Director Spotlight: David Cronenberg (Part 1)
Updated: Jun 7, 2022
David Cronenberg, the baron of blood, the guru of gross, the king of venereal horror, is releasing his first movie in eight years. Crimes of the Future, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival last week, hit theaters on June 3 after an eight-year feature film hiatus, the longest of his career. Not only is it the first “Cronenberg” in almost a decade, but it’s also his first “Cronenbergian” movie in a quarter-century given his old-age pivot away from the body horror that made his name synonymous with the fragility of the flesh.
Crimes of the Future (2022)
Crimes has been hailed as a refined return to his old sensibilities, the fascination and devotion to the human body in all its gooey forms. And it is, in fact, an old script, a project long-abandoned, only now brought to the public eye. It’s vintage.
In anticipation of this release, I decided to immerse myself in Cronenberg’s world by watching all of his movies chronologically and documenting my thoughts throughout the process. What follows is a description of each movie, my thoughts as to whether or not each is worth your time, and an interpretation of the different eras of his career. Though his filmography is hardly consistent, it’s quite interesting to see how his style develops as his focus drifts.
The Student Films: Stereo (1969) & Crimes of the Future (1970)
Shortly after his graduation from the University of Toronto in 1967, Cronenberg released two hour-long arthouse features named Stereo and Crimes of the Future (which has absolutely no relation to the 2022 movie beyond their shared name). These two movies, filmed primarily around the University of Toronto’s campus, possess many similarities to each other. Both were shot without sound, with sparse commentary added later. Both explore themes that Cronenberg would later explore in more depth, including sexuality, death, disease, identity, and isolation. Both are, unfortunately, rather inaccessible and overly artsy in the worst way possible.
Stereo, shot in black and white, poses as an educational film about the attempted inducement of telepathy among a collection of young subjects. Instead of a cohesive narrative, the movie glides from topic to topic freely. In one sequence, we see power dynamics between telepathic individuals illustrated through a complicated chess game. In another, subjects imbibe psychic aphrodisiacs in order to have a 3D omnisexual encounter. All of this is accompanied by the commentary’s clinical psychobabble and pseudoscientific jargon informing us of what exactly is occurring.
Crimes of the Future (1970)
Crimes of the Future introduces both color and narrative into the mix, but neither makes this one particularly interesting, either. Set in the far future, 1997, the movie wonders what a world would look like if disease killed all women.The colorfully named Adrian Tripod (Ronald Mlodzik) wanders aimlessly from organization to organization in search of his one-time mentor, Antoine Rouge, who introduced the plague responsible for this catastrophe. Along the way, he engages in fetishist exercises with colleagues. It’s paced incredibly slowly, with no dialogue beyond Tripod’s inner monologue, and a quick read of the synopsis is more than enough to understand what Cronenberg was going for.
Recommended for: completionists alone.
Early Cronenberg B-Horror: Shivers (1975) & Rabid (1977)
Cronenberg’s next two movies were much more fit for release to a wider audience, but the topics that he explored remained characteristically controversial. Together, they form a clear foundation for his later work, melding disease with transformation, science with hubris, and sexuality with culpability.
Shivers is a story of literal sexual parasitism. After Dr. Emil Hobbes commits a bizarre murder-suicide by slicing open a young woman’s stomach, resident doctor Roger St. Luc, in his luxury apartment complex, learns that he was experimenting with parasites that corrupt their subjects' brains. Those who carry the parasites are wholly focused on intercourse, wherever and with whomever possible. As it becomes clear that the parasite is making its way around the apartment complex, all hell breaks loose.
It’s gory, it’s gross, it’s unglamorous. It’s chockablock with wild sex, repellant more often than not. But I came away with the impression that it’s only as sex-obsessed as it is sex-repulsed. Though the most obvious interpretation of the film seems to be a moralistic take on STDs and sexual promiscuity, I find that to be a misreading. Shivers was created to be a horror film first and a cautionary tale second. It’s cheesy, particularly the acting, but it’s a crazy ride that’ll have you thinking differently about your secret medical experiments.
Recommended for: sex addicts & hotel pool swimmers.
Rabid, on the surface, shares many similarities with Shivers, minus the wild sex. Again, we follow a medical mistake that mutates into a cursed infection. Here this takes the shape of radical skin grafts on a severely injured woman, Rose, that eventually leave her with a simultaneously phallic and vaginal protrusion under her armpit. Even more unfortunate is that this renders her unable to consume anything but human blood (through her needle-like growth). Even more unfortunate is that everyone on whom she feeds is reduced to a mindless, violent zombie.
What strikes me as the fundamental distinction between Shivers and Rabid is that the latter is far more compassionate. Rose does not realize that the zombie apocalypse that rises around her is her fault until the very end, and is quite horrified by that revelation. She is devastated by her condition and tries desperately to find some substitute for human blood. There’s even an emotional scene with her friend Mindy where she begs her to leave; she knows she has to feed, and she doesn’t want it to have to be her. Even the initial accident responsible for her injury wasn’t her fault; her boyfriend was the one who crashed their motorcycle into a van parked in the middle of the road. Her crime was being present.
Rabid is much more thematically dense than Shivers, as it deals with authoritarianism, responsibility, and loss in a manner uncharacteristic of B-grade horror at the time. Rose, played brilliantly by otherwise pornographic actress Marilyn Chambers, is a sympathetic figure cursed by circumstance through no fault of her own – to a point.
