The essential films of …. David Cronenberg!

If there is one movie director who could define a Horror genre rich in grotesque practical body effects, then David Cronenberg is that man. He started writing and making low budget movies in the 1970’s, films which instantly left their mark on independent cinema with a forward thinking originality. Schlock Horror films such as Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979) were largely financed by the Canadian government and paved the way for a career that would see his style standout amongst his contemporaries in the 1980’s, as he produced a string of iconic Horror stories blended with Science Fiction. His work helped define and coin the phrase ‘Body Horror’, with his exerburant use of model effects to aid in visual body transformations, and showing groundbreaking visceral scenes of violence and gore that would become his trademark.

As with any filmmaker who has been working his craft over four decades, Cronenberg’s output has progressed and developed over the years, producing a number of films in the 1990’s which strayed from the Sci-Fi / Horror genre, but largely retaining the controversy of his early work. While in the 2000’s he has branched out further creating melodramas in the gangster genre, a period drama based on the relationship between Carl Yung and Sigmund Freud (A Dangerous Method – 2011) and a minimalist contemporary character driven adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis (2012). This year Cronenberg releases his first feature film in a decade, a reimagining of one of his earliest films Crimes Of The Future, which is a return to Science Fiction, and also a return of sorts to the tone and visceral feel of the classic movies from his heyday.

Take a journey with us through the essential work of master auteur David Cronenberg’s … illustrious career so far :

1. // The Fly (1986)

Cronenberg’s critically acclaimed remake of the 1958 classic follows journalist Veronica (Geena DavisThelma and Louise) as she meets reclusive and eccentric scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff GoldblumJurassic Park) at a scientific convention, where she is looking for a new story. She accompanies him to his home and research lab, to see the invention that he claims is going to change the world. Here he shows her two teleportation pods and is seamlessly able to move one of her stockings through space from one to another. Seth convinces Veronica to sit on the discovery and keep it quiet while he works on his ultimate goal, which is to transport a living organism. She is keen to publish the story now, but he convinces her to shadow him while he finalises his invention, and work on creating an exclusive book that will make them both rich.

She agrees, and as they spend time together romance ensues. She takes on the role of his muse and inspires him to work out what he needs to change, in order to successfully teleport living tissue. On completion of a successful trial with a baboon, Seth cannot wait and decides to experiment on himself while left alone by Veronica and under the influence of champagne. What he does not realise is that prior to his successful disintegration and reanimation, a fly had entered the chamber with him. From here over a period of time, a grotesque transformation takes place as Seth’s DNA merges with that of The Fly, and Veronica finds herself in the middle of her own unimaginable horror story. Cronenberg’s direction is superb as we witness Seth’s body fall apart and metamorphosis. The movie is loaded with iconic scenes, many of which shocked audiences at the time, while Jeff Goldblum delivers the performance of his career, in this character driven 80’s Sci-Fi masterpiece.

2. // A History Of Violence (2005)

Based on the graphic novel written by John Wagner, and in our opinion Cronenberg’s finest film of the 2000’s so far. A History Of Violence opens very much like a Tarantino-esq movie as we meet Leland and Billy, who we soon discover are two dangerous criminals who think nothing of murdering the proprietors of a motel they have spent the night in. They travel into a small town and take respite in a cafe owned by quiet and un-assuming family man Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen – The Lord Of The Rings). They quickly show their true colours and the intention to rob the joint and inflict violence on the staff. But in a quick and incredible blink and you’ll miss it scene of action, Tom quickly turns the tide and is able to disarm and kill both criminals, allowing for Cronenberg to slip in a trademark shot of grotesque body horror as we literally see the face hanging off of one of the criminals. Tom becomes a hero in his town and soon his heroic action is plastered all over the regional news.

As he recovers from the ordeal business is booming, but he is soon visited by the shady and mysterious Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris The Truman Show), who refers to him as Joey, suggesting he is not who he says he is. Tom denies knowing what he is talking about and an awkward encounter ensues. Soon Fogarty and his goons start harassing Tom and his family. The local sheriff does some research and informs the family that the men are part of a serious organised crime syndicate from Phillidelphia. Cronenberg perfectly builds the tension as we start to question Tom’s background, and the pacing is spot on as the truth starts to unravel along with the perfect home life that he is struggling to maintain, which include the complex relationships with his wife and teenage son. The film builds to the truth and a memorable final showdown as Tom faces up to his past.

