It takes a lot of great work over a long career to be considered a great filmmaker, but it could be argued that the true mark of legendary status is when your name becomes synonymous with an entire aesthetic or style, when enough people have attempted to do what you did first that you become the zero standard for those who follow. You hear it all the time: Spielbergian journeys taken by young people through lushly photographed locales, Tarantino-esque bursts of violence. But of them all, few are more uniquely distinct than the subset of films that come to mind when you talk about David Cronenberg.
The signature is “body violence,” and throughout his career there’s been no shortage of it. The filmmaker has worked heavily in the arts of repulsion and paranoia, those often informing one another, and has spent decades challenging the boundaries of popular art. His films engage with our bodies in ways few others do, both theoretically and in the literal sense of the nausea his films have the capacity to induce in audiences.
So, with his latest film, Maps to the Stars, debuting in limited release and via VOD platforms this weekend, we got to debating the best work of one of modern film’s most unique, perverse, and wholly distinct voices. Read on, and long live the New Flesh.
10. eXistenZ (1999)
A funny thing happened to David Cronenberg in the 2000s: he went mainstream. He traded in his decades-long obsession with physical deformity, over-the-top gore, and sexual symbolism for relatively straightforward narratives, ones that were more palatable for the average moviegoer. This directorial shift proved successful, and he quickly began racking up more award nominations (especially for A History of Violence and Eastern Promises) than at any other point in his career. Prior to this switcheroo, there was eXistenZ (1999), the last of Cronenberg’s old-school body-horror films.
On the surface, eXistenZ tells the story of a video-game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who becomes the target of a violent political group opposed to virtual reality. A security guard, Ted Pikel (Jude Law), tries helping her escape their assassination attempts…and then things get weird. Honestly, none of this film’s greatness has to do with its paper-thin plot or its philosophizing about the nature of reality. Nope. This movie is a must-watch because of its gruesome special effects and its Freudian prosthetics.
Somehow eXistenZ gets away with showing half a dozen graphic sex scenes disguised as video-game play. Ya see, the game’s plug looks like a giant umbilical cord with a phallic tip, and it must be jammed into an asshole-shaped bioport located in the player’s spine. This leads to scene after shocking scene of Jennifer Jason Leigh penetrating Jude Law, including a spit-take-inducing moment when she sprays WD-40 on his bioport to loosen it up because first-time players tend to be “tight.” This movie definitely isn’t for everyone, but it brims with the same originality and jaw-dropping weirdness that made David Cronenberg a cult favorite in the first place. –Adriane Neuenschwander
9. Rabid (1977)
Here’s one of Cronenberg’s earlier hints at his fetish for body, vanity, and the horrific relationship each has with each other. Marilyn Chambers (yes, porn ingenue Marilyn Chambers) is Rose, the unlucky lady in a motorcycle accident that forces her to have plastic, restorative surgery. Seems pretty fair, and this being a Canadian production, the surgery was likely covered in full. However, her doctor is a freaky, furry eye browed guy experimenting with shady biological skin grafts, and, well, surprise baby! Rose grows a nasty little protrusion, a penile stinger, out of her armpit. It sucks the blood of others, and leaves them zombie-like. Gross. Gross gross gross.
Rabid is considered an early cult hit for Cronenberg, and it still gives the willies because of its sexually transmitted terrors, and bloody scares. Rose’s affliction becomes addiction, and Cronenberg shows her struggle not as a monstrous transformation, but a sad flaw in something that should have saved Rose. Her mind’s seemingly there, she doesn’t seem to want to be evil, but the needs of the body, the bad biology, take over. Who knows what funky side effects await us in an operating room? What danger is there in something that’s supposed to help? For a C-grade thriller, Rabid’s got some genuine chills to it. Cronenberg showed his early intelligence and nerve for horror here, along with Shivers in 1975.
Between the shrieking score, the pandemic scares, the medical fears, and Chambers’ sad, sultry performance, Rabid never truly goes away. –Blake Goble
8. Scanners (1981)
“Did you ever see that scene in Scanners when that dude’s head blew up?” Very few moments in cinema have catapulted its respective films throughout pop culture history like this one. People who have never even seen Cronenberg’s 1981 classic know about the messy explosion to minute detail, and long before GIFs or Tumblr culture made it an everyday occurrence. Hell, back in the ’80s and ’90s, Scanners was the film to rent for rambunctious sleepovers, solely because of that opening scene.
The rest, however, weighs heavily on patience. The story follows a renegade “scanner”, aka people with telekinetic powers, who wants to wage war against an evil corporation called ConSec, which collects similar telepaths for its own nefarious purposes. It’s an intriguing pitch clumsily carried out by a former CoverGirl (Jennifer O’Neill), a Canadian painter (Steven Lack), and the co-creator of The Prisoner (Patrick McGoohan), leaving much of the legwork to the great Michael Ironside.
