Cronenberg first became interested in film during college, where he self-taught himself the art before establishing a co-op to produce films. His first feature length films were art-house movies, Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970). Shivers (1975) was his breakthrough. That film received a lot of attention because although people were talking about it, they were divided in regards to its vulgarity, especially considering the fact that it was funded by the Canadian government. Still, it was the most profitable film funded by the Canadian government up to that point. His follow up was Rancid (1977) which was commercially successful. His next movie took a break from body horror to explore his love of cars and racing. That film was 1979’s Fast Company, which was well received by critics. Next, he released The Brood later that same year, of which critics weren’t quite sure of what to think, and neither were audiences. In 1981, he released Scanners, which was well received and ended up being his biggest commercial hit up to that point. His next film was Videodrome (1983), which received mostly positive reviews but ended up flopping at the box office, although it has since become a cult film. In 1983, he released The Dead Zone, which was a critical success and profitable at the box office. His next film was 1986’s The Fly which became critically acclaimed and a box office hit.
In 1988, Cronenberg released Dead Ringers, a psychological thriller which was highly regarded by critics and his peers, but didn’t do too well at the box office. Next, he released Naked Lunch in 1991, which seemed to confuse critics and audiences, and as a result it lost money. M. Butterfly, an adaptation of the play by the same name, opened in theaters in 1993. This film performed even worse at the box office than his last film and received even worse reviews. Crash (1996) was another psychological thriller which was admired by critics and audiences but not universally praised. As a result, it was not a success at the box office. In 1999, Cronenberg released eXistenz, which was liked by critics but that did not translate to commercial success. 2002’s Spider was his next film, which also had good reviews but lost money. A History of Violence (2005) saw Cronenberg changing his approach, and as a result audiences were interested and critics liked what they saw. The film was a hit at the box office. Eastern Promises (2007) followed a similar formula and also received good reviews, but not as much commercial success. 2011’s A Dangerous Method was his follow-up, which continued his trend of well-received movies and also was profitable at the box office. Cosmopolis (2012) found Cronenberg writing and directing a more psychological film than his other more recent films. This film was not well liked by audiences, although some critics enjoyed it. Finally, his latest film was Map to the Stars (2014), which was not a commercial success on a limited release and received only moderate critical appraise.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a David Cronenberg film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Cronenberg’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:
Body Horror Master
Cronenberg’s lasting impact on film is that he is widely considered the father of body horror. Body horror is a subgenre of horror in which there is interest in the deterioration or abnormal functioning of the body. Cronenberg’s early films such as Shivers and Rabid exploited violence, blood/gore, and sex to create raw, grindhouse horror. This was controversial at the time, but audiences were drawn into the brutality. Later, Cronenberg began to add more and more social concepts and complexity to his films which helped to push body horror to become more than just about vulgarity. The Brood used body horror to first create frightening representations of emotions in the flesh, and then in the climax depict the biological process in which this occurs as a true gross-out moment. Scanners features many moments of psychic combat, which takes a heavy physical toll on the victims. The Dead Zone features one of the more frightening suicide scenes ever depicted in film, simply because the audience can understand the pain that is inflicted on the main character due to the fact that they are also human. But body horror can extend to things that are not human too. Any graphic depiction of living tissue for the purpose of evoking an emotion out of the audience based on perceived pain, discomfort, or abnormality is also fair game. Naked Lunch features its fair share of revolting aliens and bugs which behave and have appearances to represent homosexual thoughts in the subconscious of the main character. In eXistenZ, the game controllers are assembled from amphibian organs, which makes them alive. The idea of taking something that is typically not alive (video game controller) and making it part of the flesh, is a great example of how Cronenberg uses body horror to make you uncomfortable but also adding additional layers. This can also be seen in Videodrome where during hallucinations the televisions appear to come alive, pulsating with sexual appetite to lure in their viewers. In his later films, the traditional body horror is less pronounced, but still an important part of his repertoire. Eastern Promises features its fair share of moments where violence is used to invoke a certain feeling of despair in the audience, be it the snipping of the fingers of a corpse or a brutal bath house fight sequence. In Cosmopolis, the effect is even more subtle, but still effective. The main character undergoes a physical examination by a doctor, including a colonoscopy while meeting with various people in his limo. The audience feels unnerved because not only does the examination seem physically uncomfortable, but the fact that it occurs during business meetings makes it awkward and juxtaposed with normal behavior.
Fascination With Psychology
In addition to body horror, one thing that seems to fascinate Cronenberg is psychology. In nearly all of his films he is able to weave in a psychological aspect that helps to add some sort of meaning or framework to the odd things that happen. In The Brood, we have the psychologist Dr. Raglan whose use of controversial techniques unleashes all sorts of terrors. It is the emotions coming alive that haunt us. In Videodrome, it’s all about the attempt to use broadcasts to subconsciously control television viewers. This is a statement as much about our infatuation with television as it is an exploration of how TV affects us on a subconscious level. In Naked Lunch, Cronenberg is exploring the subconscious even more. He paints the film as an adaptation of William Burrough’s novel, but it is also an exploration of the writing process. At other times, Cronenberg’s characters have some sort of a psychological condition which is the main focus of the film. In The Dead Zone, Johnny Smith wakes up from a coma to find out that he has telepathic abilities which allow him to see into the future. It deals with the implications of such an ability, including psychological impact of having such a responsibility. Similarly, in Scanners, the film focuses on a group of people with psychic abilities. Dr. Paul Ruth uses his knowledge of the condition to help Cameron Vail control his powers instead of allowing them to ruin his life. Spider focuses on a mentally ill man with schizophrenia and affords an almost first-person perspective of the condition. Cronenberg takes this fascination with psychology to the extreme in A Dangerous Mind, which retells the story of Sigmund Freud and the development of psychoanalysis.
