From “Shivers” to “Dead Ringers”, the Horror of David Cronenberg

By James Hancock

“Horror for Cronenberg is not a game or a meal ticket; it is, rather, the natural expression for one of the best directors working today. For Cronenberg’s subject is the intensity of human frailty and decay: in short, the body and its many accelerated mutations, whether out of disease, anger, dread, or hope. These are not easy films to take. But how can horror be easy? Anyone born and reckoning on dying needs to confront Cronenberg.” 

– David Thomson, “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition”

I became a Cronenberg fan long before I knew Cronenberg by name or what a director does. As a kid in the Eighties, there was no way to be a horror fan and not encounter one of his films sooner or later. The first film of his that I saw was his remake of “The Fly” (1986). My whole family had sat down to watch it on VHS, not really knowing what to expect, and we were completely horrified, thrilled and disgusted all in equal measure. As a hardcore comic book fan, I felt like I was watching the origin of a super hero that had somehow gone terribly wrong and instead of turning into someone like Spider-Man the central character was slowly becoming something out of the most disturbing nightmare imaginable. As the years passed, my interest in movies intensified and I was soon on a new collision course with Cronenberg. While I was attending UVA, my friends and I kept hearing about some disturbing new movie about people that get sexually aroused by car crashes. As properly perverse 20 year-old guys, we were intrigued. “Crash” (1996), not to be confused with that pretentious, self-important pile of garbage made by Paul Haggis in 2004, completely lived up to its notorious reputation and I decided it was time for me to get to work learning more about this director named David Cronenberg. What I found was a filmography as impressive as any other filmmaker’s from my lifetime. If there were ever a director born to direct a movie from the point of view of a virulent disease, it is Cronenberg. Often described as a master of ‘body horror’, he completely dominates his own corner of the horror genre, one more concerned with science than with the supernatural. While today Cronenberg is embraced as one of the world’s most interesting art house directors with films like “A History of Violence” (2005), “Eastern Promises” (2007), and “A Dangerous Method” (2011), the films that sizzle my imagination most intensely are from the first half of his career, a time when he cemented his reputation as the best director in the history of the horror genre. If you’re already a converted fan, nothing will surprise you here but I hope this list will serve as a useful guide for newbies interested in learning more about the essential early films of this amazing filmmaker.

Shivers/They Came From Within (1975)

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Cronenberg’s debut feature film is completely insane. A deranged doctor tries to develop a parasite that can replace the function of vital organs. The experiment goes horribly wrong, resulting in a large slimy aggressive parasite that multiplies by the thousands. What makes the film so unusual is the method by which the parasites spreads. The victims of this parasite turn into sex crazed lunatics whose only desire is to engage in massive orgies, often by force, allowing the parasite to spread mouth to mouth. Chaos ensues. While not remotely the strongest film in his career, ‘Shivers’ is an outstanding debut feature and a harbinger of the great things to come.

David Cronenberg at work on his first feature film 'Shivers'.

David Cronenberg at work on his first feature film ‘Shivers’.

Rabid (1977)

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Most fans like to talk about how “Rabid” features porn superstar Marilyn Chambers as the central character as if there were nothing else to discuss about the movie. Apart from Marilyn’s obvious physical appeal, “Rabid” is an important step forward for Cronenberg as a storyteller and gave him another chance at honing his preoccupation with horror stories in a medical context. Marilyn Chambers plays a woman who nearly dies in a motorcycle accident leading to an experimental surgery to survive. The surgery has a horrible side effect in the form of a vampiric needle that protrudes from her armpit and drains the blood of her victims, eventually turning them into rabid lunatics, resulting in a savage epidemic. The movie would have likely been stronger with Sissy Spacek in the lead as originally planned but “Rabid” remains is a solid early entry in Cronenberg’s career.

The Brood (1979)

The Brood

“The Brood” is the first really great film of Cronenberg’s career, one that still terrifies me after having watched it several times. Oliver Reed plays a psychiatrist with an experimental technique called psychoplasmics, a technique employing role play scenarios where Reed’s character, Dr. Hal Raglan, urges his patients to relive their trauma and come out on the other side having expelled the trauma from their system. For some patients, this process comes with a horrible side effect (yes, this is a recurring theme in Cronenberg’s movies) such as lymphatic sarcoma. In the most extreme case, ***going into spoiler territory*** a woman’s rage manifests itself in the form of horrible offspring that proceed to hunt down and kill anyone she feels is threatening to keep her from being with her husband and daughter. The shock value of this movie has not faded at all in spite of being 35 years old and features the first jaw-dropping scenes of physical repulsion in Cronenberg’s work. Required viewing.

David Cronenberg shares some technique with his young star of 'The Brood'.

David Cronenberg shares some technique with his young star of ‘The Brood’.

