In March’s Retrospective Roundtable, we turn to the master of body horror himself, David Cronenberg. Boasting more than a dozen titles recognized by name to cinephiles, Cronenberg makes a strong case for being the greatest horror director of all-time. One thing that can said for certain is that Cronenberg’s films are a sensory experience and harness the grotesque to craft effective horror. Apart from their visceral quality, Cronenberg’s films are thoughtful, exploring concepts of reality, technology, sexuality, and politics. For all these reasons, and more, we share the films of David Cronenberg this month.
An early film from David Cronenberg, Shivers is where the horror auteur first found his footing as a director. Boasting an unusual concept, a sense of paranoia, and memorable horror imagery, Shivers contains all the hallmarks of a Cronenberg film very early into the director’s filmography.
Shivers is set within the luxurious apartment complex Starliner Towers where a parasite takes hold amongst the apartment’s residents. This parasite causes its hosts to succumb to sexual frenzy, their crazed mannerisms following infection not too distant from zombies’. Parallels can be drawn between Shivers and the later film Dawn of the Dead, both films blending ‘smart’ horror and social commentary with B-movie sensibilities. Shivers demonstrates the strength that Cronenberg has in working with lurid subject matter to build towards a horrifying conclusion. – Alex Sitaras
The Dead Zone (1983)
From Scanners to Videodrome to The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg was on a tour of the human psyche. Here, he expands upon Scanners and adapts the novel by Stephen King about school teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken). After a horrifying car accident lands him in a coma for five years, Johnny awakens to find he has a new ability. If he touches a person’s hand, he can see their future or, in some cases, their past. Even more, he has the power to change the future if he uses the information he learns, as nothing is truly fated. In this world of free-will, he becomes determined to use what he knows for good.
It may appear to be one of the more surface-level experiences delivered by Cronenberg, but what The Dead Zone considers regarding such mental capability and the responsibility it comes with makes it a fascinating piece of psychology and ethics. For Cronenberg, the thought of body horror is at the forefront of an exploration of him, thus it is only natural he would look within to a mangled mind, twisted in a new direction that few can understand that comes with massive impacts upon Johnny’s health and well-being. The Dead Zone possesses a chilling mood that perfectly blends Cronenberg’s aesthetic with King’s brand of New England terror, resulting in a thrilling, rewatchable, and greatly enjoyable sci-fi horror film. – Kevin Jones
The Fly (1986)
Revisiting David Cronenberg’s The Fly for the first time in several years, it wasn’t surprising to me why the film has endured as his most popular work for many horror fans today. From an incredible revision of the classic monster movie formula, to Cronenberg’s unpretentious craftsmanship and potent eye for tangible bodily destruction, to a wide variety of thematic undertones (ranging from an almost tongue-in-cheek meta-commentary on Cronenberg’s artistic obsessions to a very tragic allegory for the AIDS crisis), The Fly is an incredible fusion of ideas and time periods, and likely represents the peak of the director’s broad appeal. What did surprise me, however, was how unequivocally heartfelt and sad the film is. Of course one always remembers the horrifically rendered images of Seth Brundle’s painful transformation into a human-fly mutant (even several years since seeing it, the shot of Jeff Goldblum’s ear suddenly falling off has stayed permanently burned into my retinas), but equally crucial to such images is their human context. Countless filmmakers after Cronenberg have since taken the genre of body horror that he helped godfather into popular appeal to more gratuitous and disgusting ends, but few have ever quite matched the uniquely human pathos of his work, or the deeply existential questions they dare to ask about who we are if not our bodies. For all those reasons and more, The Fly is not only a true masterpiece, but also a Rosetta Stone for one of the most idiosyncratic and visionary horror directors of our time. – Ben McDonald
Dead Ringers (1988)
David Cronenberg is nothing if not fascinated by the human form. Whether through his body horror films, his apparent fascination with birth and sex (Dead Ringers pairs nicely with The Brood or Crash on this front), or his obsession with the mind and its distortion through drugs, illness, or peculiar circumstances, the human body is at the forefront of his work. Thus, a film about twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly (Jeremy Irons) who become addicted to drugs, become convinced they are now treating “mutant women” with unique reproductive systems, and also become convinced their minds and bodies are linked like Siamese twins, is right up his alley. The tools they use are straight out of the absurd haze of Videodrome, Naked Lunch, or eXistenZ.
Dead Ringers can be, at times, a straight-forward thriller with a chilling atmosphere, a wickedly vile turn from Jeremy Irons (the contrast he draws between the cold, calculating twin and the more nervous, timid, and book brilliant one is absolutely mesmerizing), and plenty of body horror trauma to send chills down one’s spine. Dead Ringers’ fit within Cronenberg’s filmography may be its most fascinating angle for me. It is a film rife with tropes from his other work, while presenting a mangled, violent, and distorted view of the human mind and sex, both in body horror terms and in more typical human deceit and cruelty. Cronenberg’s world of Dead Ringers is one of calculated unease and grime, presenting a cold and cynical vision of two brothers united in more ways than just looks. – Kevin Jones
When I first went through a David Cronenberg binge during the early months of the pandemic, Crash was perhaps the only film of his to leave me genuinely shocked and unsure of for weeks. A controversial work adapted from an equally controversial novel of the same name, the film follows a movie producer (James Spader) who finds himself drawn to an underground group of people sexually aroused by the raw, violent energy of automobile accidents. While Crash is hardly the most fantastically violent film of a director whose work includes such images as Jeff Goldblum’s body disintegrating into a fly (The Fly) or James Woods having a videotape inserted into his chest-vagina (Videodrome), I would dare to say it is the most formally austere and artistically challenging film Cronenberg ever made. This is not merely due to its outlandish premise or its naked portrayal of socially deviant sexual expression, but rather its imbalance of Cronenberg’s usual elegant style with easily definable emotion.
