Dead Ringers (1988)
Peter Martin - Managing Editor
David Cronenberg's early horror films - Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, and Scanners - were touchstones for my cinema education. I saw each of them theatrically, and each expanded my view of what could be done with horror themes in the confines of a commercial movie. Videodrome both repulsed and fascinated me, The Dead Zone compelled and haunted, The Fly made me gag and made my heart hurt, and then… I lost touch, as finances were scarce and none of his next few offerings sounded like movies I wanted to watch. eXistenZ lured me back, and I've followed him with great enjoyment since then, and even circled back to watch and enjoy Fast Company.
And now it's time to catch up with those missing links, starting with Dead Ringers. As it happens, I've been catching up with Neil Jordan's TV series The Borgias, in which Jeremy Irons superbly captures the elegance and corruption in the heart of a pope, and so rewinding 25 years to see him bring twin brothers to life, each with their talents and flaws on full display, is a magnificent experience. Irons cuts through the drama that swirls around him, and he feels like the perfect Cronenberg protagonist, times two, completely empathetic, maddening, and poignant. Dead Ringers examines the human heart with compassion and precision; it's a devastating masterpiece.
M. Butterfly (1993)
James Marsh - Asian Editor
My first encounter with David Cronenberg was a late night double feature of Dead Ringers and Rabid on Alex Cox's excellent Moviedrome series. While it was difficult to articulate at first, I sensed immediately that there was something different going on in his horror films than in those of most of his contemporaries. The bleak tone, understated performances juxtaposing with the visceral body horror and almost confrontational social commentary. Since then I've steadily devoured almost everything in the director's filmography, but for some reason, his 1993 film M. Butterfly had eluded me until now.
Ironically, there are elements in the film that would be of interest to me personally perhaps more than many other viewers, as the story centres on a naive European moving to China and becoming seduced by the exotic Orient. In M. Butterfly, adapted from David Henry Hwang's award-winning play with an obvious debt to Puccini's opera, Jeremy Irons plays a French diplomat in 1960s Beijing, who becomes so entranced by the alluring otherness of opera singer Song Liling (John Lone) that he fails to realise (or refuses to accept) that she is really a man, and a spy no less, who draws him into a bizarre and crippling relationship, with inevitably tragic consequences.
It's an incredibly strange, yet ambitious film that makes numerous intelligent and frightening observations about the power of love and devotion, as well as our preconceptions about cultural differences and how we deal with them. For Cronenberg, the film is an opportunity to again explore how the body can be used and manipulated, in this case for political gain as well as deception and carnal pleasures.
M. Butterfly also broke new ground for the director, with Geffen Pictures gifting Cronenberg his biggest budget to-date for a production that saw him leave his native Canada for the very first time, and shoot on location in China, Hungary and France. Sadly, the timing of the film's release could not have been worse, just months after Neil Jordan's achingly similar The Crying Game stormed the US box office and garnered 6 Academy Award nominations. By the time M. Butterfly premiered in Toronto later the same year, its handling of the material seemed coy by comparison, despite a pair of incredibly bold performances from Jeremy Irons and John Lone, and a far more ambiguous handling of the scenario.
Naked Lunch (1991)
Andrew Mack - Contributing writer
I am going to admit that I am a bit befuddled by Naked Lunch. If this voids the citizenship status I have here in Canada and gets me deported then so be it. And I suppose that because the author of the novel this film was based on, William S. Burroughs, said himself that the chapters of his book could be read in any order then I suppose Cronenberg achieved that goal and created a film that could be watched in any order. There is a story there. The narrative simply feels like it puddle hops all the way through.
Otherwise, Naked Lunch is the type of film that Cronenberg built his reputation on. It is tactile. It is sticky. I love, love, love the use of practical effects, though some of them do not stand the test of time. Watching Frost’s Mujahideen flop around after its transformation drew a guffaw. Likewise, the sexual encounter between Yves and Kiki, the gross, does not hold up either. Still. Sucking on a Mugwamp’s head nipples at the end is pretty awesome though. Sticky.
