Whether seeing them for the first time or revisiting the works of the Master of Body Horror, Cronenberg’s library is always a chilling place to visit.
In 2013, the Toronto International Film Festival opened an exhibit called Cronenberg: Evolution, a look at the career of one of the most distinctive directors of the modern era. The exhibit breaks down Cronenberg’s career into three loosely defined eras. The first, featuring films like The Brood and Scanners, is listed as “Who Is My Creator?”. The second is “Who Am I?” with films like The Fly and Dead Ringers. The last section is “Who Are We?”, and it includes The History of Violence and Eastern Promises (I’m more inclined to call this the Viggo Mortensen era).
This is a pretty accurate breakdown of Cronenberg’s filmography. His early films focus on science or a scientist and what they have created. This shifts to films where science or a scientist are their own subjects. Cronenberg’s latest films focus on who we are as a society and how we perceive and are shaped by violence.
Cronenberg’s oeuvre is one of the most solid of any of the modern era filmmakers. With the possible exception of the truly horrible “Cosmopolis”, there isn’t a movie he has made that I wouldn’t recommend checking out. But here is a list of my ten favorite films (okay, twelve – there were a couple of ties) from the brilliant mind of David Cronenberg.
Before we get started on the list, here are a couple of films that came very close to making my list.
Honorable Mention: eXistenZ (1999)
While the story is a little uneven, Cronenberg’s foreshadowing of how much games and VR would play in our future is chilling. A game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is forced on the run with her PR person (Jude Law) when a group trying to stop her new game from being released targets her for assassination. Ahead of its time, eXistenZ is a fascinating look at the mindset of hardcore gamers who have ports placed in their bodies that connect to organic controllers. This lets the gamers immerse themselves in the game. It’s a fascinating film with a twist that M. Night Shyamalan would envy.
Honorable Mention: A Dangerous Method (2011)
It would be hard to argue the Freudian influence in near all of Cronenberg’s films, so a movie about the friendship and rivalry between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and their relationship with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), seems like a natural fit. It’s an interesting period piece with an effective story, and the scenes between Fassbender and Mortensen are electric.
Honorable Mention: Nightbreed (1990)
Okay, so this is a bit of a cheat. Nightbreed is directed by Clive Barker, not David Cronenberg, but Cronenberg plays Dr. Philip Decker, a creepy psychiatrist who convinces his patient Boone (Craig Sheffer) that he has committed a series of brutal murders that sends him seeking Midian, a haven for monsters. Nightbreed is a fantastic film (make sure you watch The Director’s Cut), one of my favorite adaptations of Clive Barker, and watching Cronenberg in front of the camera (at this point, he had only played extras in some of his own films) is pure joy.
TOP TEN CRONENBERG FILMS
10. Scanners (1981)
Scanners is probably most famous for its head explosion scene. It was (forgive me) mind-blowing at the time, and nearly forty years later, it’s a shot that holds up surprisingly well. But to simply write off Scanners as the head explosion movie isn’t fair. Despite the challenges of the special effects and the fact that the script was still being written after filming had begun (Cronenberg has referred to Scanners as his most frustrating film to make), it is a well-designed sci-fi thriller with a great performance from Michael Ironside.
Scanners are people with telekinetic powers. ConSec is a security firm working to weaponize them, but during a demonstration, Revok, a volunteer (Ironside), kills someone (the famous head explosion) and several guards when ConSec tries to take him into custody. Revok begins to work against ConSec, and they are forced to send Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), another powerful scanner, to stop him.
Despite the gore, Scanners is probably one of Cronenberg’s most mainstream films. Overall, the movie doesn’t hold up as well as a lot of his other films, but it’s still Cronenberg being brilliant, and you can see some of his earlier ideas pay forward when he directs Stephen King’s The Dead Zone.
9. Naked Lunch (1991)
William S. Burroughs meets David Cronenberg — now there’s a match that seemed destined to come together. Burroughs’ novel “Naked Lunch” was pretty much considered unfilmable, and it probably still is. This version takes a meta approach. Realizing what he was tackling, Cronenberg makes his Naked Lunch less about the events in the book itself and more about the events that went into creating it. Pulling from “Naked Lunch”, some of Burroughs’ other works, and Burroughs’ life itself (actress Judy Davis is wonderful as Burrough’s second wife who he accidentally kills both in the movie and in real life), Cronenberg gives us a distinct and sad look at the life of a probable literary genius lost to addiction.
Peter Weller (Robocop) is brilliant as Burroughs and seems to have his mannerisms and style down pat, even as he has to realistically act opposite Mugwumps and insectoid typewriters with talking anuses.
This is not a movie for everyone. It’s a bit of a psychedelic mess, but between Weller’s performance and watching Cronenberg tackle such a formidable work and the ideas behind it make it worthy of multiple viewings.
8. Shivers (1975) / Rabid (1977)
Cronenberg’s first two films, while not developmentally related, are spiritual kin. Both are essentially zombie movies under different guises.
