That was the headline of Robert Fulford’s consideration of David Cronenberg’s first broadly released, publicly financed feature film, Shivers, in 1975.
Fast forward twenty years. Evening Standard film critic Alexander Walker after seeing Cronenberg’s latest film, Crash, in Cannes:
“Beyond the bounds of depravity.”
One month ago, reason.com’s Kurt Loder called the director’s latest effort, Maps to the Stars, “repugnant and ridiculous,” concluding:
“It’s as if Day of the Locust had been remade by actual locusts.”
After 21 features in 45 years, this guy is still pissing people off. Surely he is doing something right.
To say Cronenberg is the greatest Canadian director of all time is not much of a stretch. Who else have you got? Cameron? Jewison? Arcand? Egoyan? Resumes with some excellent films, but their careers don’t come close. To say he is the greatest director of horror in the history of film is a trickier proposition. Suffice to say that he is on a shortlist of filmmakers who have deemed horror worthy of serious pursuit. Browning, Bava, Argento, writer/producer Val Lewton. Cronenberg stands on the gold medal platform with any of them.
There was a time back in the late ‘90s when the director’s fans worried he would run out of body horror concepts. Where would all that fascination with technology and existentialism, sex and decay, gaunt faces and twisted identities find a new outlet? That question has been answered many times over by 2015, but as his latest movie attests, he still has the capacity to disturb and disgust, to engage and enthral. He still has a rarely matched ability to make us stare right into the heart of our horrors and nightmares. Like the parasite in Shivers (the movie went by the alternate titles The Parasite Murders, They Came from Within, and others too numerous to count), Cronenberg will get inside your skin and you won’t find it easy to get him out.
Here then, in honour of his latest, is a map to Cronenberg, a countdown of the 21 feature films he has directed since 1969. Since my own tastes occasionally differ from the mainstream, I am also indicating where each movie ranks according to the good voters on IMDB. Beware, the road ahead is fraught with peril. And some really ugly worm-like things slithering around under your skin.
21. Spider (2002) (IMDB rank: 8, tie)
This came just before the major resurrection in Cronenberg’s career and for me it represents the lowest point of his tortured wanderings. It can be analysed as a visualisation of the artist’s ravaged mindscape, filled with haunting images and metaphors. But there’s no denying a virtually unintelligible and unpleasant story that features a performance from Ralph Fiennes that can charitably be labeled “baroque.” Cronenberg’s reliance on an unreliable narrator speaks to his view of existentialism, how we all are tasked with creating our own realities, but it does not make for an enjoyable evening out.
20. M. Butterfly (1993) (10, tie)
In adapting David Henry Huang’s acclaimed play, Cronenberg did away with the pre-tense that French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) could reasonably not know that the object of his affections (John Lone) was a man impersonating a woman. This leads to an interesting comment on self-delusion, but it remains a generally dreary affair with a ludicrous ending.
19. Crimes of the Future (1970) (20)
The second of two hour long experimental movies which kicked off his career. This was the more technically ambitious, shot in colour and employing asynchronous sound effects. It supposes a post-apocalyptic world in which all adult females have been wiped out by a cosmetics-induced plague – a fascinating and prescient idea – but its meandering pseudo-plot about Adrian Tripod wandering the barren landscape becomes dull pretty fast. And when Tripod is encouraged to impregnate a very young girl, supposedly to regenerate the species, you can begin to see what Messrs. Fulford and Walker were talking about.
18. Stereo (1969) (18, tie)
His first feature was really just a bunch of friends getting together to shoot a movie. Totally silent except for narration. Shot in B&W. But the ideas were there from the beginning. It is all about a battle for control of the human psyche, a topic that would be at the core of so much of the director’s future work. That it all takes place amongst telepaths at the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry suggest that the interest in sci-fi and sex were there from the beginning too. It’s experimental and amateurish and bizarre, but there’s no denying the imagery. No one finds the horror in modern barren buildings the way Cronenberg does.