Naked Lunch (1991)
Ard Vijn - Contributing writer
In the eighties, David Cronenberg became an interesting director to me. I was scared of horror films yet immensely intrigued by them as well, so I read scores of books and magazines about genre films. The name Cronenberg popped up all the time in those articles, often accompanied by spectacularly gruesome photos. When I finally started sampling his movies, I was surprised that there was always an idea behind them, a valid reason for the gore. At the same time, teenage me wasn't all that thrilled by the films, judging them slow and downbeat.
So even though Naked Lunch had my interest when it was released, I wasn't into "noir" yet, and I never actually made it to the cinema. And now we have this shame list, luckily coinciding with me buying the Criterion release of Naked Lunch.
Well, I was in for a treat, although I guess teenage me wouldn't have liked it much. Like the second half of Videodrome, the film only makes sense if you keep in mind that you experience the film's world through the perspective of someone who is tripped out of his skull. The Casablanca spy-narrative can be chucked out, being the empty cliche it is, and the fun is in guessing what is actually being masked by it. When taken as such a visual puzzle, the ending is particularly good. In short, this is a film I like very, very much, and definitely one of Cronenberg's best.
Naked Lunch (1991)
Jaime Grijalba - Contributing writer
So, how do I start tackling this movie? Do I take it as a trip, just a hallucination that's beautiful and incredibly gorgeous in its grotesque intentions, or do I try to make sense of it? I have absolutely no ground on which to stand when it comes to a movie like this. I like weird and imaginative, but I also like the sense that I'm seeing a narrative unfold, and while maybe this was the closest thing that Cronenberg could do based on the novel by Burroughs (and his life as well, as I've been investigating), it still doesn't feel like a coherent thing in itself, and maybe the intention was never that.
I never really experienced the state of wonderment or "whatthefuckisgoingon-ness" that I expected from a movie where typewriters turn into some kind of alien humanoid creature, either of the alien or bug kind. It seemed that every strange occurrence happened after our protagonist took some kind of drug or enhancing material that would explain in some way his hallucinations, while the way in which he acts as if he was being chased all the time is a paranoia that is common among many addicts.
I'd say that based on the artistry of the movie alone, it's a great movie, but I wish I had more ground in which to sit just to understand it more.
Christopher O'Keeffe - Contributing writer
I looked forward to seeing Rabid, having not seen any of Cronenberg’s work prior to Scanners but must admit to being slightly disappointed by this solid B-movie fare.
Cronenberg had clearly hit his stride during the 80s, releasing the likes of Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly, each packed with inventive effects and thought-provoking themes delivered as brilliantly dark entertainment. In 1977 it seems the director hadn’t quite reached that level, and it’s interesting mostly as an insight into his development as an artist.
The film opens with a young couple crashing their motorbike and the woman, Rose, being taken into hospital and given some kind of experimental skin graft. Awaking from a coma a month later, Rose has changed and now requires human blood to feed on. Victims are left alive but they soon change into zombie-like lunatics with a taste for flesh, passing the disease to those they bite.
The direction’s a little rough around the edges and the film is hampered by some questionable acting, male lead Frank Moore’s dozy performance comes across like a sedated Christopher Walken. Adult actress Marilyn Chambers is better as the virus-carrying Rose, with Species clearly owing a debt to this beautiful blonde, inhuman seductress. There’s a strong Night of the Living Dead vibe too, not just in the virus’ zombie-like victims but the background television and radio news reports charting its spread, and issuing warnings and instruction, also its bleak, abrupt ending appears like a direct homage to that earlier film.
Rabid is entertaining enough and it’s interesting to see Cronenberg’s early work on the themes of transformation and the horrific results of scientific breakthrough gone wrong, but it doesn’t hold up to his later masterpieces.
Fast Company (1969)
Eric Ortiz Garcia - Contributing writer
After only 15 minutes, David Cronenberg’s Fast Company manages to give you a real taste of the corporate controlled world that sports are, or in this specific case, drag racing. This is a very entertaining piece with characters you care for; we have two pilots, the star (William Smith’s Lonnie Johnson) and the rookie (Nicholas Campbell’s Billy “the Kid”), working for the same team and eventually being used for the interests of a great villain, played by John Saxon, and his corporation.