3. // The Dead Zone (1983)

Cronenberg joined a select club of directors inc Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) and John Carpenter (Christine) in adapting a Stephen King novel for the screen, at a time when King was one of the hottest young writers of Horror coming through during the late 70’s and early 80’s. Scored by renowned composer Michael Kamen, The Dead Zone tells the story of teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher WalkenThe Deer Hunter) who begins the film and sets the tone by reading an excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe’s classic tale of horror, The Raven. Following a car accident Johnny spends five years in a coma and wakes to discovers that life has moved on without him. After touching the arm of his nurse he has a premonition of her daughter screaming in a burning bedroom. The vision turns out to be true which enables the fire service to be called and her life to be saved in time. He then experiences a flashback of a child being evacuated during WW2 when touching the hand of his doctor, and it is clear he has awoken from his trance with a powerful new gift. Cronenberg builds the tension superbly and draws one of the performances of Christopher Walken’s career, as Johnny comes to terms with his new life and psychic ability.

News of his gift becomes widespread and soon he is visited by a Police sheriff who asks him if he will help him with the case of the Castle Rock Killer, a serial murderer of women who has been active during the time of his coma. He is taken to the crime scene when a new body is discovered and flashbacks to her murder, seeing the face of her killer. From here he is able to ID the murderer and the police track him down leading to a gruesome discovery of an suicide scene and a torture chamber. Eventually Johnny has to hide away in solitude as he feels overwhelmed as hundreds of people write to him seeking help with their missing children and unsolved mysteries. He eventually meets corrupt politician Greg Stillson (Martin SheenApocolypse Now) and foresees him launching a devastating nuclear strike against Russia after becoming president in the future. He questions what would you do if you were able to go back in time and kill Adolph Hitler in order to stop the Holocaust and WW2? Before realising he must become an assassin in order to save humanity, making the ultimate sacrifice in the process.

4. // Dead Ringers (1988)

Dead Ringers tells the story of identical twins Beverly and Elliott Mantle (both played by Jeremy IronsDie Hard With A Vengeance) who grow up to be brilliant gynaecologists. They take great pleasure in taking advantage of the fact that no one can tell them apart by switching roles and merging their two lives together, sharing women and social appointments when it suits them. Their arrangement becomes complicated with the introduction of actress Claire (Geneviève BujoldComa) and they both form differing feelings for her, creating conflict in their own relationship and bringing forth the opposites in their own psychological profiles. A dream sequence in which Beverly and Elliot are conjoined, and both in bed with Claire while she rips out their entrails with her teeth, allows Cronenberg to showcase his trademark gruesome practical effects.

Claire struggles to work out the Jekyl and Hyde aspects of their personalities before she eventually learns the truth. From here the shyer more retiring Beverly spirals into alcoholism and prescription drug addiction as he struggles with feelings of guilt and inadequacy, while the more extrovert Elliot shrugs off the situation as a mere blip in their perfect art of deception. Beverly’s drug use takes him deeper down a rabbit hole of insanity, and his work methods take a dark turn as he develops a bizarre set of instruments, and performs a drug hazed procedure, almost killing a woman on the operating table in the process. Gradually he drags Elliot down with him as their carefully orchestrated world falls apart around them, and they decide to they cannot go on living as two minds. Dead Ringers is a brilliantly executed and haunting portrayal of the relationship between the two brothers, beginning with the innocence of childhood and the spoils of success, before progressively degrogating into a dark, miserable and bleak finalè.

5. // Videodrome (1983)

One of the early films to showcase the unique style of Body-Horror that Cronenberg would become renowned for. Videodrome tells the tale of Max Renn (James WoodsThe Specialist) a TV programmer who specialises in adult content, and who becomes obsessed with a mysterious and bizarre violent pirate video transmission of torture and murder, that he feels will have the perfect edge for his station. The film Co-Stars Blondie’s Deborah Harry in her debut role as Nicki Brand, who Max meets on a chat show, before seducing her with the allure of the extreme content of Videodrome. Cronenberg shows a blurring of pain and pleasure during their love making, highlighting a thin line between the relationship of sex and violence, a recurrent theme throughout the movie. The film is also a social commentary on the impact that extreme images has on our psyche, and the role censorship can / should play in society. There is a noir feel to the narrative as Max investigates the origins of the broadcast, and he begins to understand that the content is real and not make believe as he first thought.

