Perhaps more than any other modern director, David Cronenberg consistently feels like a filmmaker who is evolving, one unsatisfied with simply relying on the bag of tricks that afforded him his fame. Over the course of his career, Cronenberg’s name has become synonymous with body horror, and films usually relegated to the sphere of horror or science-fiction. But his recent films have dealt predominately with inward transformations, the kind of horror that doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in physical mutations or even lend itself to the category of genre film. While these recent shifts in style, intent, and genre haven’t always been positively received by critics, they always provoke interesting discussions, proving that David Cronenberg is one of the most important working filmmakers. With the past weekend’s release of Cronenberg’s 19th feature, Maps to the Stars, it’s time to take a look back at the five films that have made his career one that’s worth talking about.
5. A History of Violence
Based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, A History of Violence has a pretty straightforward narrative that centers on a man (Viggo Mortensen) whose life is turned upside down when he’s accused of being a former mobster. While there are still gruesome displays of violence (that nose kill!) the film refrains from going for shock value, instead feeling relatively quiet. Cronenberg’s films have always been intimate and character driven, but A History of Violence, in its lack of strangeness, allows Cronenberg to strip down to his purest directorial abilities. While it never feels wholly original, A History of Violence is a fantastic display of Cronenberg’s ability to pull out layered character work without the use of special effects.
4. Eastern Promises
Cronenberg’s follow-up to Violence, that once again saw him re-teamed with Mortensen, is a more polished and comfortable move into the kind of prestigious dramas he’d previously steered away from. Instead of focusing on a man trying to outrun violence, Eastern Promises focuses on a man who gets pulled further into the violence of the Russian mob. Like Violence, Eastern Promises relies on a third act twist that isn’t particularly surprising, but it does create a complex moral quandary that makes the film worth rewatching.
Videodrome is often considered to be Cronenberg’s magnum opus, as well as his most topical film. Intellectually complex and plot-heavy, Videodrome synthesizes the themes of sex and violence explored in Cronenberg’s earlier films into a prophetic and startling look at our relationship with media and technology. The idea proved so memorable and dense that Cronenberg later followed up on this film with Existenz, a spiritual sequel the deals with video games instead of TV. Ultimately Videodrome is a story of becoming, an idea Cronenberg has repeatedly revisted in subsequent films. Max Renn’s (James Woods) transformation, aided by special effects guru Rick Baker, is one of the most memorable within the genre, bested only by the next entry on this list.
2. The Fly
If you’ve never seen a David Cronenberg film, The Fly is the perfect introduction. The story of Seth Brundle’s (Jeff Goldblum) transformation, after a failed teleportation experiment leaves him spliced with fly DNA, is tragic and beautiful. On the surface it’s a perfectly-paced monster movie, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a heartbreaking meditation on aging and impotence. While most people remember Chris Walas’ incomparable effects works, the true greatness of The Fly lies in the romance between Seth and Veronica. Make no mistake, The Fly is as gory and gross as anything you could imagine, but it’s also one of the greatest love stories ever told on film. In terms of pure entertainment value, Cronenberg doesn’t get better than The Fly.
1. Dead Ringers
Based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood, Dead Ringers follows twin gynecologists whose seduction of a patient leads to their mental unraveling and delusions of mutant genitalia. With dual performances by Jeremy Irons (who should have been nominated for and won Best Actor for his efforts), Cronenberg composes his most complex and unsettling character work. Once again tackling the link between sex and violence, Dead Ringers explores the precarious balance of self-identity and duality. While his other films during the 80s dealt with unison (man and insect, man and machine, man and the future), Dead Ringers’ tale of becoming is concerned with separation. While it’s mostly lacking in the gore that popularized the aforementioned films of the era, Dead Ringers is no less harrowing an experience. Part drama and part horror, Dead Ringers successfully balances earnest drama with B-movie schlock, forming a film that still feels like Cronenberg’s most unique work to date.