Acting aside, the film’s a technical diamond, coming off like a more crass and unforgiving Carpenter production. There’s a crude elegance to the many frantic set pieces, enlivened by Howard Shore’s essential score. And really, make-up artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist) should have been nominated for an Academy Award because, damn, that final showdown between Ironside and Lack is something otherworldly. You’ll probably turn away and reach for a doggy bag. –Michael Roffman
7. Eastern Promises (2007)
From Videodrome to Spider, Cronenberg consistently vacillated between visceral and psychological horror in his films. The bodily terror of The Fly begat the emotional devastation of Dead Ringers begat the special effects madness of Naked Lunch, and so on. A History of Violence marked a departure in the director’s oeuvre, though. The film-by-film ebb and flow of physical and mental violence had been replaced by a barely concealed undercurrent of both elements that only briefly broke with the coffee pot scene.
In his next film, Eastern Promises, Cronenberg capitalized on that newly developed tension, skillfully guiding his tenacious midwife heroine, Anna Ivanovna (Naomi Watts) through the underbelly of the Russian mafia – not to mention the terrifying presence of Viggo Mortensen’s henchman-like Nikolai Luzhin– with anxiety-inducing results. When the film’s nail-biting unease finally blows like a head in Scanners, culminating in the now-infamous bathhouse fight scene, it’s almost as brilliantly brutal, twisted and, well, Cronenbergian as the filmmaker’s mid-career masterworks. –Sarah Kurchak
6. The Dead Zone (1983)
The cold sticks out the most in The Dead Zone. Cronenberg’s one-and-only adaptation of a Stephen King film is set during a winter in Maine; you can see everyone’s breath, you can see the red on their cheeks. While dealing with this particular season in the northeast can be brutal (just look at this year), Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) has awoken from a lengthy coma to discover he has second sight. He is able to help the police with his newfound power, but the community’s reluctance to believe him leads to more trouble than it does fulfillment. And then there’s the shady salesman running for political office (Martin Sheen)…
The Dead Zone, despite its bleak tone, has a lot of heart to it. There’s enough terror to satisfy the appetites of horror fans, but the film hits hardest whenever Johnny has to deal with heartbreak. Cronenberg often shocks and fascinates us with elaborate special effects, but there is little of that here. The Dead Zone is a human story about a man with a condition: THE ICE … IT’S GONNA BREAK!!!!! –Justin Gerber
5. The Brood (1979)
In many ways, The Brood is one of David Cronenberg’s most accessible early films. It’s essentially just a monster movie, one where a group of disfigured children stalk and kill unsuspecting victims in a small Canadian town. But even though the narrative is simple, its telling is anything but ordinary. Cronenberg peppers The Brood with all of his favorite auteurist tropes, including disfigurement, experimental science, and a truly fucked up romance.
The film chronicles the relationship between Frank (Art Hindle) and his institutionalized wife, Nola (Samantha Eggar). After Nola receives some unconventional therapy from her doctor (Oliver Reed, in a batshit-insane performance), she acquires the ability to give physical form to her once-suppressed anger. She can literally giving birth to rage babies, who drop out of her body cocooned in giant amniotic sacs. It’s absolutely disgusting.
But The Brood succeeds at much more than simply making its audience squirm. The film does an amazing job of building tension, especially during the scenes when the brood attacks its victims. These suspenseful sequences are juxtaposed with moments of laugh-out-loud absurdity, creating a tonal roller coaster with terrifying highs and hilarious lows. So by the time The Brood reaches its most notorious scene, when Frank watches in horror as Nola rips through one of the aforementioned sacs and proceeds to clean the fetus with her tongue like a cat, it’s impossible to know what to make of the movie anymore. Is it horror? Is it dark comedy? Is it a fever dream brought on by tainted poutine? It’s impossible to say. All I know for sure is that it has to be seen to be believed. –Adriane Neuenschwander
4. Videodrome (1983)
A movie practically custom-made for graduate-level film students, Videodrome is as accessible an introduction to semiotic theory as has ever been released by a major film studio, and for all its knowing disorientation and kinky sideshow distractions (and they distinctly are, intrinsic though they might be to the story), it’s as powerful a story as you’ll ever see of the ways in which pop culture may in fact be leeching into our souls. At the start, there’s just Max (James Woods, somehow menacing even in confusion), a cable TV producer whose business model of sex, violence, and sensation above all has led to the increasing need for new, deeper shocks to the system, something that can really shake apathetic audiences to the core.
He finds what might well be a sentient videotape, beckoned to his television by Deborah Harry, and embarks on a journey toward the New Flesh. It might seem histrionic by modern standards, but if anything Videodrome is probably truer now than it was in the mid-’80s. Our culture of shock and hedonism didn’t lead to sentient tapes, but they sure as hell created reality TV, our fixations on phone apps that allow us to do anything to be noticed, and the pinging sense that we’ve lost something intrinsically human that we must strive to reclaim, if we even can. Cronenberg was just ahead of the curve. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
3. Dead Ringers (1988)
Yes, movies just love perpetuating the stereotype that twins are creepy and evil (The Shining, Sisters, City of Lost Children, the two pasty dreadlock dudes in The Matrix Reloaded). But one film gets the right, no, privilege, hell the pride to call its self the creepiest movie ever made about twins.