On receipt of a new Videodrome tape, the broadcast starts to speak to him directly, drawing him into the screen which manifests into a mind bending hallucination with Nicki seducing him into the television. As his hallucinations intensify Cronenberg flex’s his Body-Horror chops (with special effects from the master Rick Baker – An American WereWolf In London) in a scene where Max hides a gun inside his own body through a scar on his stomach. Videodrome is an iconic film, stylistically very much an epitaph of the 80’s featuring VHS tapes, clunky TV’s and dated radio equipment. And as the story progresses, Max dives deeper into a a world of virtual reality, where he is able to act out fantasies of S&M, but is never quite sure what is real and what is a dream. The hallucinations begin to create subliminal messages until he eventually becomes an assassin for Videodromes creators, becoming part of their plan to take over his TV station, so they can broadcast and brainwash the nation.

6. // Eastern Promises (2007)

Cronenberg’s second of four films so far in the 2000’s starring Viggo Mortensen (A History Of Violence / Crimes Of The Future), tells a story set around Russian mobsters in London, and opens with a typically graphic execution scene as we see an unknown male have his throat slit while sitting in a barbers. We then meet Anna (Naomi WattsMullholland Drive) a midwife who delivers a premature baby after a Jane Doe comes in to the hospital. The mother dies in childbirth and Anna takes it upon herself to investigate the origins of the baby, with only the females diary written in Russian to go on. The diary leads her to Russian restaurant owner Semyon, his son Kirill and their driver /bodyguard Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). And as Anna begins to have the diary translated, it transpires the baby’s mother was a 14 year old victim of human trafficking, who worked in a brothel and was force fed drugs and subject to rapes.

As the film progresses we learn more about the family and the ways of the Russian omertà in a thoroughly thrilling and gritty drama, with a fantastic performance from Mortensen as he navigates his way through the ranks, earning his tattoo gang stars, and playing the role with an air of mystery befitting of his character. Although a million miles from his early Sci-Fi / Horror films, there are enough Cronenberg-isms to remind you who the man behind the camera is, with plenty of graphic violence including a highly memorable scene in a sauna, when a naked Nikolai is attacked by two men armed with knives, and fights for his life. Meanwhile Anna’s maternal instinct kicks in as she desperately tries to trace the females family in order to prevent the baby going into the care system, but her brush with the Russian mob and her knowledge of a truth involving the conception of the child, puts her and the baby in grave danger.

7. // Crash (1996)

Crash is one of Cronenberg’s most notorious films, and a movie that famously saw people walk out the Cannes Film Festival screening during one particularly infamous scene. It tells the story of James Ballard (James Spader – The Blacklist) a film producer with an eye for the ladies and who is always looking out for his next sexual thrill. He’s involved in a car accident which proves fatal for the other driver, but becomes aroused at the sight of Helen Remington (Holly Hunter The Pianos), the female passenger who’s breast becomes exposed. While in hospital he meets Helen again and on giving her a lift home they are involved in another close shave, which sees them making love in the aftermath. They stumble across a clandestine society with an interest in car accidents, led by Vaughan (Elias Koreas The Prophecy) who recreates the fatal crash that killed James Dean, and they meet a group of alternatives who mix the thrill of danger and the mutations of injuries, with that of a sexual nature.

James becomes immersed into a world that movie goers at the time could scarcely believe existed. Vaughan becomes obsessed with James, while James’s girlfriend Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger The Game) also starts to become obsessed with the danger, as they seek out and photograph crash scenes together. They watch videos of accidents, and engage in violent copulation at times, specifically during one scene in a car wash between Vaughan and Catherine which leaves her battered and bruised. And in the one truly infamous scene where James literally inserts himself into the leg wound of the injured Gabrielle (Rosanna ArquetteDesperately Seeking Susan). The blend of violence and disfigurement with sex and nudity certainly left an impression, cementing Cronenberg’s reputation as one of Hollywoods most controversial purveyors of the bizarre and macabre.

