A Starter Kit for David Cronenberg's Visceral Body Horror
For anyone who has always wanted to dive into the master's work but had no clue where to start.
Getting into any director's filmography can be intimidating, especially a director with work as weird, grotesque, and downright terrifying as Canadian body-horror king David Cronenberg.
With 22 feature films, guest-directed television episodes, a multitude of acting roles and cameos in movies and TV, and one novel, Cronenberg is seemingly everywhere, and the influence of his infamous commitment to the grossest practical effects imaginable and dark fascination with the interconnectedness of humans and technology has inspired countless directors all over Hollywood.
Now that he's returned to filmmaking for the first time in nine years with his newest movie Crimes of the Future, we figured there are probably plenty of folks out there now who always wanted to get into his work but never knew where to start. You're in luck. We've curated a list of Cronenberg essentials, from award-winning features to famous adaptations to little-seen deep cuts that are all part of what makes Cronenberg so Cronenbergish. That, and a lot of slimy prosthetics.
Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970)
To understand Cronenberg's Whole Thing, it's worth your time to go back to the very beginning. The director's first two feature films, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, both a little longer than one hour and often paired together, are similar in tone and theme without overlapping narratively. They both take place inside bizarre research facilities. Stereo houses people undergoing telepathic experiments and encouraged to engage in polyamorous sexual relationships to strengthen their powers, and Crimes of the Future follows a group of men searching for solutions to a catastrophic disease that has wiped out all sexually mature women from the planet. Both films were made with tiny budgets and minimal special effects, and their politics around subjects like homosexuality and feminism are outdated at best, but you can see Cronenberg's preoccupations with gender, sex, contagious disease, and weird doctors immediately come to the surface.
Peep Show, "The Lie Chair" (1975)
No, David Cronenberg didn't direct any episodes of David Mitchell and Robert Webb's acidic British sitcom, but he did direct two episodes of the Canadian Peep Show, a series broadcast from 1975 to 1976 meant to showcase up-and-coming Canadian directors. One of these, "The Lie Chair," is perhaps not what you expect when you think of the director's more "Cronenbergian" work, but it is just as chock-full of tension, grotesqueries, and sublimated horror as anything else of his. The half-hour episode follows a couple who spend the night at an old lady's house after their car breaks down on the road, but weird things start to happen that lead them to believe there is more to this house than meets the eye. It plays like an episode of Goosebumps or The Outer Limits, a tightly wound horror story you might watch late on a stormy night.
Whenever anyone asks where to start with Cronenberg, there's really only one correct answer: Videodrome. A paranoid techno-thriller that's also a political sci-fi horror that's also a nightmarish prophecy of how humans and machines become ever closer as technology makes it easier to find and express our darkest desires, Videodrome has something for everyone. A movie that presents playing a Betamax tape as akin to a sex act obviously has some freaky notions of human sexuality, including a scene where, after flirting brazenly on television, pirate-TV programmer Max Renn (James Woods) and sadomasochistic radio host Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry) make love to each other after watching an episode of a subversive, porny show operating out of a mysterious unknown station. The case study of a lost era of television broadcasting swiftly descends into Cronenberg's typical sci-fi body-horror territory, but not before offering a sensationalized glimpse of the ways in which people used to create and distribute forbidden entertainments.
The Dead Zone (1983)
The Dead Zone is the second of Cronenberg's one-two 1983 punch, but it couldn't be more different from Videodrome. A take on Stephen King's 1979 novel, it's one of the best adaptations of the famously unadaptable writer's work, with fantastic performances by the entire cast and a tense, atmospheric script. The story follows Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken in a big coat) who has the power to know things about people's lives just by touching them, and realizes that he has the ability to save people he knows will soon be in danger. Things get complicated when a charismatic politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) sparks Johnny's interest and he discovers that Stillson must be stopped at any cost to save the world from disaster.
The Fly (1986)
The Fly stands among the proud few genre remakes that are arguably even better than their predecessors, and it's mainly thanks to Cronenberg's willingness to go where no special-effects designer has dared to go before. A great horror-thriller about a human man whose botched scientific experiment slowly turns him into an enormous fly, Cronenberg's The Fly is intensely, hilariously gross, dressing Jeff Goldblum (in an iconic performance) in various droopy facial prosthetics painted with liquids of ever-increasing viscosity. Like many of Cronenberg's best films, you come for the blood and guts (in this case, exoskeletons and ichor), but you stay for the unexpectedly tender and tragic love story that sneaks in between the cracks.
Perhaps Cronenberg's most controversial film, especially upon its release, Crash—based on J.G. Ballard's equally controversial novel—is often hailed as one of his best, and certainly one of his most memorable. While recovering from a near-fatal car collision, James Ballard (James Spader in '90s hottie mode) stumbles upon a group of survivors whose fetishistic obsession with car crashes often turns sexual, leading James down a twisty, dangerous road. Crash is mostly notable nowadays for its many graphic sex scenes (most of which are filmed in cars), but it's also a fascinating and perhaps empathetic examination of humanity's kinks in all their weird glory. Its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival was so wild that the fest granted it the Special Jury Prize, which is only presented on rare occasions (and also gave us one of the best press-conference clips of all time).
The year 1999 was a banner year for pre-Y2K Matrix-esque anxiety about the coming singularity between humans and technology, and while the actual Matrix is perhaps the epitome of this mini-genre, Cronenberg's eXistenZ has much of the same flavor—way heavier on all the weird fleshy stuff. A video-game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) becomes the target of a group of anti-technology domestic terrorists fighting against the rise of virtual reality, and she and her bumbling assistant (Jude Law) enter into the virtual world to try to save her new game. The games are accessed by "biotechnological" game pods that move and sigh like living things, plugged into a hole at the base of one's spine that looks a lot like, uh, well, you know, and one memorable scene involves Law putting together a gun made out of mutant fish bones. A great time at the movies!
Jason X (2001)
When he isn't busy directing, Cronenberg will occasionally take on a small role or cameo in another film or TV show, seemingly whenever he feels like it. One of his most famous appearances is at the beginning of Friday the 13th's sci-fi slasher entry Jason X, in which Cronenberg plays Dr. Wimmer, a scientist hoping to study Jason's ability to heal from lethal wounds. Wimmer doesn't last long, but it's a perfectly creepy scene nonetheless. In a recent interview, screenwriter Todd Farmer said that Cronenberg actually demanded a part in the movie after the producers asked if they could use his special-effects team, and then started rewriting all of his own lines: "When he says, 'I don't want him frozen, I want him soft,' that’s not me. That’s Cronenberg."
A History of Violence (2005)
Cronenberg doesn't typically reuse certain actors in the way that directors like Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers tend to, but a few of his recent films all have something in common: Viggo Mortensen, with whom Cronenberg first worked on his 2005 crime drama A History of Violence. The film stars Mortensen as Tom Stall, the owner of a small-town diner in rural Indiana, who expertly kills two murderers threatening the patrons of his diner, blowing it off as just something any man would do. When the story reaches the ears of some truly terrifying mobsters from across the country, Tom's entire identity is thrown into chaos as they claim he's a runaway mobster living under a stolen identity, and they've come to collect. The film is eerie and emotional, a departure from Cronenberg's typical horror/sci-fi, instead driven by Mortensen's emotional and empathetic performance as a hunted man watching his life fall apart.