In Part One, we began looking at the career of David Cronenberg. It has some clever lines. But if you only care about the cream – or in Cronenberg’s case, maybe “burnt ends” is a better metaphor – then proceed into the abyss. Here are his top ten feature films, IMDB rank in parentheses.
10. Rabid (1977) (IMDB rank: 15, tie)
Cronenberg’s first three movies were a clarion call for modern horror. Horror not confined to distant gothic castles or monsters from a black lagoon. This horror was happening today, right next door, being perpetrated by the scientists and technocrats who were supposed to be making our lives better. Rabid was the middle child in the trio and when it came out it was most noticed for starring porn icon Marilyn Chambers. But it was, and is, more than that. It has all the hallmarks of Cronenberg’s most provocative work. The scientist gone wild. The idea of manmade plague. The body horror. The convergence of sex and disease. The opening shot presages A History of Violence almost 30 years later.
9. Cosmopolis (2012) (21)
This is where the good voters on IMDB and I differ the most. It’s not hard to see why. This movie, a stylised thriller about one day in the life of a young tycoon, split critics as well. It is another adaptation, this time of Don DeLillo, but it feels a lot like the work of Peter Greenaway, a director whose career rather closely parallels Cronenberg’s. Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a robotic 20-something master of the new technological universe, who spends most of his life in his hi-tech limo. On this one day, his entire world will crumble. Right up until its enigmatic climax, this movie can be slow and maddening, but it also nails modern urban desolation in a way that few other recent movies have managed.
8. A Dangerous Method (2011) (14)
It seems obvious in hindsight. For a director obsessed with sex and identity, what could make for a better story than the bizarre relationship between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. In Michael Fassbender, he found another stalwart gaunt face, and Keira Knightley commands the screen as the sexually repressed, brilliant, neurotic Spielrein. Viggo Mortensen, who had been so good in Cronenberg’s two previous movies, is passable as Freud, though one wonders what Cronenberg could have done had Jeremy Irons been ten years younger and interested in playing the role. The narrative cuts off at an odd point. There was still a lot more story to tell, but it remains one of the better explorations of psychiatry put on film.
7. Maps to the Stars (2014) (15)
So Kurt Loder suggested this movie was made by locusts. (And if you read the first part of this countdown, you’d know that.) Funny thing is, though intended as a dis, it is actually a rather significant compliment. One senses throughout Cronenberg’s career that he feels a locust may have a more valid point of view on something as mongrelised as modern Hollywood than the humans who create and consume Hollywood’s product. To be sure, Maps is a brutal, angry movie. Children die. A dog is shot. An actress is bludgeoned and several characters are set on fire. Those aren’t even the ugly parts. The reactions of the characters to the life they have spawned is what is truly disturbing. There may not have been an uglier moment in 2014 film than seeing an actress (Julianne Moore) dance for joy upon hearing the news of a child’s death. Yet, as in so much of Cronenberg’s work, it is very hard to look away. It is very hard to ignore the queasy core of truth lying under all the excess.
6. Shivers (1975) (13)
OK, perhaps it’s a stretch to compare this to Citizen Kane. But as debuts go (this was the first fully realised feature, after the two experiments in ’69 & ’70), this ranks very high on the list of all-time greats. The production values are laughable. With the exception of Canadian veteran Joe Silver, the acting is sub-par. But the setting, at the ultra modern Starline Towers, speaks of a modern horror, one fuelled by medical technology run amok. It may seem odd to refer to a movie which devolves into scenes of perversion, pedophilia, and rape as sensitive, but in one crucial way, it is far more sensitive than most similar films. Cronenberg treats the spreading virus which runs through the ultra-hip Starline as a character with an equal biological claim on existence. This is one of the most important aspects of Cronenberg’s movies. He has shown how bodies will decay and die. Evolution suggests that what is now a parasite, what is now a cancer, will one day be the standard of life. It is hard to watch the cars of these infected urban dwellers leaving the Starlite Towers at the conclusion of Shivers, headed for the heart of the big city, and not feel that humans are indeed the plague.
5. The Brood (1979) (8)
This was the third movie in the early trio, and it is the best in large measure because it is the most narratively coherent. The production values are still taking shape but the story is very well constructed and it builds to a terrifying climax. Again we have a doctor who has reached too far with horrifying results. As Dr. Raglan, Oliver Reed brings a different kind of intensity, and the children of the brood are memorably creepy. This is relatively less concerned with sexual impulse than Shivers and Rabid and more concerned with the actual idea of evolution.
4. Eastern Promises (2007) (1)
My ranking of Cronenberg’s top 4 are not earth-shattering. These are the movies that are generally considered his best. Eastern Promises boasts some of the best acting Cronenberg has ever directed, especially from Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel as a Russian mobster and his weak son. This is a more personal study of characters – especially Viggo Mortensen’s flawed good guy trying to navigate an ultra-violent world. By this point in his career, Cronenberg’s productions were first class, and there’s always the danger that with technical proficiency comes a pasteurisation of product. But one look at the brutal naked fight scene in the sauna and you can be sure Cronenberg has lost none of his energy. The story makes one narrative mistake in the third act which keeps it from being higher on my list.
3. Dead Ringers (1988) (4)
By 1988, Cronenberg had mastered the art of putting his ideas on film. This is among his most technically proficient movies, and it features one of the truly outstanding dual roles in all cinema. Jeremy Irons’ portrait of Beverly and Elliot Mantle, twin gynaecologists who are so integral to each other that they cannot really be separated, is a marvel to behold. Even more so than in A Dangerous Method, the battle for control of identity is laid bare. Had he found a way to better incorporate his female “instigator” Genevieve Bujold’s Claire Niveau, in the second half, this might have been an all-time great. As it is, it becomes cold as a speculum as it zeroes in on the boys. But it never ceases to grab attention. Though adapted from a Bari Wood/Jack Geasland novel, this seems to owe at least as much to Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts, released three years earlier.
2. A History of Violence (2005) (2)
The resurrection. After struggling to find new subject matter outside the horror field, he hit it big with this thriller about the way violence infiltrates the blood and never really vanishes. There have been a lot of movies about a former violent men trying (and usually failing) to lead peaceful lives, but this one, which came out just a few years after Clint Eastwood’s similarly-themed Unforgiven, remains one of the best. Mortensen is very good, and he is backed up by a superb supporting cast. The first two thirds, set in small town Indiana, is outstanding. If it gets a bit cartoonish in the ultra-violence of the final act, well, this is not a director known for underplaying his stories.
1. The Fly (1986) (2)
This had it all. Technology run amok. The battle for identity. The inevitability of decay. Extreme body horror. Jeff Goldblum’s greatest performance by a mile. Goldblum’s Seth Brundle is a creative genius who explores where others fear to go. Sound like any director you’ve been reading about? The fine line between evolution and decay was never more evident. But this is Cronenberg’s greatest work in no small part because at its core, it is a love story, arguably the warmest one he has ever filmed. The relationship between Goldblum’s Brundle and Geena Davis’ Veronica offers what Dead Ringers doesn’t pull off: genuine characters with whom we can sympathise. The clinician who has made a career out of watching the subjects of his experiments actually seemed to care about them in a way he never had to this point. The effect is magical. The diseased Brundle, the decaying, grotesque Brundle, the evolving Brundle, is the most sympathetic character in all of Cronenberg’s canon. Simultaneously terrifying and touching. The perfect symbol for the director who pushed past the bounds of depravity to become one the most important filmmakers of his era.