8. // Naked Lunch (1991)

Bringing William S. Boroughs bizarre fantasy tale to life created yet another chance for Cronenberg’s imagination to run wild, with clever use of practical effects and an off beat narrative, in this 1950’s set story. Peter Weller (Robocop) plays writer Bill Lee, who also earns a living as a exterminator and who’s roach powder is going missing, leaving him short-handed at work. He discovers the powder is being injected by his wife and he also experiments and develops an addiction to the substance himself. Soon he is arrested by narcotics agents, and during interrogation is met by a giant talking bug, who informs him that he is now his case officer, and that Bill is to work as a secret agent for an organisation called Control. The bug tells him that his wife is a secret agent for Interzone Incorporated and instructs him to kill her. Disbelieving what he is hearing Bill kills the bug with his shoe and goes on the run. This all happens within the first 10 minutes of the movie, and if you thought things couldn’t get any more bizarre … then you’d be wrong!

He visits Dr Benway (Roy SchneiderJaws) to try and seek help in beating his powder addiction, and is provided with an ‘agent’ to add to the bug powder in order for the addict to become desensitised to the effects. He heads home and after injecting himself and his wife, he shoots her during a misguided attempt at shooting a glass from the top of her head, in a ‘William Tell’ routine. He takes off to Interzone (a Moroccan – esq city) to hide out after he is informed by an alien creature that he will be safe there, and to lay low until Control makes contact. From here the bizarre events / hallucinations continue as he meets an endless cast of oddball characters, including a mysterious couple Tom (Ian Holm The Lord Of The Rings) and his wife Joan (Judy DavisBarton Fink), who pays an uncanny resemblance to his own murdered wife. Bill seems to be in the middle of a strange conspiracy that he neither understands or appears to have any control over. The use of quirky Jazz music throughout works perfectly with the tone of the film, and there are visual and ideological links to the likes of Videodrome with the main character living in a world of hallucinations, and with obscure eroticism and some horrific moments of body horror peppered throughout.

9. // Existenz (1999)

Cronenberg’s final film of the 1990’s features themes and visual aspects similar to those styles he’s shown before in the likes of Videodrome and Naked Lunch, and takes a deep dive into the world of virtual reality and technology. Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh The Hateful Eight) is a video game designer and creator of ExistenZ, a brand new system where players port into a virtual world through organic pods which connect into the users spine through a bio port, creating a kind of psychic trance. At the launch of her new game an assassination attempt is made against her and she flees for safety with one of her marketing employees Ted Pikul (Jude LawGattaca). On learning that Ted does not have a bio-port fitted to his body, Allegra takes him to a clandestine operating theatre in a dirty garage where mechanic Gas (William DefoeSpider-Man) performs the operation so that he can join her on a journey into ExistenZ. Gas double crosses them as it turns out there is a $500m bounty on her head. They manage to escape again but only after learning that Gas has fitted Ted with a defective port, damaging Allegra’s gaming pod, potentially destroying the answers to the mystery of who is trying to kill her and why.

She moves them to safe place under the protection of Kiri (Ian HolmLord Of The Rings) where Ted’s bio port and her pod are fixed, and they then link together and immerse themselves into the game. It’s from here that the film really comes to life as they navigate their way there through the bizarre world of ExistenZ. Jude Law plays a naive fish out of water type role, while a somewhat confusing narrative creates a similar feeling of confusion for the viewer, which is all very Cronenberg who visually still also very much relies on the aesthetics of practical effects over CGI. The pair look to the secrets within the game, to unravel the conspiracy behind Allegra’s assassination attempt, where absolutely nothing is at it seems and the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred beyond comprehension.

10. // Scanners (1981)

One of Cronenbergs early hits, that showed the stylistic blend of Horror and Sci-Fi that would become his bread and butter throughout the decade that followed. Scanners tells the tale of telepathic Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack Head On) who has the power to read the minds of others, a gift that comes with a side effect of causing intense pain and seizures. He is swiftly captured at the beginning of the movie by the shady Con-Sec Corporation, and told by a scientist that his gift makes him part of a select few humans known as Scanners, and if he learns to control his gift, it could become a powerful weapon to be used in the world of espionage.

In one of Cronenberg’s most iconic scenes, we see what Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside – Total Recall), a particularly powerful scanner is able to achieve, as he literally explodes the head of a person during the infiltration of an organised demonstration of the craft by Con-Sec. He then easily controls the minds of his subsequent captors as he makes his escape. Cameron’s skills are honed by Con-Sec who then send him on a mission to seek out more of his kind and to ultimately track down and destroy Revok. During his mission he uncovers a conspiracy involving the very origins of his kind, leading him to a final showdown with Revok and a battle of their minds, allowing Cronenberg to execute some groundbreaking effects for the time in a truly horrifying scene, as the two powerful Scanner’s telepathically fight against each other.


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