In Shivers, two scientists are working to create a parasite that can take over the function of a human organ, making transplants unnecessary. After Hobbes (Joe Doederlein), one of the scientists, commits suicide after killing and cutting open a young girl, physician Robert St. Luc (Paul Hampton), working with the other creator Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver), discover that Hobbes’ actual intention was to create a parasite that would release humankind’s sexual aggressiveness by turning people into mindless sexual creatures. The film was originally released in the United States as They Came From Within.
Rabid follows this theme. Porn star Marilyn Chambers (after the studio refused to cast a then unknown Sissy Spacek due to her accent) stars as Rose, a woman injured in a motorcycle accident with her boyfriend. They are taken to a nearby plastic surgery clinic where Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) performs a radical new grafting technique to repair Rose’s substantial injuries. There are (of course) unintended side effects. Rose now requires human blood to survive and gets it through a red stinger that emerges from an orifice under her arm. After being fed on by Rose, her victims become rabid zombies that attack and spread the disease. Rose is unaware that she is the cause of the outbreak.
Both films explore what would become common themes for Cronenberg — our relationship with technology and how that technology can affect our evolution as a species. Both Shivers and Rabid are amazing horror films and showcase what a keen-eyed director and storyteller Cronenberg was right from the start of his career.
7. Crash (1996)
In a career of bizarre films, Crash may be one of his more bizarre films. While not a classic horror film, it does take his obsession with body horror to the next level. Horror often gets a bad rap for sexualizing violence, but with Crash, Cronenberg embraces the idea (which divided critics and audiences alike).
James Spader is film producer James Ballard who is an open marriage with his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) in which they can only become sexually aroused with one another when they are describing their encounters with other people. After Ballard is involved in a head-on collision with another car, he and Catherine become involved in an underground world with people who fetishize car crashes.
Roger Ebert described the movie as “a porno movie made by a computer: It downloads gigabytes of information about sex, it discovers our love affair with cars, and it combines them in a mistaken algorithm.” This is a brilliant analysis, but the movie never feels mechanical. The movie is passionate and disturbing, fetishizing cars and crashes, and the injuries sustained in those crashes.
In Rabid, Cronenberg took a porn star and put her in a mainstream film. In Crash, Cronenberg takes mainstream actors (in addition to Spader and Unger, the movie also features Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Peter MacNeill, and Rosanna Arquette) and puts them in a porn film. The result isn’t for everyone, but it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking film that will leave the viewer examining their own desires.
6. Dead Ringers (1988)
Oscar winner Jeremy Irons has a career full of amazing performances, but two jump out at me more than any other — Scar in The Lion King and the twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.
The tagline for the movie was “Two Bodies. Two Minds. One Soul”. The movie is based on the book “Twins” by Barry Wood and Jack Geasland, which itself is based on real-life twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyrus Marcus who were found dead from overdoses in 1975.
The highly successful twins are so close that they live together and share a bed together and routinely stand in for one another. At one point, Elliot tells Beverly that he hasn’t fucked a character until he has fucked her, too. This symbiotic relationship is challenged and their true psychoses come to the forefront when Beverly falls for Claire (Genevieve Bujold) and becomes obsessed with her deformed uterus (she has three cervixes) and her drug habit.
Irons convincingly plays both roles, and Cronenberg’s direction is masterful, making the scenes where the actor is seen in both roles seem natural. While snubbed here in the States, Dead Ringers won ten Genies (Canadian equivalent of the Oscar) in Cronenberg’s native Canada, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor for Irons.
5. The Dead Zone (1983)
A mash-up between Stephen King and David Cronenberg feels like a natural partnership, and the result is what is probably one of the top five adaptations of a King novel.
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a school teacher dating a colleague Sarah (Brook Adams), and things are going his way. But a car accident changes everything, and he wakes up five years later. Sarah is now married with a child, and Johnny is having visions whenever he touches someone. After helping a few people, word of his “gift” gets out and soon he is assailed by believers and mocked by non-believers, He is even labeled a “fucking freak” by a reporter. This all eventually leads to a confrontation with a politician seeking political office (Martin Sheen playing someone who looks all too familiar in today’s political climate) who he believes may lead to the end of life as we know it. This forces Johnny to make the toughest choice of his life.
Walken is amazing. This is one of my favorite roles he’s portrayed. Cronenberg and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam take King’s sprawling manuscript and tighten it into a taut thriller that will leave you questioning what is right and wrong…and just how far you might go to stop evil.
4. A History of Violence (2005) / Eastern Promises (2007)
With A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, Cronenberg steps away from the body horror genre and forces his fans to confront the evil that men do. There’s no science or technology behind it. There’s no virus. It’s just man’s inhumanity to man and all the horrors that entails.
In A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen is Tom Stall, a mild-mannered family man whose life is turned upside down when two men try to rob his diner, and he stops them — showing a side of the quiet family man we haven’t seen up until now. It turns him into a bit of a celebrity, and it dredges up his past, which soon comes calling and puts his wife (Maria Bello) and children (Ashton Holmes, Heidi Hays) in jeopardy.
