It’s fitting that the most iconic image from the films of David Cronenberg is the exploding head from Scanners (1981). Cronenberg’s stories contain so many complex ideas and themes that any single attempt to wrap one’s head around them seems a risky prospect. And yet, the popular consensus tends to divide them into two basic categories: the body horror, and everything else.
In anticipation of the recent 13-film retrospective of his films put on by Los Angeles’s Beyond Fest, I watched everything Cronenberg has directed (and read his one published novel) to find the common tendrils that run through them all, even those films considered outliers (or, if you will, mutations).
What follows is a complete rundown of as vast, complex, and consistent an oeuvre as exists within the last half-century of cinema.
The First Shorts
While at the University of Toronto, Cronenberg switched majors from science to literature before finally making the jump to film — a fitting trajectory considering the themes that would run through his films, many of which are literary adaptations.
Those themes are present in his first student film, a comically exaggerated two-hander between a reclusive shrink hiding out in the middle of nowhere and the obsessed patient who tracks him down. Inspired by the experimental films of the New York underground, Transfer is an assertive blast of surrealist farce. It’s a tad grating, but it displays Cronenberg’s innate skill as a filmmaker.
Featuring similarly over-the-top performances, this grainy black-and-white short — which concerns two manic veterans of an unnamed war who meet in an empty bathtub in a decrepit hovel — grows increasingly unsettling, right up to its violent twist ending. Complete with a creature effect (a simple tendril slithering from a bath drain), it marks Cronenberg’s first foray into horror and conspiracy thriller territory.
Cronenberg made his feature debut with this hour-long, black-and-white, nearly silent film, a deliberate (and at times frustrating) look at the intersection of consciousness and sexuality. Taking place at The Academy of Erotic Inquiry, it concerns a group of volunteers who attempt to gain telepathic abilities through carnal exploration.
Although hard to follow, the film has a hypnotic quality, stemming in large part from its stark cinematography. (It really is a shame Cronenberg never shot another film in black-and-white.)
Crimes of the Future (1970)
Similarly silent save for sporadic narration, Crimes is as cold and confounding as his previous effort, though the humor and plot are slightly more overt.
Set at a dermatological clinic referred to as The House of Skin, amidst a future wasteland entirely devoid of adult females, the film introduces the theme of political division and subterfuge that would come to fore in later films.
“Secret Weapons” (1972) — Programme X
Before making the jump to “mainstream” films, Cronenberg continued to hone his skills on Canadian television, first with this 21-minute short for the anthology series Programme X. Collaborating with writer Norman Snider (who would go on to co-write Dead Ringers), Cronenberg delves further into complex sci-fi espionage. Despite its brief runtime, a slow pace and lack of closure keep this from being little more than a curiosity.
“The Lie Chair” (1975) — Peep Show
This deeply unnerving half-hour gothic horror story is the strongest of Cronenberg’s early work. When a young couple traveling through the Canadian countryside break down in the middle of a storm, they seek shelter at a large house occupied by two elderly women, who mistake them for their deceased relatives. What follows is a legitimately scary ghost story, one that anticipates the future work of Cronenberg’s oft-compared contemporary, David Lynch.
(Cronenberg also directed another entry for the series the same year, titled “The Victim.” However, that segment does not appear to be available, nor is there a plot synopsis on any of its listings.)
“The Italian Machine” (1976) — Teleplay
Another entry in a Canadian anthology series, “The Italian Machine” depicts a variety of major themes and plot points that will reappear up in future films, including Fast Company, Crash, and Cosmopolis.
The plot concerns a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who seek to “liberate” a rare Ducati motorcycle from a rich collector. What starts out as a heist film becomes an exploration of art in a world where the status of the collector is more valuable than the object itself. Despite the low-key comedy tone, it manages to get under the viewer’s skin with such prescient pronouncements as “In the age of automation, human beings become works of art.”
The Cronenberg we all know and love fully revealed himself with this inventive, darkly comic, and legitimately disturbing spin on the zombie movie. Instead of the flesh-eating walking dead, the hordes in Shivers (alternately titled They Came From Within and The Parasite Murders) are sexually voracious lunatics that transfer their mind-controlling parasites via venereal disease.
Shivers expands on the themes and ideas of Stereo and Crimes of the Future, fitting them neatly into the genre template.
It’s a testament to Cronenberg’s originality that his follow-up to Shivers could have such a similar plot while still feeling entirely new. Adult-film actress Marylin Chambers plays a motorcycle crash victim who undergoes an experimental skin-graft surgery. The operation saves her life but infects her with an uncontrollable thirst for human blood, which she is able to siphon via a fanged phallus that grows from her armpit.
