist and philosopher, as well as a filmmaker, he just can’t seem to NOT ask the darker, more probing questions.
And that is most certainly a very good thing.
DEAD RINGERS (1988)
A tribute by Kourtnea Hogan
“You take the most beautiful woman in the world, and you cut her open — is she as beautiful on the inside?” – David Cronenberg
The inverse of penis envy, Dead Ringers illustrates the fear and envy men feel about the womb. Or the horror of not truly knowing where you begin and another ends, depending on how you read it.
One of the many reasons Cronenberg’s work resonates and has broken through to the mainstream world is because of the plethora of readings you can pull from his work. Is the movie about twins? Or brutalizing women with twisted gynecological tools?
Or is it about men thinking they have dominion over women, when really women are what’s holding them back from destruction?
Dead Ringers is all of those things and many more.
The cold, clinical dialogue and tight filmmaking only adds to the sterile atmosphere and setting. Hailed as Cronenberg’s last true horror film, it pairs well with The Brood as an examination of men’s fear of women’s reproduction.
THE FLY (1986)
A tribute by Jack Wilhelmi
David Cronenberg’s The Fly is a body horror classic that continues to shock and awe even modern audiences with its messages about the ever-present and even looming threat of technology and how it negatively commingles with humanity. Cronenberg explores his narrative through the works of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and his experimental “Telepods” which end up turning the brilliant scientist into a man/fly hybrid after their genes get spliced together via an unfortunate accident with Brundle’s machine.
Though The Fly is a visceral example that plays beautifully into nearly every “descent into madness” trope that exists, at its core, it’s a love story — albeit a tragic one.
Through his relationship with Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), Brundle discovers acceptance and even hope that he could have a family someday. Yet, this realization comes too late, as the transformation into the creature he has dubbed “Brundlefly” slowly siphons away everything that made him who he was; it’s a complete, staggering loss of identity, of humanity, and of the very fabric of the human condition.
Many of Cronenberg’s films have a cautionary tale aspect to them.
Cronenberg orchestrates just how far people are willing to go not only for love, but for the bigger picture: a lasting legacy that will endure long after we are gone. With Brundle’s story, Cronenberg begs the question, “What is the sacrifice for immortality?” And, furthermore, is it worth it?
Through his transformation, Seth was presented with his own mortality in a way that, as a scientist, seemed a hard pill to swallow. But while the film centers around Brundle, it’s very much Veronica’s story, too, as she is forced to watch the man she loves become literally consumed — not only by the fly’s genes that are taking him over, but by the more literal underlying message; his work destroyed them both.
The film also reflects on the transformative powers of love, and how loving someone is not always some idyllic experience.
Through loving Veronica, Seth is pushed to a careless mistake that ends him. Similarly, Veronica’s love for Seth becomes her ultimate pain when she has to watch him decay into someone she doesn’t recognize — literally or figuratively. She then must shoulder the burden of being the one to end his suffering.
Cronenberg has always been a master of body horror, known for his commentary on the resolute aftermath of the human condition that is stark and often painful. Yet, through The Fly, he explores the body horror of the soul in decay and the heart in dismemberment, instead of exploding heads. This makes it not only a worthy addition to his oeuvre, but one of his finest films.
EASTERN PROMISES (2007)
A tribute by Ethan Robles
Given David Cronenberg’s reputation and his dense filmography, it feels crazy to say that Eastern Promises (2007) was my first Cronenberg experience. After Eastern Promises, I dived into his catalogue, but it was the Cronenberg gangster films that brought me into the fold and changed how I thought about film.
2005, A History of Violence. 2007, Eastern Promises. These films hit like a one-two punch in the early 2000s, and they both managed to change the narrative regarding noire and gangster films. I’ve always thought of these movies as a duet; they act as Cronenberg’s solution to latency in gangster films. None more so than Eastern Promises.
Blow (2001), Road to Perdition (2002), The Departed (2006). These are great movies. But they each take the sanitized, charismatic approach to organized crime championed by Scorsese’s 90’s gangster hits.
Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises reminds us of the grim reality of terrible crime lords and their henchmen.
Eastern Promises deals with prostitution, sex trafficking, drugs, rape, and an entirely nude massacre using only linoleum knives. This isn’t Ray Liotta telling us about the good ol’ days. It’s gritty, mean, uncomfortable, and unrelenting. Pure Cronenberg.
I remember being 17 and riveted by this film. I’d never seen anything like it. It was so brave on so many levels. What impacted me most was Cronenberg’s honesty.