Fast Company is very much a unique beast when it comes to other movies about racing. The classic underdog narrative gets a different approach and the racing sequences as well. These are, first of all, fast duels all over Canada between our heroes (the fast company team) and another faction leaded by Johnson’s nemesis, Gary Black (Cedric Smith). And second, most of the time the races end in explosions!
The corporate invading sports commentary is also a highlight of the film, with Saxon as the quintessential man in a suit who only thinks about profit. Actually, the fast company team is condemned to lose as winning is too expensive and they just need to help selling the product. In many ways, this is a fuck you to corporations and Cronenberg does it in the most satisfying way, with romance included (and some nudity), revenge and cars and planes blowing up. A perfect movie for a Saturday night with friends!
Ernesto Zelaya Minano - Contributing writer
Throughout Cronenberg’s 1983 mindbender, everyone keeps talking about the TV “show” Videodrome, why it’s important, and what it’s meant to do. But we never get a clear answer: what exactly is Videodrome? Clearly, they want you to think about it and come up with your own interpretation.
Here’s mine: Videodrome is a metaphor for all the thrashy programming which you could probably find on the tube back in the 80s, and even more so in today’s era of shitty reality shows. Or rather, it’s a metaphor for the way the media affects us all, how whatever we see on a screen can influence our behavior (much like James Woods being “programmed” and sent out to kill others, gun in hand) and dictate our choices. Our dependence on TV imagery is made clear during the Cathode Ray Mission sequence. People don’t need nourishment, they just need the boob tube to feel a connection to the rest of the world, feel like a part of something. It’s as subtle as a gun, but it works.
Cronenberg makes this point through his usual body horror fixation; this is filled with the kind of grotesque, chilling imagery that’s pretty hard to forget. I’d love to see what someone like Clive Barker could make of this material. Videodrome isn’t a narrative film. Max Renn is too passive a protagonist for you to care about what happens to him, and anyways, this isn’t really about people, but about the media and its effects on people. Maybe that’s why it seems to be taking place in a different, undisclosed reality; the themes are that timeless. The kind of movie you can watch many times and always find something to think about, even if it barely makes sense in spots.
And I definitely will remember the VCR “slot” in Woods’ chest, or that one guy that inexplicably bursts from the inside out after being shot. That’s seriously twisted.
James Dennis - Contributing writer
The arm-wrestling scene in The Fly (1986) made me squirm beyond belief. As my first foray into the world of Cronenberg's body horror, that movie – and specifically that scene - watched betwixt barely parted fingers fascinated and repulsed me in equal measure. At an age where I took the grotesque visuals at face value, he seemed like a director whose movies I should check out further. Since that early encounter, I've picked my way through assorted Cronenberg pics from Shivers (1975) up to Eastern Promises (2007) and, whilst loving none, I've been undeniably intrigued by all.
Videodrome (1983) is easily the least enjoyable I've seen. My soft spot for James Woods is what pushed me towards it, and he doesn't disappoint. Debbie Harry is halfway decent and well cast too. Yet, for all its still-relevant thematic wranglings around censorship and the potential of the moving image to corrupt (or not) I just could not engage with the material. Rick Baker's make-up effects realising some startling imagery are fantastic, but I remained entirely unmoved by the events surrounding them. The story meanders along, shifting between psycho-sexual noir, mystery thriller and all out fantasy, remaining elusive throughout.
I've found Cronenberg to be austere and oblique before, but it's never been quite so problematic for me. Videodrome feels like an academic exercise, with some valid and imaginatively articulated ideas about media consumption, but I'd rather read a book about the movie than actually sit through it. The film would almost certainly be a great, fun text to study, but as a cinema-going experience it's a disappointment. Ironically the version I watched is slightly cut (the R-rated edit as opposed to the unrated one), though I suspect it wouldn't have altered my opinion, and I'm in no hurry to find out.
The Brood (1979)
Jim Tudor - Contributing writer
David Cronenberg's 1979 film The Brood is one of those films that's unafraid to boldly announce itself. Although the first moments are merely credits, I was hooked. Bright blue letters on black, infused with the imposing musical strains of longtime collaborator Howard Shore; atonal yet engaging. I saw Oliver Reed's name go by. Better buckle in...
