It is highly unlikely that many of us, emerging slightly soiled and perturbed from a double bill of Shivers and Rabid, back in 1977, would have predicted that over 40 years later, as he approached 80, Canadian film maker David Cronenberg would still be making uncomfortable but often brilliant films (his new movie Crimes of the Future opens in September) and would have been responsible for such an impressive filmography.
In 1977 he was part of that new generation of film makers (which also included George A Romero, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and, slightly later, Wes Craven) who appeared to be championing the low-budget horror genre just before it smashes its way into the home via the arrival of the VHS medium – and just prior to it being trampled all over by the establishment with the “video-nasties” debacle of 1984.
In fact, Cronenberg is one of the few new “’70s” film makers whose career survived up to the present with almost no major embarrassments or misfires (M Butterfly, from 1993 is about the only film on the list which is possibly a dud). Arguably he’s a director who has improved the older he has got and who is still able to bring his icy stare to the horrors of the body and mind that he first started dissecting all those years ago. He also regularly shoots his films in Canada, which may add to their occasional “other worldliness.”
Early “schlock” horror films Shivers and Rabid (and that term does both films a bit of a disservice) were soon followed by increasingly idiosyncratic films – his “divorce drama” The Brood in 1979 starring Oliver Reed (the trailer filmed audiences in secret, responding to what Cronenberg put on the screen); the paranoid head exploding (literally) Scanners in 1981 and prophetic reality TV satire Videodrome (included in the UPP’s season this August/September) in 1983. See the latter for a rare movie starring the brilliant James Woods and the added thrill of Blondie’s Debbie Harry in a “sexy” supporting role.
He then makes one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King novel The Dead Zone in 1983 (Christopher Walken stars) and follows that with his major 1986 success,The Fly starring Jeff Goldblum, which is also in the season – “Be afraid. Be very afraid”.
He reverts to more personal projects thereafter: gynaecological twin doctors (both played by Jeremy Irons) thriller Dead Ringers (also in the season) in 1988; William Boroughs adaptation Naked Lunch (a book they said was un-filmable) in 1991 and, following the failure of M Butterfly, brings his most notorious film Crash (adapted from the novel by J G Ballard) to the screens in 1996 – a film which for a long time looked like it would go unreleased in the UK – you can make up your own mind about its merits when it’s screened as the penultimate part of the season here at the UPP.
No man (or film director) is an island and Cronenberg knows well who to work with. His cameraman of choice from Dead Ringers onwards, is Peter Suschitzy, who also shot Star Wars sequel The Empire Strike Back (Cronenberg was, for a while, George Lucas’ chosen director for The Return of the Jedi before that deal fell through – it would have probably ended up a little like David Lynch’s Dune had he finally made it. Other interesting also-rans in his career are Total Recall and Basic Instinct 2).
In addition, he’s collaborated with musician Howard Shore on all his films, except The Dead Zone and his sister Carol Spier has been art designer on most of his movies. Recently the actor Viggo Mortensen has been his star of choice (and he was also one of Robert Pattinson’s go-to directors post-Twilight). With Mortensen he has brought “Cronenbergian” qualities to the less than horrifying but damned fine comic adaptation A History of Violence (my favourite film by the director); crime drama Eastern Promises (pity that one never got the long-promised sequel); Freud and Jung and a few whips psycho-drama A Dangerous Method and (hopefully) the new movie Crimes of the Future. With Pattinson he’s made the strange science fiction Cosmopolis and grubby Maps to the Stars.
David Cronenberg’s films are coldly horrifying, intelligent. unsettling and thought-provoking affairs. He doesn’t shy away from the sex or violence and whilst he’s not always written his movies, they all feel distinctly the work of one slightly warped mind.
George Romero turned in increasingly naff sequels to Night of the Living Dead until he died in 2017; John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper more or less lost the plot somewhere around (respectively) In the Mouth of Madness and Poltergeist and the sadly departed Wes Craven never really lived up to the promise shown by A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Cronenberg, on the other hand, outfoxed the lot of them and, alongside Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, is about the only other “movie brat” capable of making movies about which you’re still prepared to get excited/ disgusted/outraged (delete as appropriate).
Long may he continue. Long live the new flesh.
The UPP’s David Cronenberg classics season runs between Friday 19th August and Wednesday 14th September. More info and full listings can be found here: https://uppcinema.com/show_type/david-cronenberg-season/
Blog post written by Dr Andrew C Webber – a Film teacher and examiner with over 30 years’ experience. He currently contributes to both the Cinema of the 70s and 80s magazines (available on Amazon); cassette gazette fanzine (available from cassette pirate on e-bay) and the Low Noise music podcast available on Spotify and Apple podcasts.