Eastern Promises continues the theme of violence, as Mortensen plays a Russian mobster whose rise to power is threatened when he gets involved with a midwife (Naomi Watts) who is investigating the diary of a young woman who died giving birth.
One of Cronenberg’s greatest strengths is his ability to get some amazing performances from his cast, and this is no exception. Mortensen’s work with Cronenberg (they have made three films together) is some of my favorite by the actor, particularly his work in A History of Violence (though he would be nominated for his first Oscar for Eastern Promises). Mortensen effectively creates this quiet, unassuming family man, but then turns him off in a second to confront his past.
With both of these movies, Cronenberg takes the violence that has been a part of most of his films and makes it even more brutal by making it more real and more cold. They are chilling films to watch, and like some of Cronenberg’s best work, keep you thinking about them for days or weeks after.
The top three films on my list are probably the most interchangeable of Cronenberg’s films. Depending on my mood on any given day, any of them could be my top pick, but this is the order I feel they are in at this moment after rewatching them.
3. The Brood (1979)
The Brood is a favorite for two reasons. First, it was my first Cronenberg film. I’ve written in the past about my movie experiences with my mom, especially at the drive-in. The Brood is another of those drive-in movies that I remember fondly.
The second reason? Rage babies. If you’re not familiar with the plot of the movie, Frank (Art Hindle) is separated from his wife, Nola (Samantha Eggar), who is currently undergoing psychiatric treatment at the Somafee Institute under the care of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). Dr. Raglan’s approach to therapy involves psychoplasmics. He encourages patients to work through their issues by using physiological changes to deal with long suppressed emotions. Nola has some issues with rage, and how that manifests is one of my favorite moments in any Cronenberg film. This movie stuck with me when I saw it in 1997 and still does because I struggled with my own rage issues through my early thirties, and it was a powerful metaphor for what I felt during so much of that time of my life.
The movie sparked mixed reviews when it came out. Roger Ebert questioned whether there were “really people who wanted to watch reprehensible trash like this?” There were, and there are. The Brood is brilliant and fascinating, and I’m wondering now if it shouldn’t have been higher than number three on my list.
2. Videodrome (1983)
If there is a film that is more essentially Cronenberg that Videodrome, I can’t think what it might be. It is also very much a product of the 80s. Yet, long before it came to be, it provides a telling look at what the world has become like in the internet age when nearly anything and everything you desire to see is available to you at the click of a button.
Max Renn (James Woods) is a cable tv programmer for a tiny station that features mostly soft-core porn and violent programming in an attempt to carve out a little niche in the market. Always on the lookout for new programming, he and one of his tech guys (Peter Dvorsky) find a signal showing brutal torture and murder. Thinking this might just be what he needs for his show, he sets out to track down the signal, only to discover the real purpose behind Videodrome.
In addition to a stellar performance by Woods, the movie also features spectacular turns by Debbie Harry (Blondie) as a kinky love interest whose fascination with Videodrome leads her to audition and Sonja Smits as the daughter of the inventor of Videodrome. Both actresses command the screen in their scenes.
One of the real stars of the movie though are the special effects, created by seven-time Oscar winner Rick Baker, and you can definitely see shades of what he learned while making An American Werewolf in London in the effects he creates for Videodrome. Watching the movie is just a brilliant reminder of how much better real-world effects are over CGI.
While Cronenberg’s image of a future where we are all essentially controlled by television may have been slightly off in its medium of choice, it is not hard to see the parallel between the dire warnings of Videodrome with relation to where we are today as a society with the Internet and social media.
1. The Fly (1986)
Remakes, especially in the horror genre, have developed a bad rap, as we have been deluged by them in recent years. There are a lot of bad ones, and there are some that aren’t terrible, but there are a few that are so wonderful that they nearly eclipse the originals. Three of these spring to mind: 1978’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1982’s The Thing, and the master of body horror’s 1986 remake of The Fly.
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, in arguably his greatest performance) is a scientist working on teleportation. While he has had success with inanimate objects, things go horribly wrong with flesh (just ask the poor baboon). That is, until he meets Veronica (Geena Davis), a science reporter, who teaches the reclusive scientist about intimacy and the flesh. After a successful attempt with another baboon (and some drunken jealousy), Brundle decides to put himself through the machine. Unbeknownst to him, he has an unseen stowaway and the results are horrifying.
The Fly is absolutely brilliant — the performances, the pacing, the atmosphere and the Oscar-winning special effects are the perfect storm creating a perfect movie. I’ve shared this movie with people who don’t traditionally like horror, and they come away fans of this film. For the master of body horror, this is his masterpiece.
David Cronenberg is, in my mind, an under-appreciated genius, and he has left an indelible mark on the horror industry and influenced filmmakers from James Gunn and Peter Jackson to Tom Six and the Soska Sisters. Few genre filmmakers can boast a career as consistent and solid as that of Cronenberg. After revisiting his films (some for the first time in decades), my appreciation for him has only grown.