Say hello to Elliot and Beverly Mantle, twin Toronto gynecologists. They’re the willies-induced duo of Dead Ringers, Cronenberg’s masterpiece that declared his transition from body horror to cerebral chillers. And what a high art carnival side show it is. Played to double perfection by Jeremy Irons, the Mantles sleep with their patients, screwing around with the idea that no one can tell the two apart. Elliot is the stronger, harsher brother, he likes the art of seduction. Beverly is meek, shy, and gets Elliot’s leftovers when he tires of a woman. They fall for an actress (Geneviève Bujold) of divisive and caustic beauty. As Beverly begins to fall into depression over heartbreak, he abuses drugs, has visions of women with mutated genitals.
We won’t even begin to try and characterize the creation of “mutant gynological” devices that could make even the hardest, most blood-soaked doctors faint.
Dead Ringers masterfully presents terrors of mind and body, attempting to medically, graphically delineate the strange bond between twins. It was like the formal farewell to Cronenberg’s straight thrills of visceral horror as he began to explore deeper, more troubling, and less make-up FX-heavy things to disturb us. Ever try to dissect how weirdly in-sync twins can be some times? Ever wonder if identical twins are in on some grand, psychologically depraved joke that none of us will ever get? Are all twins just creepy telepathic aliens in human disguises, waiting to strike at any minute? Dead Ringers pretty much argues “yes” on all fronts. –Blake Goble
2. A History of Violence (2005)
For such a plain man, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) knows how to take a life. When a couple of crooked thieves attempt to start trouble in a quaint town’s diner, Tom dispatches them with an alarming level of skill. It’s as much a surprise to his wife Edie (Maria Bello) as anyone. Tom’s a quiet guy, after all. He works hard, he dutifully goes down first during sex, and he looks out for his kids. He’s the consummate American patriarch, which makes him perfect for one of Cronenberg’s very best films, a film which lingers on the innate carnage boiling beneath the surface of the small-town propriety on which American fantasies have been built since before Norman Rockwell even existed to chronicle it.
That one act of violence in the diner was done for honest reasons, but the trouble that follows casts the family into chaos, as everything from his child-rearing methods to his interactions with Edie start to reflect that one incident. Was Tom really just a quiet, down-home guy, or is there something else going on here? For Cronenberg, this question (while eventually addressed, to surreal effect) hardly matters. In his version of middle America, there’s always something else going on, wherever we can’t see it. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
1. The Fly (1986)
The Fly is one of those films that can haunt your collection forever. It’s gross, it’s terrifying, but more than anything, it’s brutally depressing. Decades later, Cronenberg’s reimagining of George Langelaan’s The Fly remains a traumatic slice of filmmaking, notably empowered by the tragedy of Dr. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum). Without a second to spare, Cronenberg introduces the brilliant and handsome scientist, who’s on the brink of a magnificent scientific discovery: teleportation. Yes, through two ominous pods, he discovers the ability to transfer one specific to the next. What’s more, he has the support and admiration of a young and beautiful journalist named Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife (Geena Davis). Needless to say, things are going great for him.
But that damn fly. If it weren’t for that wiry, little insect, Brundle would be celebrating his successes down in the Caribbean with his lover rather than opening up the Brundle Museum of Natural History. Yet it’s always the little things that come nibbling at our arms and legs, right? Due to a system error — the pods combine Brundle and the fly’s DNA — there’s a battle between the two genes, leaving our eccentric scientist to a series of jarring deformities that would make Rocky Dennis a GQ cover model. “I’m saying… I’m saying I – I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake,” Brundle sadly confesses to Veronica towards the end of his transformation.
Cronenberg mixes all of this body horror with rough sex and sweaty masculinity, shattering each of these tropes into a puddle of goo. Thanks to Goldblum’s trademark quirks, it’s admittedly somewhat comical watching his crazy fall from grace, but only up to a point. When he admits he’s terrified, when his jaw breaks off, when his computer doesn’t recognize his voice, when he pleads for the baby (yes, there’s a baby), and when he finally reaches for the shotgun … fucking Christ, it’s so hard to watch. Even just thinking about it leaves one’s skin to crawl furiously. Needless to say, the Oscar for Best Makeup has never been more deserved than it was when Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis walked home with gold in 1987.
Save for The Thing, there isn’t a better remake or a more timeless horror film than The Fly. For a world that values vanity, youth, and technology, Cronenberg designed a masterpiece that will always make moviegoers scream, shriek, or cower in fear. To paraphrase Veronica, we should all be afraid, yes, very afraid. Blech. –Michael Roffman