Most of Cronenberg’s work, however grotesque it may be, has a certain dignified pathos to it – most notably in films such as The Fly or Dead Ringers. Crash, while just as unconventionally beautiful a work as any of his other masterpieces, has a certain postmodern acidity and malaise about it. Its images have a real bodily weight to them – a sweaty texture and musky stench that is immediate and tangible – while the tone is anything but, almost totally divorced from any real world context or identifiable emotions other than cold, hypnotic arousal. The feelings one has while watching it are undeniably uncomfortable at times, but the overall effect of the film is more one of aloof detachment than outright upset or horror. Crash may not be as universally beloved as some of Cronenberg’s other films, but it is undeniably an essential piece of the puzzle that is his cinematic obsession with the human body. – Ben McDonald
Along with The Matrix, eXistenZ informed a new era of mind-bending sci-fi. Both films focusing on the intersection between fiction and reality, one could make the argument that Cronenberg’s film is the more shocking of the two, the film feeding the implicit fear of what happens to one’s body and existence when they die within another reality. A seasoned director at this point of his career, Cronenberg more than delivers in terms of action and the grotesque.
eXistenZ explores the concept of virtual reality through a new game of the same name. A faction of people, Realists, protest the onset of virtual reality gaming due to their fear that society will be harmed if the line between fiction and reality is blurred. When eXistenZ is demoed, something is amiss – almost immediately, a Realist charges the game designer and shoots her. With a storyline that spirals from there, Cronenberg toys with his audience as we have to unwrap where fiction ends and reality begins. – Alex Sitaras
Cronenberg is often characterized as a director with great artistic vision, rightly so. Who could forget the nightmare landscapes of Videodrome and Naked Lunch or the grotesque body horror that he mined both for maximum shock value and artistic expression in films like The Fly or Crash? Often directors with Cronenberg’s reputation aren’t necessarily seen as “actors’ directors.” That title seems referred to directors working outside of the genre realm. Yet Spider feels very much like an actors’ showcase. It’s not a big stretch to imagine this tale of schizophrenia and psychological trauma as a theatrical production. Both Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson, in addition to Cronenberg, waived their usual fees to work on this film. Their unity in the project seems apparent in terms of how their performances match Cronenberg’s artistic vision. For story and budgetary reasons, he avoids big set pieces and works in blues and grays and with many carefully-chosen closeups.
Perhaps one of the reason that Spider is not as popular or as well-regarded as his other films is because of how relatively subtle he is, even though Fiennes’ character basically weaves a spider-web of yarn and gruesome murders as plot catalysts. It’s also truly impressive that we forget how handsome and patrician-looking Ralph Fiennes is when he is so immersed in his character of a recently mental asylum inmate. Miranda Richardson is also at home in playing multiple characters with different motivations while making them truly nightmarish. Spider is Cronenberg with more modest resources, but is no less masterful than in his more well-known films. – Eugene Kang
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Viggo Mortensen would serve as an interesting muse to Cronenberg in his later work. Though originally Christoph Waltz was meant to play Sigmund Freud in this film about Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Freud, and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), their partnership would mark a transition in Cronenberg’s career. This period would be characterized by a seeming diminishment of the signature body horror of many his features and an amplification of how violence haunts in indelible ways. Though the violence is less obvious, the way that Cronenberg shoots scenes of dialogue clearly establishes dynamics between characters, which can often be combative. The few scenes of actual violence seem to be an extension of the tension that exists in nearly every scene of his films.
In A Dangerous Method, the main victim of violence is Sabina, who first enters Jung’s life because she is suffering from “hysteria.” Though body horror would not be as prominent in his later features, what Keira Knightley does to her body to portray a woman suffering a visceral physical reaction to her psychological issues could certainly qualify as body horror. Both Jung and Sabina soon discover that she is suffering from long-lasting shame about feeling sexually aroused when her father beat her when she was young. Though this film was praised mainly for Fassbender’s and Mortensen’s interactions as Jung and Freud, it is Knightley who carries the burden of the storytelling. We see her despair over her condition turn into empowerment as it becomes apparent that she is brilliant and understands psychology in a way that even established members of the field couldn’t see. It then mutates into a carnal relationship with Jung, inspired by the psychological phenomenon of transference, but turns into something more. Cronenberg may not automatically come to mind as a women’s director, but some actresses have given their finest performances in his films, and Knightley has to be one of them. – Eugene Kang