There are many films, especially crime and gangster films, that pull punches. They can’t or won’t embrace the inherent brutality that comes with the genre. And it’s a good thing. Sometimes, we need those punches to hurt less.
As a filmmaker and storyteller, Cronenberg has never held back.
He is the exception to the rule, the one who always puts everything on the line. Eastern Promises proved that to me.
After Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), The Brood (1979), The Dead Zone (1983), etc., I always come back to Eastern Promises. It’s a palate cleanser, a near perfect film, an example for truly honest filmmaking.
THE BROOD (1979)
A tribute by The Angry Princess
“I don’t think that films have to be positive or uplifting to be valid experiences. A film can be depressing and still be exhilarating.” – David Cronenberg
The 1979 psychological drama/monster movie The Brood startled audiences at the time with its unique blend of visceral horror and emotional terror. Even more than 40 years later, it still packs a punch — especially when you understand the personal pain that fueled this tale of psychological abuse, the dissolution of family, and the physical manifestation of inner trauma.
Cronenberg was in the middle of writing a script, which would later evolve into Scanners, when he was compelled to switch gears and write The Brood. At the time, he was going through an especially nasty divorce involving a custody battle and his wife’s attempt to raise their daughter in a cult. Thus, the narrative became inspired by this real-life horror, combined with a pointed social commentary on the self-help movement that was all the rage.
The grotesque nature of his film’s impressive visual effects typically dominate discussions about Cronenberg.
But’s the recognizable and deeply relatable underpinnings of his storylines that cause them to resonate so deeply with viewers.
Even if you go into the film knowing nothing about its history, The Brood feels unnervingly personal.
It so achingly captures the pain of divorce and its destructive effect on everyone involved, especially the children caught in the middle, that it leaves you reeling — long before the introduction of the film’s more traditional horror elements.
It’s also a film about abuse and how our unresolved trauma and darkest impulses can shape our lives in ways we don’t even comprehend.
Nola (Samantha Eggar) is a patient of Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed), the creator of “psychoplasmics”, a controversial and unsettling form of therapy which encourages catharsis but comes with some nasty side effects. In Nola’s case, her trauma results in the creation of literal “rage babies” that feed off her subconscious desires and attack the source of her anger.
The film is most famous for its shocking Grand Guignol, a monstrous finale where Cronenberg saves the worst for last.
And while these moments of visceral body horror have lost little of their potency over the years, the real gut punch is the revelation that trauma breeds trauma — that an abusive parent can often create an abuser.
Though it’s easy to see Nola as an unsympathetic character, causing many to blast the film for its anti-feminist sentiment and portrayal of the monstrous female, Nola is as much victim as victimizer.
Her rage babies may only see the world in black and white, but Cronenberg understands true horror reveals itself in infinite shades of gray.
NAKED LUNCH (1991)
A tribute by Matthew Currie Holmes
When writing about William S. Burroughs’ seminal 1959 junkie prose The Naked Lunch, it’s best to heed the advice from the author himself: “Exterminate all rational thought.” That quote is even more relevant when trying to discuss the meta-textual film adaptation from the great David Cronenberg.
I saw the movie Naked Lunch in the theatre the year it came out. I was a 17 year-old pseudo intellectual who thought he knew everything. I had even read the book earlier that year and, while I understood that the book’s ‘vignettes’ were fueled by a cornucopia of ingested narcotics, I didn’t really get it.
And that’s why 17 year-old know-it-alls read Burroughs like a thousand times; so that when we’re in our 40s we can go: “Burroughs? The voice of drug addled dissent, satirizing the tyranny of our state. Yeah, I get Burroughs.”
But do we? I mean, sure, we understand what Burroughs was saying… but do we really get it?
In the movie adaptation, Peter Weller plays Bill, an ex-writer who is now a bug exterminator addicted to ‘bug powder’. He gets caught selling/stealing the ‘junk’ and is subsequently recruited by a giant bug (who talks out of his sphincter) to kill his wife, who, as it turns out, is a covert agent for the InterZone Incorporated.
With me so far?
Bill goes home, gets high, and accidentally shoots his wife in the head during their oft played game of William Tell. He flees to the InterZone (Tangiers) where he must write multiple reports on a Clark Nova typewriter… which turns into the sphincter talking bug. Along the way he meets a slew of sexually ambivalent characters, including aliens known as Mugwumps that secrete deadly ‘Jism’ from their phallic antenna and his wife’s doppelgänger — with whom he flees the InterZone to Annexia; but not before he discovers who is behind the bug powder/narcotics/Jism trade and that he has been simultaneously suppressing his own creativity and blatant homosexuality. Phew.