Although The Brood is a scary picture from the master of “body horror” in his icky, early heyday, the first death is depicted in relatively restrained fashion. It's a bloody kitchen beating, a controlled fragmentary assemblage ala Psycho. But for me, the scariest part was the utter oddity of the unseen killer's fists pounding through a small hinged hatch-door. And egads, that creepy harvest gold vining wallpaper in that room was in my house growing up! The flowers were a sandy felt that felt eerie to touch. Yeesh! As the film goes on, it does get weirder. And, as weird and gory and squishy as it does indeed get, I never once doubted the film's sincerity, its intentions, nor its integrity.
ZekeFilm.org critic Paul Hibbard urged me to watch The Brood, saying that it's secretly about Cronenberg's divorce and custody battle. Knowing that... of course it is. The trailer says The Brood will “devastate you totally”. Good tagline, evoking such real drama-trauma via b-movie hype. Murderous revenge terror is manifested in the form of warped homicidal rage-children, bred by Reed. Naturally. Throughout, there is a subtle egg motif that is appropriately just off.
The Brood is not an easy horror film, as it's commenting on very real things (child custody, mental disorders, family breakdown). And when it does get bloody, the horror show is no escape. That said, I don't know that I'm “devastated totally”, but I am sufficiently rattled. Cronenberg's reeled me in.
Kwenton Bellette - Contributing writer
In the near future, eXistenZ exists with a capital C and a capital Z and if you don’t understand what that means, you will (or won't) after the brilliant Cronenberg mind warp that is eXistenZ. It is another existence, a game world that is biologically controlled. The world has a game master, rules and finite possibilities. Are there winners and losers? How far does the game take you? When the game contains game worlds how do you differentiate between what is real and what is not, and does it even matter anymore? These are all questions because the film is one giant question, with infinite answers.
The film presents us with the presentation in what seems like a church (ding ding) of the latest iteration of eXistenZ. The beautiful, alluring and confidently all-knowing Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is hard to define, is she the protagonist? Antagonist? Her subdued attitude towards everything and fascination with the mundane keeps you on your toes about her. She is definitely an addict. She is referred to as a goddess, the creator of worlds; she is the deus ex machina, her name literally means ‘alive’. She is accompanied by the nervous, untrusting and slightly immature Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Even he acts oddly given proceedings. Pay close attention to them and the first ten minutes of the film.
The film is far ahead of its time, exploring concepts such as avatars, social networks and ludo-game narrative. There appears to be an overarching ploy of revolution and espionage that is affecting the world, similar to Cronenberg’s urban dystopia of Cosmopolis but this is not the focus. The film has been likened to Videodrome, but that’s just the body horror insertion aspects and reliance on technology. The game worlds within game worlds and keeping track of supposed reality brings Inception to mind also.
The most recent mind trip that comes close to eXistenZ is Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which borrows heavily from this film. Frankly a lot of what I have seen seems less interesting after eXistenZ.
By the time the film concludes you may as well have taken LSD. The film is a heavy trip with a screenplay so dense and brilliant that curve balls and plot twists become irrelevant. eXistenZ is such a boldly amazing effort after The Matrix; just sit back and let the film do its worst to you; you won’t regret it, and when the film concludes and you adjust to ‘reality’ you’ll remember Allegra Geller’s words “and we’ll all be back here in no time.”
To Die For (dir. Gus Van Sant, 1999 USA)
Niels Matthijs - Contributing writer
For the third time in a row, I won't be picking one of the director's own films. Apart from Maps To The Stars (which hasn't been released yet) I've seen every Cronenberg film there is to see. From his earliest semi-professional features to the bland and generic Fast Company, from his first horror efforts to his early 90s work (which I consider his best).
I'm not even that big of a fan, yet his cult status and the fact that he's generously linked to filmmakers like Tsukamoto Shinya motivated me to explore his oeuvre of films. Rather than dig into his shorts and TV work, I looked a bit further and found out he had an acting part in To Die For, one of the few Van Sant films I hadn't seen yet. The perfect match for this assignment.
