In 1982, on TV special Fear on Film, David Cronenberg was asked about the explosive side of his movies. “The idea of an energy in a mind that can’t be physically contained is very appropriate, I think, to the way I feel sometimes,” he replied. The interview followed the release of Scanners, where the situation he describes isn’t just integral to the plot — it’s seen in all its head-shattering, gore-splattering glory.
Cronenberg already had a history with body horror thanks to Shivers, Rabid and The Brood, but with that brain-melting effort and The Fly afterwards, he cemented his place as the father of the genre. The filmmaker’s fascination with humanity’s interplay with destructive forces has continued in various guises throughout a career that includes the tech thrills of Videodrome and eXistenZ, the fractured minds of Dead Ringers and A Dangerous Method, and the internal monsters of A History of Violence and Maps to the Stars.
The Cronenberg essentials
The inside of David Cronenberg’s brain is pink, bloody and fleshy like everyone else’s. The difference? For much of his time as a filmmaker, he has laid the contents bare on-screen in a bloody and fleshy fashion. After studying organic chemistry and then literature in college, his leap to making vivid and visceral horror and science-fiction films is hardly surprising — but, in two heavily populated genres, the Toronto-born writer/director didn’t just follow in everyone else’s footsteps.
Cronenberg’s first foray into cinema came courtesy of the short Transfer, a surreal seven-minute effort depicting a patient’s obsession with his psychiatrist. From there, he made two features that similarly delved into the dark side of medicine, science and humanity’s urges: Stereo and Crimes of the Future. It was Shivers that helped him sliver his way to broader attention, with the film becoming infamous for its provocative imagery. Each further entry on his resume demonstrated his willingness to push the boundaries when it comes to bodies and brains, and the sometimes gory, sometimes primal, sometimes twisted things that go on within them.
And yet, once Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone and The Fly saw his career explode, his fondness for refusing to conform to expectations resulted in a spate of artistically, intellectually and thematically challenging, but commercially overlooked works. After a run that included several adaptations — of William S Burroughs in Naked Lunch, Madame Butterfly in M. Butterfly, JG Ballard’s car crash effort Crash and the psychological drama Spider — his more recent movies have explored terrors of the internal, interpersonal, philosophical and existential kind. They range from the Viggo Mortensen-starring A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method to the dissections of modern-day emptiness that are Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars.
Four things you mightn’t know
- In the controversy surrounding Shivers upon its release, Cronenberg was evicted from his apartment under a morality clause.
- He has both directed an installment in the Friday the 13th series and appeared as an actor — helming an episode of the 1988 TV show and playing Doctor Wimmer in 2001’s Jason X.
- Cronenberg published his first novel, Consumed, in 2014. Like his films, it delves into horrors of both the body and technological kind, and their interplay, following journalists on the trail of a cannibal murder story. He also directed a trailer for the book.
- As an actor, Cronenberg boasts John Landis’s Into the Night and The Stupids, Clive Barker's Nightbreed, TV series Alias and the six-part Margaret Atwood adaptation Alias Grace on his resume.
Five films you really need to see
Shivers: The parasitic alien film that started it all for Cronenberg — receiving scorn from critics at the time, but proving influential in the genre and becoming the most profitable Canadian movie of its era.
Videodrome: “It’s like the book of the apocalypse for modern times,” says Guillermo del Toro about Cronenberg’s tech-horror masterpiece, which sees James Woods’ TV station executive take on the all-consuming nature of screen entertainment.
The Fly: One of the best movie remakes ever made, Cronenberg’s vision of this sci-fi blend of man and insect doesn’t shy away from horror, but also boasts heart and smarts — as well as a fantastic performance from Jeff Goldblum.
Crash: Based on the novel by JG Ballard, the psychological thriller about sexual arousal stemming from automobile accidents was booed at Cannes and received the festival’s special jury prize for its audacity.
A History of Violence: His first commercial success in two decades marked Cronenberg’s move into internalised thrills, with Viggo Mortensen in the lead and co-star William Hurt nabbing an Oscar nomination.
Who’s sharing the Cronenberg love?
Geena Davis: One of the greatest parts of Davis’s career came in the form of journalist Veronica Quaife, the woman who falls in love with Seth Brundle in The Fly.
Guillermo del Toro: The director of Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water says he initially had a grim view of sex after seeing the bathtub scene in Cronenberg’s Shivers as a teenager.
Rosanna Arquette: Alongside James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas and Deborah Kara Unger, Arquette starred in Cronenberg’s controversial car-crash sex thriller, Crash.
John Carpenter: Cronenberg’s contemporary in blazing a trail through the horror genre in the '70s and '80s, the Halloween and The Thing director also appeared on the aforementioned Fear of Film program.
Vincenzo Natali: The filmmaker behind Cube and Cypher earned comparisons to his fellow Canadian auteur with his genetic engineering sci-fi effort Splice.
Sarah Gadon: Gadon featured in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars, as well as Antiviral by his writer/director son, Brandon.
Nika Danilova: Also known as Zola Jesus, Danilova is a huge Cronenberg fan — and would like him to direct one of her music videos.
What should I watch next?
Dive into three diverse examples of Cronenberg’s output now at SBS On Demand:
A Dangerous Method
Watch The Vice Guide to Film Tuesday nights on SBS VICELAND and streaming at SBS On Demand.