Cronenberg’s insane movie is both an adaptation of the book and a biopic of its author.
Because the book doesn’t have a ‘plot’ to speak of, Cronenberg was given free rein to make up whatever he wanted. He chose the themes of the book that, I assume, spoke to him the most (censorship, addiction, paranoia, fear and panic) and then coupled them with biographical incidents of the author to create a brilliant, often hilarious, startling, sexual sci-fi film that, at its heart, is essentially about a writer who is afraid to write for fear of what he might discover about himself.
Let me repeat that.
NAKED LUNCH is about a writer who is afraid to write for fear of what he might discover about himself.
Do I get Burroughs now? You bet your ass I do.
A tribute by Danni Darko
In 1983, after four extraordinary features, David Cronenberg presented a mind-bogglingly unique and twisted vision to audiences. Videodrome, starring James Woods and Debbie Harry, tells the story of Max Renn (Woods), a local producer of controversial Channel 83 – Civic TV, which gleefully gives viewers the opportunity to watch everything from soft core pornography to hard core violence.
But in his unscrupulous quest to bring bold and daring television, Renn stumbles upon a mysterious transmission; one full of unrepentant violence. A transmission which startles, yet unequivocally intrigues, and demands to be seen more of. The entrancing, horrific images from ‘Videodrome’ seduce Nicki (Harry) and lead Renn down a rabbit hole riddled with conspiracy, hallucinations and a complete fucking breakdown for himself.
Videodrome was an ambitious production for Cronenberg and the first film of his backed by the big bucks of a Hollywood studio.
Cronenberg’s concept of media, television and movies becoming responsible for altering and consuming the population — via our innate fascination with sex and violence — was something that truly frightened me. It also strangely resonated with me, as I was pretty much raised on movies and late night television.
Back when young David was growing up in Toronto, Canada, he would also watch late night television and would often come across blurry, fragmented receptions coming in from Buffalo, New York, and Detroit, Michigan. In an interview given at the Toronto International Film Festival a few years back, he said he found these late night, accidental accesses as mysterious and dangerous. He tucked these experiences away to later help him conceive the idea for Videodrome.
The idea of television and questionable entertainment becoming ground zero for the unnatural evolution of humanity is truly frightening.
Adding to the horror is the fact that Videodrome also featured some of the best special effects ever.
Fresh off the incredible feats pulled off on An American Werewolf in London, Rick Baker and a very young team took on the Cronenberg challenge. The FX in Videodrome are sensational and unforgettable; a breathing, orgasmic television, a gun that morphs into a hand, opening chest cavities that have VHS tapes stuffed inside, and the incredible exploding television set that was filled with actual, rotting pig guts.
Bill Sturgeon, who worked on the Makeup FX Crew for Videodrome, has said it was the best script he had ever read, with other FX team members expressing how they read it with their mouths open. Some phenomenal sequences were achieved on this film, but everyone involved had even more to offer. Sadly, time and budget limitations resulted in cuts to additional FX sequences.
Cronenberg has this uncanny ability to meld the entertaining with the thought provoking. The soft-spoken, self-taught filmmaker helped spawn the body horror sub genre with movies that are profoundly different, visually disturbing and some of my favorites of all-time
A tribute by Kourtnea Hogan
Less body horror, more horrific sexuality, Cronenberg broke out of his own box for Crash.
No stranger to controversy, he managed to drum up a whole different breed of it with Crash, which focuses on a group of people who take sexual pleasure from car crashes. If the rating system tells us anything, it’s that censors care more about sex and nudity than they do about violence.
But Cronenberg twists the two together so tightly here that people were outraged, fearful that it would encourage people to harm others for sexual pleasure.
Still, the jury at Cannes loved it, and even presented it with a special award “for originality, for daring, and for audacity,” which hasn’t been awarded since.
Crash is a polarizing movie that is reminiscent of Lynch’s Blue Velvet in terms of sexuality, violence, and depth.
You can find countless scholarly articles on the film, but if that surprises you, you haven’t been paying attention to Cronenberg at all.
DEAD ZONE (1983)
A tribute by Jerry Smith
When you mention the name David Cronenberg, the first films typically leaping into the minds of genre fans tend to be Videodrome, The Fly, or on a good day, Naked Lunch (god, I adore that film). But for this collab piece, I opted to write about a film I find to be an under appreciated gem in the Canadian filmmaker’s roster.
Released in 1983, The Dead Zone took the 1979 Step