Since CGM is a Toronto publication, we must admit to having a soft spot for a certain Canadian auteur Mr. David Cronenberg. After all, the man isn’t just one of the most ambitious, thoughtful, and disgustingly unhinged horror movie makers; he also provides a nice and grimy contrast to our typically quiet and polite national film fare. For decades, Cronenberg has built up a unique career perched somewhere between gag-inducing mind-bending art and body horror films about the darkest recesses of the human experience. He’s a pretty damn great filmmaker, and it’s always nice to have cause to celebrate his artfully filthy ways.
Recently, the good folks at Shout Factory welcomed David Cronenberg into their ever-growing Blu-ray archive of the finest genre movies ever made. Through their horror-focused Scream Factory label, Shout released beautiful Blu-ray editions of Cronenberg’s nasty exploitation movie Rabid and his first serious auteur piece Dead Ringers. Together they form a double bill of the best that David has to offer. Rabid is one of his most lurid, sick and cynical concoctions filled with blood-red spectacle. Dead Ringers on the other hand, digs into the mind for its horrors and delivers a deeply disturbing tale of unhealthily connected twins. They are two of his best films, though there are many more masterpieces in his catalogue.
So to celebrate these new Cronenberg releases that hit shelves just in time to fill the stockings of the sickos on your X-mas list, we thought we’d take a look back at the top ten films ever made by Canada’s perverted master of the macabre. These ten films are the perfect way for you to feel like a movie snob and a disgusting genre obsessive simultaneously and are an ideal antidote to all that nauseating Christmas cheer in the air these days.
10) A History Of Violence (2005)
Based on a graphic novel that David Cronenberg claims he never read, A History Of Violence was a welcome return to visceral entertainment from the auteur after a few years locked away in the art house. On the surface, it’s the tale of a dark past coming back to haunt Viggo Mortensen’s small-town family man and short-order cook. Beneath the surface, it’s an attack on America’s obsession with violence that always rests just below the nation’s white picket fence fantasies. Subversively satirical and viciously visceral, the film is one of Cronenberg’s finest. It packs a punch to the gut and the brain in a beautifully mounted attack on the American Dream and includes performances by William Hurt, Viggo Mortensen and William Hurt. Plus Ed Harris appears in arguably his most terrifying role before HBO’s Westworld, so it’s a good time to revisit.
9) Scanners (1981)
An unexpected #1 hit at the box office thanks to the most famous exploding head in cinematic history, Scanners is one of David Cronenberg’s most iconic creations. It’s also a bit of a mess given that the director started production before he’d even finished the script and was stuck with a lead actor who wasn’t exactly up to the task at hand. Still, Scanners was the first time that Cronenberg had a decent budget and used it to deliver a handful of psychic set pieces that are impossible to forget. This is the director at his most playfully entertaining and while it won’t blow viewers minds like some of his more ambitious efforts, it will throw enough brain matter around the screen to make up for it.
8) Rabid (1977)
This nasty little drive in feature was controversial enough in its day that David Cronenberg’s landlord allegedly kicked him out of his home after learning the professorial tenant was responsible for such grindhouse trash. Porn star Marilyn Chambers stars as a woman who receives an experimental skin graft that leads to the formation of a mutant penis fang in her armpit. Chambers stalks men to feast on them like a vampire and her victims turn into rabid zombie types.
That leads to martial law taking over Montreal (much like actually happened at the time) and plenty of nasty, bloody, pervy supernatural scares (which didn’t happen quite as often in Montreal at the time). This grainy 70’s exploitation picture is often dismissed in Cronenberg retrospectives but is worth revisiting in the new Shout Blu-ray for its mixture of hard scares and clever STD subtext. It’s also a movie ahead of its time, playing up urban zombie panic a year before George Romero made Dawn Of The Dead. Oh and it’s technically a Christmas movie that features a mall Santa being machine-gunned to the ground. ‘Tis the season to truly enjoy Rabid.
7) Naked Lunch (1991)
A long-time dream project of David Cronenberg’s, this almost indescribable art house provocation attempts the impossible by adapting William S. Burroughs’ stream-of-conscious nightmare literary classic Naked Lunch to the big screen. It’s not exactly a straightforward adaptation since it’s unlikely even Burroughs could sit through that. Instead, the film that starred Peter Weller and is a mixture of two of the most twisted minds of the 20th century and a concoction of bizarre images and ideas that are impossible to scrape from any innocent mind that dares to let it in.