17. Naked Lunch (1991) (7)
Cronenberg’s father was a novelist and David has often said he always thought he would follow that career path. Many of his movies have been adaptations of novels. Nowhere was this more significant than in this adaptation of William S. Burroughs, in which Peter Weller plays a twisted version of the author himself. This features some of the director’s most astonishing imagery, but the story is so personal that it is very hard to decipher. This signalled an end to a glorious string of horror films through the ‘70s and ‘80s, and though it contained very similar imagery and idea, it seems to me that this is a director struggling to try something new while simultaneously paying homage to a literary hero. It’s a tough task to pull off. (Incidentally, in 2014, at the age of 71, Cronenberg published his first novel, Consumed, to predictably mixed reviews.)
16. Crash (1996) (17)
Crash is a great concept. Adapted from J. G. Ballard’s novel, it fetishises our adoration of the more dangerous aspects of technology through a morbid fascination with sex and car crashes. This is a theme that Cronenberg would explore over and over, but here, it all seems to fall apart in a series of borderline pornographic sequences. Alexander Walker notwithstanding, it did win five Genie Awards (the equivalent of the Oscars in Canada) and the Special Jury prize at Cannes.
15. Videodrome (1983) (5, tie)
This is many fans’ favourite, more for the audacious concept than the actual storytelling. It is a very hallucinatory and metaphoric tale of technology run wild, and its central premise – that unseen forces can use the video image to control human behaviour – is more resonant today than it was even in 1983. In James Woods, Cronenberg may have found his ideal leading man. He generally favoured gaunt faces that carry the horror of some deeply-imbedded nightmare, and Woods pulls this off masterfully.
14. Scanners (1981) (10, tie)
If you have only seen one image from Cronenberg’s work, chances it are it is from Scanners. He was known to horror fans for his early low-budget features, but when Michael Ironside’s head blew up in Scanners, a lot more people took notice. It is easy to make the case that this movie is not as interestingly directed as Videodrome, and there’s no question that James Woods is much better than the rather bland Stephen Lack in Scanners, but this movie has a purity and intensity that I find more powerful. And it has Patrick McGoohan too.
13. eXistenZ (1999) (10, tie)
Cronenberg updated the technology of Videodrome to the field of game playing, again proving to be one of the most prescient of all filmmakers when discussing the way modern technology infects our bloodstream. The plot can be obtuse, but this is generally more coherent and better paced than some of his lesser work, and there’s no question that the “are we still in the game?” final image is among the most chilling and effective he has ever created. Making the game designer Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a woman was also a bold inspiration. Almost all of Cronenberg’s “scientists” have been men, with women generally being the test subjects. Sixteen years later – women in the gaming industry have become the targets of rabid hatred, and men have become hopeless addicts. The guy knew something.
12. The Dead Zone (1983) (5, tie)
Cronenberg meets Stephen King. Again working from a literary source, and again working with an intensely gaunt lead actor in Christopher Walken. Despite a somewhat episodic structure, this is a very well-crafted story about the burdens of supernatural power. The “second sight” that Walken’s Johnny possesses is never clearly explained, which is standard operating procedure in much of Cronenberg. There are simply things that we will never understand. Deal with it.
11. Fast Company (1979) (18, tie)
The outlier. The movie Cronenberg fans don’t really know what to do with. In the middle of his early run of horrors, he crafted this mainstream action drama about race car drivers. But as we know from Crash, cars held a certain fascination for Cronenberg. And the themes of the individual rebelling against the deadening impact of the corporation come right out of multiple Cronenberg horrors. The story is predictable, and the rock soundtrack is downright bad, but working with cinematographer Mark Irwin and editor Ronald Sanders, both of whom would work with the director on many more films, the production is a step up from the early horrors. William Smith gives a strong central performance, and there is a small but loyal portion of the viewing public who will always value this as Claudia Jennings’ final movie. The exploitation sex goddess died in a car crash a few months after the movie wrapped.
That’s it for the bottom half. I don’t like Spider and Butterfly. Crimes and Stereo are more for film students and completists. But from Naked Lunch on, you’ve got fascinating cinema worth watching, even if doesn’t always succeed.