Fun, disturbing, and ultimately devastating, Rabid made it clear that Cronenberg was on to something special.
Fast Company (1979)
Rightly considered the biggest outlier in his filmography, Fast Company is devoid of any sci-fi or horror trappings. A quickly made bit of Canuxploitation, it follows a pretty standard sports drama template, although the climax introduces some quick bursts of unexpected violence.
However, it’s not entirely outside of Cronenberg’s wheelhouse. One thing that gets lost amidst all of the viscera and splatter is the Canadian’s obsession with speed and automobiles. A close watch reveals deeper connective tissue, such as man’s increasingly obsolescence in the face of corporate technocracy, as well as the auto-eroticism that will come to the fore in an infamous later work.
The New Flesh
The Brood (1979)
Anchored by extraordinary performances from Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed, The Brood ranks among Cronenberg’s most critically acclaimed and beloved films. Referring to it as his “version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic,” it also remains his most personal, the familial disintegration at its center mirroring his own broken marriage and custody battle.
The film significantly ups the ante in its use of practical effects, marking a trajectory that will triumphantly culminate with The Fly. It also marks Cronenberg’s first collaboration with composer Howard Shore, who would go on to score every subsequent film except The Dead Center.
It’s ironic that Cronenberg would follow his most personal film with one largely written on the spot — a sudden influx of investment capital required Cronenberg to assemble production in less than two weeks — only for it to become his breakout hit.
While the plot can drag at points, Scanners remains an incredibly entertaining and imaginative film. It boasts a handful of iconic set-pieces, including the infamous exploding head scene, which, more than any other visual throughout his filmography, has come to symbolize Cronenberg’s specific aesthetic.
Cronenberg turned his name into an adjective with this aggressively kinky, ultra-violent thriller, the images of bio-mechanic metamorphosis within having no cinematic precedent.
One aspect that doesn’t get full due is the film’s satirical bent. The year prior, Cronenberg took part in a televised panel on horror cinema in which he expressed his antipathy for empty, gratuitous violence in film, as well as his aversion to government censorship and right-wing puritanism. He channeled all of this into Videodrome, in the process giving us as terrifying — and terrifyingly accurate — vision of a future, predicting everything from Oculus Rift to beheading videos on YouTube.
Infecting the Mainstream
The Dead Zone (1983)
With his first literary adaptation, Cronenberg stuck close to the original Stephen King novel about an ordinary man who awakens from a five-year coma with the power of second sight, delivering in the process his most readily accessible film.
Cronenberg doesn’t subjugate his own instincts — he seamlessly injects them into King’s story. His depiction of telepathy as a degenerative disease, along with a few choice moments of pure nightmare fuel (most notably the oral seppuku scene), make it feel like a Cronenberg film first, King adaptation second. It also further established Cronenberg’s own prophetic talents, as the depiction of a mad man riding a wave of populism into the White House has become reality.
The Fly (1986)
Cronenberg would take the doomed romance at the heart of The Dead Zone and amplify to operatic proportions with his remake of the 1958 schlock-classic The Fly.
The story of “a fly who dreamed he was a man,” it’s a case of perfect alchemy — the palpable chemistry between leads Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, Shore’s operatic score, and the Oscar-winning creature effects and makeup provided by Chris Walas and Stephen Dupuis combine to produce a flawless film, and one of the most beloved horror films of all time.
Return to Television
“Faith Healer”—Friday the 13th: The Series (1987)
Fourteen years before cameoing in Jason X, Cronenberg gamely directed this episode of the television spinoff (which had no link to the film franchise other than its producer).
Bringing along frequent repertory player Robert A. Silverman (who has appeared in more Cronenberg films than any other actor), the episode features a handful of special effects gnarly enough to rival those of his feature films. Fans of Cronenberg’s horror films owe it to themselves to track this episode down.
Although full episodes of this Canadian true crime series aren’t available online, there are enough clips to give a good idea of them. That idea is baffling, as they appear indistinguishable from your standard (read: cheap) reenactments. Of everything in Cronenberg’s filmography, these are strangest outliers, especially when you consider that he made them at the height of his commercial success.
It’s surprising, given his (not entirely antagonistic) obsession with consumerism and technology, that Cronenberg has only directed three commercials. Two of them — a PSA about energy conservation and a silly spy spoof for Cadbury Caramilk — are entirely indistinguishable from other commercials of their time. His spot for Nike, however, is a quick dose of sci-fi surrealism, immediately bringing to mind the art of H.R. Giger (who shared so similar an aesthetic with Cronenberg it’s a wonder they never collaborated). Watching the commercial, you can’t help but marvel at what an Alien film directed by Cronenberg might have been like.