Recommended for: dystopian novelists & Santa haters.
An Interlude: Fast Company (1979), a Passion Project
Do you like racing? Specifically drag racing? Then you’ll love Cronenberg’s random foray into pure action, which is an uncomplicated passion project that’s hornier than it probably needs to be. I watched it for the sake of completionism, but again, unless you love the sport, it’s not even worth that. Well, unless you want to see motor oil poured on some boobs. Once.
Recommended for: drag racers & motor oil drinkers.
Crystallization: The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981) & Videodrome (1983)
The Brood (1979)
After his brief racing aside, Cronenberg jumped right back into what he did best with three consecutive movies that played to his strengths. The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome all approach his signature body horror quite differently, but each ends up both memorable and highly effective. I’m lumping these three together because there is a marked improvement moving through this stage of his career that ends in what I consider to be his first masterpiece, Videodrome.
The Brood imagines a new form of therapy, one known as “psychoplasmics.” Patients describe their traumatic experiences through complex roleplay with psychotherapist Hal Raglan, in an attempt to physically manifest their trauma onto their bodies. This process takes different forms for different patients, with symptoms ranging from spots to lymphoma. Raglan’s star patient, Nola Carveth, is in the middle of a messy divorce, but her therapy sessions also explore the abuse she experienced at her mother’s hand and the neglect by her father's. In classic Cronenbergian fashion, this process finds her husband, Frank, and daughter, Candice, witness and victim to brutal murders carried out by mysterious dwarf-like children, the titular brood.
The Brood is probably the cruelest of Cronenberg’s filmography. Despite the central themes of mental illness and trauma, Cronenberg seems to despise Nora, and this is because she is actually based on the woman he was divorcing at the time. Indeed, Frank and Nora Carveth are actually David Cronenberg’s vision of himself and his ex-wife, Margaret Hindson, and actors Art Hindle and Samantha Eggar were casted for their visual similarity to their real-life counterparts. “Write what you know” can be taken into dangerous territory when emotion clouds judgment.
Beyond that facet of the film, The Brood is quite good. It juggles Cronenberg’s body horror fascinations with traditional horror, drama, and mystery to great effect. The clear exploration of generational trauma is brutally pessimistic, but it’s certainly worth its weight.
Recommended for: the divorced & haters of children.
Scanners is a personal favorite of mine. If you’ve ever heard of this movie, you’ll be familiar with this mind-blowing scene, but there’s a good film behind it as well. The movie follows Cameron Vale as he attempts to learn about his powers as a “scanner” – namely, telekinesis and telepathy.
Vale is tasked with navigating several competing, shadowy organizations, including private military tech company ConSec, a mysterious pharmaceutical company, and an underground ring of scanners run by the malevolent Darryl Revok. Vale finds that most everyone has lied about the world around him, and it’s his job to uncover the conspiracy and evaluate where his true loyalties should lie.
For a film about people who can blow other peoples’ heads up, Scanners presents a world that feels surprisingly developed. Character motivations are well-established and the lore is sufficiently fleshed out. Perhaps this is why it spawned several second-rate sequels, completely unaffiliated with Cronenberg. But the story here is self-contained, and I can’t imagine that any sequel reaches the simultaneously unrefined and haunting conclusion of the original.
Recommended for: pregnant mothers & Stranger Things fans.
Videodrome is a meaty movie. It follows Max Renn, president of a seedy television station that specializes in controversial, sensational, and even pornographic content. When Max comes across a broadcast of Videodrome, a plotless show that depicts brutal violence and murder, he becomes enamored and endlessly pursues the rights to the show. I don’t want to spoil anything further, but what follows is batshit crazy.
Videodrome, beyond its status as one of the best body horror and sci-fi horror movies of all time, is uncomfortably prescient in its social commentary. At the time of its release, it was branded science fiction. Now, it reads like prophecy. The depravity of its content reflects only the depravity it sees within the human soul. It’s an immersive hallucination, a trip through the deepest perversions of the mind. It’s a masterpiece. Long live the new flesh.
Recommended for: anyone who can handle it.
Cronenberg does King: The Dead Zone (1983)
The Dead Zone (1983)
The Dead Zone is a Stephen King adaptation, and there would be no mistake in recognizing it as one. It’s Cronenberg-directed, but not Cronenberg-written in any sense. It follows Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), a man whose car accident places him in a coma for five years. After he wakes up, he has the ability to see events, past, present and future, that occur in a person’s life, as long as he makes physical contact with them.
I was personally disappointed by The Dead Zone in a few ways. In my opinion, it’s out of place in Cronenberg’s early filmography; that this is the first time he directed somebody else’s script is noticeable. Yes, he does stray from writing more often later in his career, but his best work involves his own texts. Further, it doesn’t appear to be a successful adaptation of the book. Key players are introduced too late in the game to generate a proper narrative arc, and it reads at times like Johnny is just wandering from random situation to random situation. King’s novel was a reaction to the political climate of the late 1970s, and rather little of that is conveyed in the adaptation. Finally, the movie teases greatness through brilliant heights that are seldom matched by the rest of the movie. Johnny’s first vision (his nurse’s daughter engulfed in flames) is the highest point of the movie, but that kind of visually inventive scene is never seen again.
Maybe others would enjoy it more. I’m not generally a fan of Stephen King’s work, and that could easily have clouded my judgment. Certainly engage if you particularly enjoy Walken.
Recommended for: hockey parents & Stephen King enthusiasts.
Check out Part 2 now.