Swinging for the Fences: David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg has made subversive movies about zombies taking over Quebec, telepaths who can explode skulls by means of concentration, a scientist who turns himself into a giant insect, identical twin gynecologists, people who need to be in car crashes to achieve orgasm, and a small town diner owner who might just be a gangster. These films have touched on such simple themes as man vs. nature and man vs. technology to the more complex cases of the body against the mind, the body against itself, and the nature of evil.

Despite this wide range of subjects, the films play like a single vision, an epic existential examination of humanity by means of studying its morbid boundaries. His early work (i.e. Shivers and Rabid) spawned hordes of admirers and imitators, inspiring works from Dan O’Bannon’s creation of the Alien series to James Gunn’s horror-comedy Slither. He has since dabbled in grindhouse flicks, arthouse flicks, filming novels previously considered unfilmable, and generating Oscar buzz with a pair of gangster flicks.

As Joe Bob Briggs says in Profoundly Disturbing:

These are intensely personal films of ideas, even though we don’t always know exactly what those ideas are. One thing we do know is that everywhere you look in a Cronenberg film, there are restless people unable to cope with technology, disease, infection, and the phantasms of their own mind[.]

As Cronenberg has used his films to explore his obsessions, each film building upon the last, so too has he grown in his craft. At this point in his career, he rarely needs to storyboard. Surrounding himself with people he trusts, his films have become true collaborative. One anecdote from A History of Violence tells of the impromptu construction in the movie’s hospital scene. Maria Bello thought her character would have vomited in this sequence of events, so Cronenberg had a quickie bathroom built into the hospital set.

Batting Order

1. Shivers (1975) … aka They Came from WithinHit
Shivers is a low-budget effort and at times feels very much like it. It was Cronenberg’s first non-student film, and its hectic shooting scheduled served as a trial by fire. Shivers tells the story of a sexually transmitted infection which turns its victims into creatures of pure id, ready to kill or rape without provocation. The cause of all this is sophisticated man-made parasites designed to replace human organs in lieu of transplants. The experiment was corrupted by a scorned scientist seeking to eradicate the repressive nature of society. Upon reading Parasite Rex, this device not only seems intriguing, but downright plausible. Thus the film gets a hit, but only a single.

2. Rabid (1977) … aka RageHit
Five years after becoming history’s highest paid porn star in Behind the Green Door, Marilyn Chambers beat out a young Sissy Spacek for the lead role of Rose in David Cronenberg’s Rabid. The beautiful Rose gets into a terrible motorcycle accident, and routine skin grafts won’t cut it. She is treated with an experimental procedure, which seems to work fine. That is, until she grows an evil blood-sucking appendage in her armpit. Rose escapes from the hospital, and uses her sexual charms to drain the blood from some Quebeckers, who become zombified in the process. The province gets maggoty with zombies, martial law is declared, and a quarantine is put in effect. The film has fewer rough patches than Shivers, and is one of the few worthwhile vampire pictures of the last 40 years.

3. Fast Company (1979) – Walk
Big Bill Smith, the man most famous for fighting Clint Eastwood in Any Which Way You Can, stars as Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson in Cronenberg’s drag race tale Fast Company. Released on DVD fairly recently, it remains a fairly hard DVD for me to track down. Thus, I haven’t.

4. The Brood (1979) – Hit
A new age-y doctor has come up with psychoplasmics, a way for his patients to manifest physically their psychological problems. Their fears, neuroses, hangups and such become tumors rashes and all sorts of disgusting things. In the case of Frank’s institutionalized wife, psychoplasmics causes her to birth belly-buttonless children of pure hate. (This film was partly inspired by Cronenberg’s own divorce and ugly custody battle.) The Brood might just be the creepiest thing that the parent of a young child could watch.

5. Scanners (1981) – Hit
“10 Seconds: The Pain Begins. 15 Seconds: You Can’t Breathe. 20 Seconds: You Explode. ” It’s Scanners, and I don’t even think they let you into a sci-fi con without seeing this film. This film has Michael Ironside at his very best, numerous disturbing scenes, government conspiracies, and telepathic fetuses.

6. Videodrome (1983) – Hit
Videodrome isn’t a film to be watched; it is a film to be dissected, analyzed, explored, and investigated. It’s the sort of thing that co teach. It was declared ahead of it’s time 24 years ago; it pretty much still is.

7. The Dead Zone (1983) – Hit
This is Cronenberg as a director-for-hire, and the film ends up being in the top half of Stephen King adaptations. That’s damning it with faint praise, eh? Long before Christopher Walken slipped into the land of over the top performances and self-parody, he was an actual actor. He’s brilliant here as a man who gains psychic powers after car accident induced coma. That same coma also cost Walken’s character his girlfriend, his job, and most of what he called his life. Coupled with his newfound powers, this forces the character into becoming an outsider.