Dead Ringers (1988)
Fresh off the critical and box office success of The Fly, Cronenberg used his newfound cache to finally make the long gestating Dead Ringers (adapted from the 1977 novel Twins by Bari Wood). The film, which follows twin gynecologists as they collapse into addiction and madness, marks Cronenberg’s departure from the horror/sci-fi neighborhood into less definable territory. That being said, it is awash with dread and existential terror.
It also boasts his most astonishing use of special effects, the twinning of Jeremy Irons (in a career-best performance) flawless 30 years on.
Naked Lunch (1991)
The disappointing reception of Dead Ringers (from a box office and awards standpoint) might have cowed lesser directors into returning to safer genre territory. Not Cronenberg, who set himself the daunting task of adapting the most “unadaptable” of novels: William S. Burroughs’ structure-less, story-less Naked Lunch (1959).
Taking a page from the book’s cut-up technique, Cronenberg mixed elements from several of his Burroughs’ novels, as well as his notorious biography (most importantly, Burroughs’ accidental murder of his wife), and added a heavy dose of Kafka. The end result is his most surreal and dreamlike film, arguably his most challenging, but also one of his most mysterious and addicting.
M. Butterfly (1993)
Other than Fast Company, this is Cronenberg’s most forgotten film. Its lack of reputation is sadly predictable: Billed as an ornate romance and period piece, it had little to offer genre fans. Critics, meanwhile, were dismissive of its central love story, especially as it treaded similar ground to The Crying Game (1992) from the previous year.
Its dismissal is unfortunate, because the film — an adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s loosely fact-based stage play — is an unnerving, ultimately heartbreaking look at the sacrifices we make in the name of love. (Hwang and Cronenberg crossed paths again in 2008, when Hwang wrote the libretto for an opera version of The Fly.) It’s also a self-critical examination of colonialism, particularly the Orientalist fantasies Westerners hold for the East.
It’s no surprise M. Butterfly was the film Cronenberg chose to be played during his Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Dreams of the Millennium
English writer J.G. Ballard’s own career trajectory — from sci-fi to post-modern — anticipated the filmmaker’s, so their collaboration was inevitable. Given Cronenberg’s lifelong obsession with automobiles, there was no better vehicle (ahem) than Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, even if the book’s extreme content seemed to preclude the likelihood of any adaptation.
His most controversial film, Crash follows a group of traffic accident survivors-turned-fetishists as they push the boundaries of sexuality while careening carelessly towards oblivion. Cold and alien as it is, the film is the perfect eulogy for the close of the millennium, when many Westerners, wrongly assuming they’d reached the end of history, searched for anything that might shake them out of apathy.
Perhaps inspired by his engagement with Ballard, Cronenberg’s last film of the millennium marked his return to science fiction. Working from his first original script since Videodrome, eXistenZ feels like that film’s spiritual sequel, with television swapped out for video games.
Like The Matrix (which came out the same year), eXistenZ openly questions the existential implications of emerging technologies. While it can’t match the former in terms of iconography or audience, it has proven the more prescient of the two, as gaming has become a political battlefield that often results in real-world violence.
His most Bergman-like film, this deceptively simple character study — about a recently released mental patient attempting to piece together a major trauma from his past — is a stylistic departure for Cronenberg, thanks to its ultra-deliberate pacing and extra-muted visual palette. As a result, it remains one of his most underseen films, which is a shame, because it really is a small masterpiece. Quiet, reserved, and wholly empathetic in its depiction of mental illness, it is also a chilling examination of guilt and recompense. Along with M Butterfly, it is his most deserving of rediscovery.
A History of Violence (2005)
Taking the themes of broken identity in Spider but fashioning then onto a pulp narrative, A History of Violence succeeds as both straight film noir and pitch black comedy with moments of outright slapstick. (It also served as his most commercially successful film since the one-two combo of The Dead Zone and The Fly.)
Imbuing Josh Olsen’s Oscar-nominated screenplay (adapted from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke) with heightened attention to the aftermath of physical violence, as well a heavy layer of kink, Cronenberg subverts the Rockwellian trappings of the his American pastoral setting. It marks the first of three back-to-back collaborations between Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen.
Eastern Promises (2007)
Going through Cronenberg’s filmography, it becomes apparent that many of his films are responses to earlier work. In Dead Ringers, Jeremy Irons plays a pair of identical twins who pretend to be a single person in order to share lovers; in M Butterfly, Irons’ character is himself seduced and deceived by a single person with two identities. In Cosmopolis, Robert Pattinson spends the majority of the movie being driven around in a limousine; in Map to the Stars he plays a struggling limo driver. In A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen plays a psychotic gangster pretending to be a law abiding citizen; in Eastern Promises he portrays a conscientious police officer posing as a ruthless criminal.