6) Shivers (1975)
Shivers caused massive controversy on release as Canadian tax-payers wondered if their money should fund a movie about sex zombies. However, it was also one of the few hits funded by the government at the time, so the naysayers shut up quickly even though Shivers remains curiously out of print in North America. This super cheap 70’s horror produced by Ivan Ghostbusters Reitman and directed by Cronenberg as his commercial debut (he had previously dabbled in the underground experimental film market) holds up remarkably well as both art and entertainment.
The tale of a high-rise apartment building beset by slug-like parasites that turn their victims into rabid sex zombies after entering any orifice is creepy, hilarious, and unforgettable. A mixture of snotty shots at sexual mores and gross-out groundbreaking body horror, Shivers is a must-see for horror fans, even if it is damn difficult to find. It also has one of the greatest trailers of all time, so be sure to enjoy that, if nothing else.
5) Crash (1996)
Easily David Cronenberg’s most controversial movie, this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s cult novel about folks sexually obsessed with car wrecks is a tough movie to shake off. It’s a lurid tale of sexual obsession and unsettlingly insatiable desire that has to be one of the least erotic movies ever made featuring this much sex.
Deeply disturbing, scarring, and surprisingly insightful for those willing to engage with Cronenberg/Ballard’s exploration of the darkest recesses of human desire, Crash is a movie impossible to forget for those who can sit through it until the end. Not for the faint of heart or easily aroused, and featuring a fantastic cast, including Holly Hunter, James Spader and Rosanna Arquette. Note: this is definitely not that horrible Best Picture-winning movie with the same title, though I love the fact that many people must have rented Cronenberg’s Crash by accident and had themselves a horrible night.
4) The Brood (1979)
The Brood is probably David Cronenberg’s most personal picture, which is an odd thing to say about movie featuring mutant children on a murder spree. Based on a particularly painful divorce, it follows a Cronenberg stand-in whose ex-wife has entered a bizarre therapy cult run by Oliver Reed in which psychological traumas are turned into boils n’ scars via experimental therapy.
As if that weren’t weird enough, there is also a gang of monster children in red snowsuits killing people all around the hero’s daughter. Weird, wild stuff, to be sure. The Brood might be David Cronenberg’s most purely frightening horror film and also one that rather elegantly ties themes of the emotional trauma of divorce into a nasty and effective scare picture. A must-see, even for those sad folks who don’t normally take to David’s peculiar cinematic perversions.
3) Dead Ringers (1988)
The psychological thriller Dead Ringers is arguably the movie that finally made critics and film snobs take the horror maestro seriously. It’s still a horror flick, just one that withers its way into your brain to cause its disturbances. The tale of psychotic twin gynecologists who share both a medical practice and women is a slow burn creep out as difficult to scrub from your mind as any of Cronenberg’s most obvious cinematic nightmares. This time though, it’s the ideas and scenarios that shock more so than any nasty images. However, there are still some beautifully creepy pictures and an absolutely extraordinary pair of performances by Jeremy Irons as the disturbingly co-dependent twins.
Starring Jeremy Irons, with Geneviève Bujold, and Heidi von Palleske, Dead Ringers is typically considered the filmmaker’s finest hour because of how nimbly it walks the line between the phantasmagoria freakouts of the director’s youth and the high-minded art house fare of the prestigious half of his career. We here at CGM don’t quite agree but can’t deny that it is certainly one of Cronenberg’s crowning achievements.
2) The Fly (1986)
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Promised the posters for David Cronenberg’s remake of a campy Vincent Price classic. This sci-fi horror crossover about a scientist who accidentally blends his genetic code with that of a fly is undeniably one of the most disgusting genre movies ever made.
The ways in which Jeff Goldblum slowly degenerates into a mutated monster are both gag-inducingly visceral and serve as a poignant metaphor for cancerous disease. The makeup effects are some of the finest ever created in horror film history and show how far the human body can go. The performances are spectacular enough for the film to play as much romantic tragedy as a genre thrill ride. In short, The Fly is a masterpiece. Not just one of the greatest remakes of all time, but one of the finest genre films period.
1) Videodrome (1983)
Finally, we come to Videodrome. This might not be nearly as accessible or as powerful of a film as The Fly, but it also might be the most David Cronenberg movie ever made. James Woods stars as a television executive who specializes in programming late-night softcore porn and violent horror.
He is exposed to an experimental program titled Videodrome that takes over its viewers’ minds through harsh images of sexual violence. The film is both a surreal nightmare masterpiece featuring unforgettable horror images and an exploration of the media’s effect on the mind that is somehow even more poignant in the digital era despite the analogue technology on display. Complex enough for the art house and disgusting enough for the grindhouse, Videodrome is the ultimate David Cronenberg picture that’ll make genre nuts want to plunge their heads into their televisions and never return.