8. The Fly (1986) – Hit
If you’ve seen a couple of Jeff Goldblum movies, you probably know two things: a) Jeff Goldblum almost always plays a scientist and b) Jeff Goldblum stars in superior remakes (i.e. ’78’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The Fly is no exception to either of those. For the first time Cronenberg was given a sizable budget to make his movie, and legitimate blockbuster was the result. The film works marvelously as a horror/sci-fi/action/thriller, but can be appreciated on a deeper artistic level. At the point when similar movies start in with the “shut your mind off” big climax sequences, The Fly turns inward. It brings up all these questions about how much a man can deteriorate and remain the same man, or even a man at all. Are Veronica’s promises to Brundle still valid, now that he has become Brundle-fly? Are marriage vows still applicable if your spouse is in a persistent vegetative state? The Fly is a good movie if you shut your brain off, and a great movie if you don’t. Plus, a baboon turns inside out.

9. Dead Ringers (1988)- Hit
Cronenberg followed up his big budget blockbuster with a movie intended almost exclusively for intellectuals. It was my nominee for the 50 club, way back when:

If you bring up the film around a woman, chances are she’ll shudder. If she has seen the film, she’ll shudder like a guy would upon mention of the “bathtub scene” in I Spit on Your Grave. You’ll find a lot of metaphorical mutant vaginas in art, from the pit in “The Pit and the Pendulum” to the reapers of Blade 2. Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers takes the mutant vagina literally.

Dead Ringers features two marvelous performances by Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists, Beverly and Elliot Mantle. They share everything, including actress/ love interest Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), who initially believes them to be one man. As the film progresses, we realize that despite being identical in appearance, the twins couldn’t be more dissimilar in personality. It is remarkably easy to tell which is Beverly and which is Leslie, without any overt plot devices explaining it to us. The film manages to be touching, creepy, funny, erotic, and obsessed with both technology and human anatomy. In other words, it is a Cronenberg film.

10. Naked Lunch (1991) –Hit
Naked Lunch is a great film, but it really defies description. All I’m going to say is that the film won 8 Genie Awards, which are basically Canadian Oscars.

11. M. Butterfly (1993) – Walk
Cronenberg films the world’s most famous bed trick. This version features Jeremy Irons as a diplomat who falls for a somewhat less-than-convincing transvestite. I couldn’t track down a copy in time.

12. Crash 1996 – Hit
No Sandra Bullock or Brendan Fraser here, this film is the one that made Marty Scorsese’s top ten list for films of the ’90s. Of course, Marty hasn’t made a great film in 20 years, so what does he know? At any rate, I talked about this movie over two years ago. I feel much the same way now as I did then. I’ve heard varying theories as to the ultimate purpose of the film, but most can agree that it’s a movie whose story is told through sex scenes. That alone is interesting enough to merit a viewing, but I won’t guarantee that you won’t hate it.

13. eXistenZ (1999) –Hit
It’s The Matrix for smart people! Here is what our own Ha!Good! has to say about the film:

I tend to like stylized violence, so I’m a sucker for everything David Cronenberg. He has a knack for crafting the kind of violence that hovers between artful comic crudeness and aesthetic achievement. There’s something almost beautiful about the blood in his movies. Existenz is full of delectable grossness, including a gun made of flesh and bone, and plenty of that blood of which I spoke so highly. Every time flesh is torn (which happens quite frequently in this film) I find myself wondering what strange new universe of disturbing oddities will emerge.

14. Spider (2002) – Hit
Spider takes one on a hallucinatory journey alongside a schizophrenic Ralph Fiennes as he tries to figure out his childhood and how to survive outside of an institution. It’s evocative of those early mornings in which you can’t tell where the dreams end and reality begins. It’s a mindfuck.

15. A History of Violence (2005) Hit
My editor Kubryk was disturbed by the strange new feelings aroused in him by the naked ass of Viggo Mortensen. And I do mean aroused. I talked about this film a bit ago as well. Long story short, it was the best film of 2005, and Maria Bello gives the performance of a lifetime.

16. Eastern Promises (2007) – Walk
I have a 4 year old, and don’t make it to the movies much. The general things I’ve heard about this film are as follows:
“I liked it, but I wanted to love it.”
“This is a great film. The only problem is that it should be NC-17.”
The fight scene may be the most brutal piece of film making put on film all year.

See, I’m not negative all the time. I can also be a fanboy. There’s a lot of love in this column right now.