In anyone else’s hands, Eastern Promises would have likely made for a decent but forgettable thriller (see the suspiciously similar Red Sparrow), but Cronenberg’s attention to detail and talent for making violence feel tactile (the naked bathhouse knife fight is one of the most viscerally uncomfortable action scenes in memory), he was able to elevate the material and craft something all-too rare — a classic mob story that feels fresh.
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Hearkening back to his first student short, Cronenberg delves into the movement that birthed modern psychoanalysis with this adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s stage play, The Talking Cure (2009). Equal parts tragic romance and clear-eyed examination of upper-class privilege, A Dangerous Method is the type of serious, intellectually curious, morally complex work that should be a shoo-in for gold come awards season. Of course, it was dismissed almost as soon as it came out, and currently stands as yet another Cronenberg entry deserving of reappraisal and rediscovery.
Second Wave Shorts
Of the three short films Cronenberg has made this century, this unsettling entry is the most riveting, thanks to an intense central performance from the late Leslie Carlson (Videodrome, The Fly) and the intentionally jarring juxtaposition of digital and film.
This short, commissioned by the Cannes Film Festival for its 60th anniversary, stars Cronenberg as a suicidal version of himself. The central joke — per Maclean’s Brian D. Johnson: “Cronenberg shooting himself shooting himself” — is able to sustain itself thanks to its brevity (it runs under 4 minutes).
More interesting is the impetus behind the film: Cronenberg said he was inspired to confront his Jewish heritage after reading Hezbollah’s mission statement, which called for the eradication of every Jew on earth. It’s a theme he would subtly explore in his next feature, A Dangerous Method.
The Nest (2013) (Warning: NSFW)
A desperate woman sits topless in a dirty basement while an unseen surgeon (voiced by Cronenberg himself) examines her body. She claims that her left breast is infected by a swarm of insects and begs him to perform an emergency mastectomy. There’s no real conclusion to the story, but as an exercise in discomfort, it’s certainly effective.
It’s also a case of Cronenberg testing out an idea, as the premise will reappear — almost verbatim — as a major plot point in his novel Consumed (2014).
Diseases of the Rich and Famous
Other than Ballard, the novelist who shares the most in common with Cronenberg is Don DeLillo. It’s surprising, then, that while this adaptation of DeLillo’s eerily prophetic 2003 novel (which anticipated the collapse of the global economy, as well as the subsequent Occupy Wall Street protests) is not an outright failure, it’s far from the success fans of both men expected.
The biggest issue is the film’s cast. While Robert Pattinson — who, to his credit, used his pull from the Twilight films to help get Cosmopolis made — would eventually grow into an engaging actor, he’s still finding his footing here. He’s not alone; with a few exceptions (old hats Paul Giamatti and Juliette Binoche, and newcomer/future Cronenberg regular Sarah Gadon) — none of the cast is able to convincingly deliver DeLillo’s highly stylized, intentionally mechanical dialog.
One of Cronenberg’s few legitimate misfires, Cosmopolis is still more interesting than the majority of films that come out during any given year.
Maps to the Stars (2014)
Cronenberg’s next film — and currently his last — suffers from many of the same problems as Cosmopolis. Working from an original script by novelist Bruce Wagner, this pitch-black Hollywood satire lays on the nihilism a bit too thick. It’s not that Hollywood deserves any mercy — least of all from Cronenberg, who has admirably worked outside the system for the entirety of his career — but there is a line where excoriation edges into camp, and unfortunately Maps to the Stars crosses it.
It contains a handful of effectively disturbing scenes and ideas, but it’s ultimately hampered by its cringeworthy dialog, stilted acting (though Julianne Moore and John Cusack turn in top-notch work), and brutally slow pacing.
Cronenberg has previously hinted that he may retire from filmmaking. If that’s true, this would serve as a disappointing curtain call, although there is something undeniably fitting about him going out on such a misanthropic, apocalyptic note.
A Novel Idea
It’s not often that artists from other mediums are successful in their literary pursuits, but Cronenberg — whose films have always had the intellectual heft of a good novel — proves himself an exception to the rule.
In many ways, Consumed is the ultimate expression of Cronenberg’s overarching vision, combining his various themes, motifs, kinks, and obsessions from across every period of his output: body horror, sexual exploration, unseen forces controlling the world from the shadows, the melding of flesh with technology, the mutating nature of identity — all of it. His intellectual prowess remain as strong as ever, as do his powers of observation and prognosis.
Here’s hoping he has a few more stories in him, regardless of the medium he choses to unleash them.