The 10 essential David Cronenberg films
David Cronenberg's just-released film Crimes of the Future is the Canadian auteur's first movie in almost a decade. Prior to that, Cronenberg was a busy bee, directing 21 shorts and features, from horror films like Shivers, The Dead Zone, and The Fly, through a clutch of collaborations with Viggo Mortensen, to 2014's Julianne Moore-starring Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars. But which are the ten essential entries in Cronenberg's body of often wonderfully horrific work? You'll find our picks below.
With Shivers, David Cronenberg set out his body-horror stall, from which he would sell all manner of entertaining awfulness over the next several decades. Produced by late Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, the movie concerns a parasite that causes the residents of a luxury apartment to engage in acts of sex and violence. While indebted to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Shivers succeeds in being even more unsparing and grotesque. If this sounds like your cup of tea, then definitely also check out 1977's Rabid, which depicts similar mayhem on a grander scale, and 1979's similarly disturbing The Brood, which the director has described as "my version of Kramer vs. Kramer."
"I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one, sometimes resulting in nosebleeds, ear aches, stomach cramps, nausea..." And exploding heads! Yes, this is the movie in which Michael Ironside's psychokinetic villain turns the brain of another so-called "scanner" into jello. That unforgettable sequence is just one of several reasons to watch this conspiracy thriller whose cast also includes Stephen Lack as the hero and Patrick McGoohan, of cult TV show The Prisoner, as Dr. Ruth (not that one).
In one of his best, sleaziest, performances, James Woods plays Max Renn, the president of a low-budget cable TV station, whose quest for extreme material leads him to watch torture footage from a show called Videodrome. Renn begins to experience wild hallucinations involving guns, video tapes, a huge hole in his stomach, and a radio host played by Deborah Harry, ultimately losing track of reality altogether. How fortunate we are that Cronenberg's nightmarish vision of people being driven loopy by an overload of media has never come to pass.
The Dead Zone (1983)
Cronenberg switched out body horror for torments of a more psychological bent in this superlative adaptation of Stephen King's 1979 novel with a screenplay by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade writer Jeffrey Boam. Christopher Walken plays things relatively restrained as schoolteacher Johnny Smith who emerges from a coma with the ability (or is it a curse?) to see people's possible futures by physically touching them. Just be careful, because the ice is gonna break!!!
The Fly (1986)
Cronenberg went mainstream with this reimagining of the Vincent Price-starring film from 1958. Jeff Goldblum is a scientist who accidentally fuses his DNA with that of a fly during a teleportation experiment, while Geena Davis is a journalist who tries to stick with him as he gets, well, sticky. The pair's terrific performances and some still very gross special effects combine with Cronenberg's assured direction to make The Fly one of the great remakes of all-time. (Fun fact: It was the idea of comedy legend Mel Brooks, whose company produced the film, that Davis utter the iconic line, "Be afraid, be very afraid.")
Dead Ringers (1988)
Cronenberg took a big step away from pure horror with Dead Ringers even as he oversaw some of the most unsettling moments of his career. Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists, Elliot and Beverly, whose lives disintegrate after meeting Genevieve Bujold's actress Claire. Irons' dual performance as the brothers is quite remarkable and it is widely assumed that his subsequent winning of the Best Actor Academy Award for playing Claus von Bülow in 1990's Reversal of Fortune was in part an acknowledgement of his work in this film. (He thanked Cronenberg from the Oscar podium.)
Naked Lunch (1991)
Cronenberg's attempt to turn William S. Burroughs' provocative and deliberately confusing novel into a narrative found the director combining the book with elements from Burroughs' own life. Come for Peter Weller's deliciously deadpan performance as an exterminator who has accidentally murdered his wife, stay for the discourse about creativity and the giant bug with a talking butt.
Having adapted the seemingly unadaptable Naked Lunch for the big screen, Cronenberg repeated the trick with British author J. G. Ballard's 1973 novel Crash. The director's strangely beautiful, deliberately off-putting movie introduces viewers to a group of characters who get sexually excited by vehicular mayhem; they're played by Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Debra Kara Unger, and the always-up-for-onscreen-kinkiness James Spader. The film prompted boos when it played at Cannes but then was awarded a Special Jury Prize, an indication of its divisive nature. Crash is certainly a tough watch but no list of essential Cronenberg movies would be complete without it.
A History of Violence (2005)
After a couple of commercial disappointments, notably 1999's worth-checking-out sci-fi-thriller eXistenz, Cronenberg found gold in every sense with the Viggo Mortensen-starring A History of Violence. The Lord of the Rings star portrays a diner owner whose slaying of two psychotic goons opens a door to his past that he is incapable of closing. Let history note that both supporting actor William Hurt and screenwriter Josh Olsen received Academy Award nominations.
Eastern Promises (2007)
Cronenberg reteamed with his History of Violence star for this London-set gangster-thriller written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. Naomi Watts plays a midwife who crosses paths with Mortensen's multi-dimensional but very menacing Russian mafia bodyguard. How menacing? At one point, his heavily-tattooed character defeats two assailants in a Turkish bath while he is completely naked. This time, it was Mortensen who received an Oscar nomination for his considerable efforts. The actor and Cronenberg would continue their working relationship with 2011's A Dangerous Method, and now, Crimes of the Future, a partial return by the director to the body horror of his early career.
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