Cronenberg likes to focus on weird things, and as such, at least one of the main characters in all his films tend to be abnormal. These characters either have special abilities, have a fascination with something obscure, or are different from the other characters in a way that makes them not normal. In Scanners, the main character is Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a Scanner, a person who can use psychic abilities. Cameron is also abnormal because these abilities paint him as an outcast from society. In The Brood, Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) is the abnormality because she responds well to Dr. Raglan’s controversial psychic therapy. Furthermore, she is an outcast from society because of her mental health issues. For an example of a main character that is fascinated with something obscure, consider Max Renn in Videodrome with his interest in vulgar television. Or consider Seth Brundle in The Fly who is obsessed with his teleportation machine. Another great example is James Ballard in Crash, who becomes aroused from seeing a car crash and later he meets a cult that shares the same interest. As far as characters that are abnormal because they are different, Anna (Naomi Watts) from Eastern Promises is a good example. She is a humble English midwife who courageously seeks answers in dangerous places despite warnings from everyone to stop. In eXisteZ, Ted Pikul (Jude Law) is a character who is different from the others because he doesn’t have a “bio-port” installed to use with virtual reality games like everyone else does. Cosmopolis’ Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is different from everyone else because he’s filthy rich while those outside of his limo are the 99%ers, protesting against wealth disparity.
All but 5 of Cronenberg’s films feature a score composed by Howard Shore, and those 5 films were the first 5 of his career. Shore and Cronenberg’s working partnership is one of the longest in the industry. The reason that Cronenberg has worked with Howard Shore so often is that Shore has been able to consistently create music that enhances the best qualities of Cronenberg’s films. They are almost always very eery scores, dramatic and pronounced. These elements help to increase the tension and the drama but are not overwhelming to the point of distracting or being more memorable than the film itself. He is equally comfortable creating scores with synthesizers and electronic tools (Scanners, Videodrome) as he is with strings and orchestra (The Fly) and other instruments such as guitars (Crash), or bongos and bass (Map to the Stars), even saxophones (Naked Lunch). Shore’s scores help define Cronenberg’s films to the point that they establish a familiar feeling and tone upon which the audience can easily identify. They make the interesting moments more interesting, and the creepy moments more creepy.
Cronenberg is somewhat unique as a director because despite having a considerably long career, he just hasn’t had many hit films. Sure, a few have been successful but none have really allowed him to really break into the mainstream. This “off the beaten path” approach works well for him, considering that his films aren’t always the easiest to watch. Cronenberg’s approach to most of his films is to try and make the audience experience what they are watching while they are watching it. He wants you to feel everything, and to do this, he utilizes camera angles, sounds, cinematography, music, and lighting together. This is especially true in most of his films in the opening scene when he is first establishing a tone. In Scanners for instance, the opening scene is in a mall with bright lights and tilted camera angles. There’s little meaningful dialogue only desperation that is enhanced from the building music. The audience is disoriented and confused just like the main character. In The Brood, the opening scene is of an odd, almost theatrical display of Dr. Raglan using his psychoanalysis technique on his patient. The two men sit uncomfortably close together and talk in a strange, indirect way. The lighting is dark, the camera is close, and only the two men in therapy are well lit, which makes the audience feel that they are the ones who are being watched and analyzed. eXistenZ is a film where the uncomfortable feeling is part of the story. As new levels of VR are added, Cronenberg makes sure that the audience never feels settled, he’s always pushing forward. To do this, he uses lots of close up shots of odd props and of characters during dialogue scenes. There is rarely a moment when two characters having a dialogue are shown in the same shot. He also introduces elements that seem out of place initially, only to make the point that they are important, which is proven later on in the film when they have a bigger meaning. Naked Lunch is an excellent example. The film starts off conventionally enough, and then surreal elements are slowly added in one by one and there is no attempt at coherence to string it all together. Symbolism provides moments of meaning for us to grasp at, but ultimately we are on a journey into the unknown. A feeling seeps into the audience that they are losing control, that the subconscious is taking over. In Eastern Promises, Cronenberg goes out of his way to make the audience uncomfortable. One of the very first shots of the film is a shot from above showing the bare feet of a pregnant woman as she crosses the street, in obvious pain. Later, Cronenberg uses the position of the camera to show the authority of one character over another. When Semyon is giving orders to his son, the camera is always looking up at him, and then when the son speaks the camera is angled downward from above. This gives a physical hint to the strained relationship between the two and is repeated a few other times in the film to show similar dominance in various relationships.
Want more? Check out these reviews of Cronenberg films:
The last installment of Directors’ Trademarks: