Where to begin with David Cronenberg

On his 78th birthday, we pick a beginner’s path through the brilliantly disgusting work of body horror master David Cronenberg.

15 March 2021

By Stephen Puddicombe

Naked Lunch (1991)

Why this might not seem so easy

Put simply, David Cronenberg’s films are not for the faint-hearted. The Canadian director is the godfather of the body horror genre, and conjurer of some of the most abject and sometimes nauseating images ever rendered for the big screen. 

His commitment to taboo-breaking saw him caught up in the video nasties scare of the 1980s, and his name has become a byword for the repulsive. In an episode of sci-fi animation series Rick and Morty, for instance, a race of disfigured aliens discovered in a parallel universe are offhandedly referred to as the ‘Cronenbergs.’

Yet even for the most squeamish, Cronenberg’s films are worth delving into. As unforgettable as the body horror elements of his films are, what really elevated Cronenberg as one of cinema’s great auteurs is how the gruesome material is always backed up by an underlying concept. As critic Mark Kermode – one of Cronenberg’s biggest fans – has put it, he works with “visual metaphors”, taking a literary notion and applying it to the audio-visual realm of cinema, and by doing so speaking not only instinctively to our deepest, primal fears, but also encouraging our intellectual engagement too.  

While there’s a timelessness to his work, it’s also true that now, in light of the deadly plague that has swept the globe, his paranoia of disease, infection and the vulnerability of the body feel especially resonant. It’s as if we’re all living in Cronenberg’s world now, so what better way to navigate the dystopia than through an artist who’s always concerned himself with such fears? 

The best place to start – The Fly

Cronenberg’s remake of a 1950s horror film about a scientist (Jeff Goldblum) who transforms into a monstrous human-fly hybrid following a mistake with a teleportation device is the most accessible introduction to all the preoccupations he has spent his career obsessing over: mutations and disease, flesh and its decay, sex, and the unforeseen dangers of technological advancement. 

The Fly (1986)

The unfortunate protagonist’s gradual and horrific transformation is also one of the best showcases for the disturbing imagery that’s so distinctive to Cronenberg’s films, with Chris Walas’s prosthetic designs and make-up attaining a transcendent level of disgustingness. Yet this is also one of his more emotionally resonant films, as the character’s horrible fate has a pathos that’s lacking in his more clinical films, which might therefore make it more palatable for the uninitiated. 

What to watch next

If you liked The Fly and could stomach its gore, then the next step is to dive into Cronenberg’s other, earlier horror films. They are low-budget affairs, and not as formally sophisticated as his later works, but even in these early genre flicks he’s already contemplating the philosophy of the body and how it is threatened by technological innovation and modernity.

The Brood (1979)

In Shivers (1975), he sends up the sterility of life in a high-rise modernist apartment block by unleashing a parasite within its confines that turns its victims into lustful zombies; The Brood (1979) wrestles with anxieties about parenthood through monstrous creatures that spawn from the maternal protagonist; and the infectious plague that sweeps through Quebec in Rabid (1977) anticipated the anxieties of the AIDS crisis and now has added resonance.

If gruesome horrors aren’t your thing, then it might be worth jumping straight to the films Cronenberg made from the late 1980s onwards, which mark a new direction in his career. It’s been said that he goes from exploding heads (as literally happens in his 1981 telekinetic horror Scanners) to exploring what’s in them, and the film that marked the beginning of this transition, 1988’s Dead Ringers (about the sexual improprieties of twin gynaecologists, both played by Jeremy Irons), proved that this more psychological approach could be just as, if not more, disturbing.

Dead Ringers (1988)

This later era Cronenberg also demonstrates another of Cronenberg’s great skills – filming supposedly unfilmable novels. While his take on Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983) is a relatively straightforward adaptation, Naked Lunch (1991) is anything but, as he experiments with the very notion of adaptation by making the film as much about William Burroughs’ infamously profane source material as the author’s tormented experience writing it. 

Cronenberg has spoken before about how “to be faithful to the book you have to betray the book,” and he takes a similarly imaginative approach to such singular authors as Don DeLillo in Cosmopolis (2012) and J.G. Ballard in Crash (1996) – the latter a film that, after huge controversy on release, is now recognised by many as his masterpiece. 

Where not to start 

Videodrome (1983) and A History of Violence (2005) are both worth holding back until after you’ve already familiarised yourself with Cronenberg’s other big hitters. Not for lack of quality – these are, in fact, among Cronenberg’s greatest accomplishments. But in order to fully grasp exactly what the director is doing in these films and appreciate them as meta-commentaries, it’s best to have some understanding of his other work.

A History of Violence (2005)

The title of A History of Violence is deliberately open-ended – it could, among other things, comment on Cronenberg’s career as a whole. Once you’ve seen all the ways he has previously depicted violence, from the gleefully exploitative to the clinically dispassionate, you can detect a real sense of reflection when it erupts in a sleepy small town of supposedly peaceful inhabitants. 

And Cronenberg’s in a similarly self-reflective mood in the brilliant Videodrome. You might have thought he’d feel disdainfully towards the censors who were so outraged by his early works, but instead he finds inspiration in their fears to come up with the concept of ‘Videodrome’, a TV show that broadcasts obscene material that does indeed corrupt the viewer.

As well as featuring some of the most surreal images of his career, this was the film that best demonstrated how Cronenberg has always known and scrutinised the power of those images he so masterfully creates, and has therefore always infused his work with a philosophical and moral seriousness that belies the sometimes schlocky appearances.

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