Scanners (1981)

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Long before Professor X and Jean Grey showed off their telepathic prowess in the X-Men movies, David Cronenberg showed us what a telepath can really do with some of the most gruesome psychic combat ever recorded on film. If Fox ever decides to go with an R-rating for the X-Men franchise we might see Charles Xavier throw down with some of the head-exploding mayhem that has made this particular movie so notorious. In the world of ‘Scanners’, a new drug causes, shocker, a side effect where women give birth to a new breed of humans with mental powers who come to be known as scanners. Darryl Revok played by Michael Ironside seeks to use this power for chaos and the accumulation of power leading to an ideological war between Revok and his brother Cameron, a dysfunctional wanderer who is just beginning to learn about his true potential. For fans of 1980s science fiction and horror, this film is in the pantheon.

Videodrome (1983)

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We now come to what I think is Cronenberg’s first masterpiece, ‘Videodrome’. One of Cronenberg’s most distinctive and daring films, “Videodrome” is the perfect horror film for anyone interested in analyzing our sexual addiction to technology and how this addiction affects the way we perceive reality. For anyone who remembers the great heyday of VHS, this movie serves as an amazing sentimental journey through that era when one suspected the racks at the local video store could easily have something that is dangerous to watch, where people were actually hurt in the making of the movie. If Cronenberg would ever consider remaking the movie, I’d love to see what Cronenberg could do if he decided to tackle the Digital Revolution and the Internet in a similar context. As far as the story is concerned, in “Videodrome” James Woods plays the president of a small cable TV channel that specializes in violence and pornography. Always on the lookout for something tough and hardcore for his viewers, he comes across some underground programming on a secret satellite signal that is designed to cause **spoiler alert** mutation-inducing hallucinations in those who watch it. What follows is just spellbinding and to top it all off Deborah Harry takes a break from her role as lead singer of Blondie to play James Woods’ love interest. This is one of those movies that makes most science fiction films feel defanged, declawed, and painfully short on ideas by comparison. Enjoy.

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David Cronenberg and ‘Videodrome’ star James Woods.

The Dead Zone (1983)

VlB4jI love the work of Stephen King and grew up obsessively reading his novels from the 1970s and 1980s. One of the strongest adaptations of his work, without question, is Cronenberg’s “The Dead Zone”. For those unfamiliar with the premise, Christopher Walken plays a man who wakes up from a coma with the blessing/curse to predict the future of anyone he touches. The power is a double-edged sword, however, in that each time he uses it, there is a a physical toll to be paid. He tries to use his power for good but grows increasingly frail as he struggles to avert a global catastrophe that only he knows is coming. For Christopher Walken fans, this is an essential performance.

Christopher Walken & David Cronenberg

Christopher Walken & David Cronenberg

The Fly (1986)

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“The Fly” is for me Cronenberg’s one true piece of mainstream entertainment. This is not to say that he holds back on disturbing the hell out of the viewer, but the romance between Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis at the heart of the movie is incredibly moving stuff making the story in my opinion a far more accessible experience than the rest of Cronenberg’s early films. One of the few remakes that is heads and shoulders above the film it was based on (John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is another), I remain an avid fan to this day. In yet another story of science gone wrong, Goldblum plays Seth Brundle who is working on human teleportation. His first experiment is a success however he fails to notice a seemingly harmless house fly with him in the device and the two of them merge as they rematerialize. What follows is one of the most gruesome gradual transformations ever caught on film as Brundle first attempts to hold onto his humanity before succumbing to the changes and becoming a creature that would turn H.P. Lovecraft’s hair white. As one of the horror movies that really put the zap on my brain as a kid giving me a series of vicious nightmares, I’ll always have a sentimental love for this movie. This a genuine horror classic that has lost none of its power.

David Cronenberg & Jeff Goldblum filming 'The Fly'.

David Cronenberg & Jeff Goldblum filming ‘The Fly’.

Dead Ringers (1988)

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Finally we come to the movie that I feel is the boldest and purest articulation of his ideas, “Dead Ringers”. This movie perfectly straddles the divide between the different stages of Cronenberg’s career and one can almost feel the itch in Cronenberg to express himself with more challenging material. ‘Dead Ringers’ features Jeremy Irons in the role of a lifetime as twin gynecologists, Beverly and Elliot Mantle. What is incredible about the performance of Jeremy Irons is how often I have to remind myself that I’m not watching the performances of two different actors. He chews the scenery in each and every scene, easily delivering the finest work of his career. When the Mantle twins both become sexually involved with an actress who is unaware that she is sleeping with two different people, the relationship serves as a kind of destructive catalyst for a total mental meltdown of drug addiction. Beverly rapidly loses his grip and begins a series of twisted experiments with new gynecological instruments designed for what he thinks is a world now populated with mutant women. If it is possible, the film gets even darker from there. I’ve seen this film many times, will continue to do so and think the movie easily ranks as Cronenberg’s strongest work.

David Cronenberg just told Jeremy Irons about the mutant women.

David Cronenberg just told Jeremy Irons about the mutant women.

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So I hope this brief list will serve as a proper introduction for for those of you lucky enough to be experiencing David Cronenberg’s work for the first time. There really is not another filmography out there even remotely like it. And for those of you who already know and love his work, I’ll simply close with ‘Long live the New Flesh.’

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