I'll be honest and admit that while watching the film I had forgotten all about Cronenberg's involvement. His part is little more than a cameo and when he finally passed by the camera I actually failed to recognize him. It wasn't until the credits started rolling that I remembered why I'd chosen to watch this film. So I watched the Cronenberg bit again, but based on his part there really isn't that much to say about him as an actor. The film itself was a letdown too. Decent work from Phoenix, Dillon and Kidman fell short. The presentation is light-hearted and fun, but Van Sant proved himself capable of so much more and after a while To Die For became just a little too predictable.
I'll be there to see Cronenberg's future work, if only because he does have a unique style of film making. But I'm not a fan and To Die For didn't do much to change that.
The Fly (1986)
Patryk Czekaj - Contributing writer
Ever since I saw Videodrome and embarked on a cinematic adventure with David Cronenberg, I’ve been somewhat subconsciously avoiding The Fly. It’s still baffling to me that for no apparent reason I’ve never felt the urge to see the film, even though it’s an essential entry in the director’s oeuvre for many fans and casual viewers alike. Perhaps the word ‘remake’ did the trick. I saw Kurt Neumann’s 1958 version quite some time ago and loved it very much. Still, there are so many explicitly visible differences between the two pictures that it’s a huge understatement to call Cronenberg’s horrifying and visceral sci-fi horror just a remake.
There are so many factors that contribute to the film’s indisputable triumph. Cronenberg weaves a riveting and meaty tale of love and death with an almost unnatural ease. Beyond being a phenomenal exercise in gore and visual storytelling, The Fly gives way to an intensive analysis of a relationship that needs to deal with a sudden and extraordinary tragedy. Instead of overplaying the melodrama, however, the picture stirs the senses with an unforgettable body horror experience.
In his arguably most impressive performance ever, Jeff Goldblum does a marvelous job of depicting a man who has to go through all the horrible stages of a deadly illness. His transformation is as terrifying as it's actually eye opening, given that it serves its purpose as a viable metaphor for disease in general. Of course the metamorphosis wouldn’t have been so spectacular and nightmarish without Chris Walas' Academy Award-winning make-up effects. Almost 30 years have passed since the premiere but I’m sure The Fly would still win all the major awards in this category.
Although I still wholeheartedly admire Neumann’s vision of The Fly, I admit that Cronenberg has absolutely won me over.
Pierce Conran - Contributing writer
What I’ve always loved about David Cronenberg’s cinema is that, with only a few exceptions (such as the recent Cosmopolis), his films exhibit a wonderful chemistry between the familiar and the cerebral. It’s probably what’s allowed him to stick around for so long. Despite his sometimes gruesome fascination with body horror, his films are terribly enjoyable.
His 1981 film Scanners, which is now the earliest of his films I’ve seen, offers the same oddly comforting and stimulating blend. It’s sloppier than some of his latter films and, save for Michael Ironside, features a less than stellar cast, but this early work from Cronenberg is never less than engaging. For its looming sense of dread and a few terrific scenes, such as the famous exploding head scene and the intense scanner showdown in the finale, Scanners makes for terrific sci-fi. It’s psychologically loaded and filled with clever visual metaphors, yet also a very involving genre film.
Though not quite on the level of Videodrome, Dead Ringers or the underappreciated eXistenZ, Scanners is vintage Cronenberg. I needed no excuse, but this has given me ample motivation to push back further into his work and seek out Rabid and The Brood next.
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Simon Cocks - Contributing writer
A Dangerous Method is confident without necessarily being compelling. It explores a fascinating subject matter, but in a way that is intentionally detached and academic. As a result, it is a film I find easy to respect but difficult to enjoy. The performances are universally strong throughout and while I expect such captivating character work from the likes of Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen, I must admit to being surprised at how striking and convincing Keira Knightley is in this film.
What David Cronenberg has created here is a very deliberate and slow-moving examination of the early days of psychoanalysis. The drama and the complex character relationships feel well drawn while also being distinctly hard to relate to. The slow pace and reliance on lengthy conversations also make parts of the film rather dull, although the actors do their best to hold your attention.
I think A Dangerous Method is a film that is close to being exceptionally interesting but that doesn’t entirely work. It touches on details and ideas that could drive the whole narrative but its interest in them seems temporary and it appears to not want its audience to really know its characters. It is gorgeously shot with some excellent scenes, though, and the actors are all at their best.