I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

A History of Cronenberg

by Brian Correia
Oct. 18, 2014
For years, if people were talking Cronenberg, they were talking “body horror.” They were talking gore, they were talking dread, and they were talking mutation. Fair enough: he essentially invented the genre. That’s horror as in “oh, the horror!” not as in, like, Nightmare on Elm St. Those slasher films might get a couple cheap scares out of you but, nine times out of ten, they will not horrify you. It would seem that Cronenberg takes actually horrifying-as-in-horrifying his viewers pretty seriously. I'm still haunted on a regular basis by mental images of The Fly's inside-out monkey, The Brood's natal terrors, or James Woods' Betamaxed torso in Videodrome. In Cronenberg's case, though, all that horror is, without exception, in the service of a powerful message. And it's done with – panache is too slight a word – it is done masterfully.

The increasing ranks of those of us in the know, though, know that Cronenberg is so much more than horror. While he tends to get lumped in with other low budget auteurs like John Carpenter and George Romero, he's the kind of director that deserves for their filmography to be studied in its entirety and each of their new projects to be eagerly anticipated. Don't take it from me: he's finally starting to get the shine he has deserved for a long time. Carpenter himself claimed “Cronenberg is better than all the rest of us combined,” and Scorcese said “No one makes movies like his.” I couldn't have said it better myself. His films present questions about humanity's relationship with itself and the world around it: sex, technology, industry, psychology, violence, you name it. (The answers, if and when provided, are often bleak.) A catalog as daunting as his, though, does not have an easy starting point. If you're not on the C-train, you better do yourself a favor and get familiar. Scanners is the perfect starting point.

In fact, Scanners was probably many people's first Cronenberg film, though it was his fourth (barring some avant-garde projects). As the first one to be made with a real budget, Scanners was popular enough to spawn several non-Cronenberg sequels and become the 52nd highest grossing film of 1981. Rumor has it, it will even get its own TV adaptation soon#. Not too shabby! The film uses the story of a group of telepathically-inclined people called “scanners” to examine our culture's reliance (over-reliance?) on medication.

By Scanners, most of the hallmarks of what could be considered Cronenberg's style had fallen into place, including but not limited to a futuristic setting, a Howard Shore score, and some seriously gruesome special effects. It’s the first of his many films to incorporate a science fiction plot (as opposed to the straight up horror of his first three). The film features a great performance from Michael Ironside as Darryl Revok, leader of the evil scanners, not to mention an exploding head scene so memorable that 99% of the other stuff you might read about Scanners says something along the lines of “people's heads are constantly exploding in this movie,” which is just not true#! It's not perfect, but it was a subdued and significant improvement on his first films; an indication of the bigger and better things to come. Things like The Fly with Jeff Goldblum. I don't know, maybe you've heard of it?

David Cronenberg was born in Toronto in 1943 to a writer and a musician. In 1963, he started studying science at the University of Toronto. There, he picked up an interest in film that quickly became a full-blown passion. By 1966, he had co-founded the Toronto Film Co-Op with Iain Ewing and Ivan Reitman (he of Ghostbusters and Stripes fame, who would actually end up producing several of Cronenberg's films). His first film, Shivers, was about rampant, phallic parasites that turned people into raving sex maniacs, which a Canadian journalist called “the most repulsive movie [he had] ever seen.” The rest is history.

Cronenberg is not without his critics. His films have been accused of being exploitative, sadistic, and misogynistic. Far be it from me to make up the viewer’s mind for them, but the repulsion in his films seems much more purposeful than the torture porn of, say, a Saw film. Violence for violence’s sake this is not. It’s a rare and thoroughly invigorating experience allowed only by Cronenberg films to have your brain, your stomach, and your heart all rocked by the same scene at once.

With the Cronenberg aesthetic asserted by Scanners, the director would continue to refine and defy it throughout his career. Videodrome, released the next year, starred James Woods as a television executive who becomes addicted to the titular snuff channel (and, Blondie fans, Debbie Harry as his femme fatale). 1983’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone starred Christopher Walken as a man with the power to see (and modify) the future.

His next film was The Fly. It starred Jeff Goldblum as a victim of his own experiment-gone-wrong; a scientist whose accidental fusion of his own genetic material with that of a housefly has truly disgusting and tragic results. It was a huge hit! Critics and audience alike loved it. The Fly was a turning point for Cronenberg -- the apex of his early career: the perfect juxtaposition. It was arguably his grossest film, and definitely the one with the highest emotional stakes (up until that time). With a massively successful film under his belt, he was free to follow his muse anywhere he pleased.

And follow it he has, for more than twenty years since The Fly. Whether adapting the unadaptable (Naked Lunch), making thrillers (Fly follow-up Dead Ringers, with nary an exploding head to be found), or directing a film about people with automobile accident fetishes (yup, Crash -- nope, not that Crash), Cronenberg is reliably disturbing and, more importantly, compelling -- a true visionary. Thankfully, he shows no sign of slowing down. He has released three great films since 2005, and has a new one in theaters right now. It’s not getting great reviews, but go see it anyway. I’d rather watch the passionate failure of a genius than someone else’s tepid success.

Brian Correia is a budding computer scientist and aspiring writer from Boston, Massachusetts who couldn't decide which hip-hop lyric to put in his byline. The top three, in no particular order, were as follows: “cooler than a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce,” “spiced out Calvin Coolidge loungin' with six duelers,” and “I got techniques drippin' out my buttcheeks.” He is on Twitter (@brianmcorreia) and Tumblr (brianmcorreia.tumblr.com) like the rest of the kids.