A look at the Best, the Worst, and the most Different (for better or worse) of the Canadian gore auteur’s canon.
One of the interesting things about Cronenberg’s early work is that you witness his craft develop film by film. From Shivers (1975) through Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981) you can observe a consistent through line and witness a new creative force finding his feet. The Brood and Scanners are more polished than his ‘70s work, but it was with this ode to the evils of television that we saw him come into his own. At once compelling, baffling, grotesque, unsettling, resonant and unique.
The Fly (1986)
A success in every conceivable way, The Fly is one of those rare occasions where an intellectual, arty director manages to cross over into the mainstream and deliver a huge hit whilst not compromising his vision one bit (aided covertly by producer Mel Brooks, who pulled off the same trick with David Lynch on Elephant Man). As the director himself said: “An artist's responsibility is to be irresponsible. As soon as you start to think about social or political responsibility, you've amputated the best limbs you've got as an artist.” Here, the artist was definitely on show, but so were the kind of box office receipts that announced Cronenberg to a wider audience.
Naked Lunch (1991)
Ol’ Davey boy has adapted his fair share of novels, but taking a stab at William S. Burroughs’ impenetrable semi-autobiographical fantasy is his most audacious attempt to date. Burroughs and Cronenberg are a match made in surrealist hell and by combining the wandering opium-drenched tales with incidents from the beat author’s own life (such as 'the William Tell incident'), Cronenberg creates something that resembles a story and even almost makes sense. But, of course, not quite – well, no movie where a durg-addicted half-typewriter-half-cockroach issues top-secret national security orders to the protagonist through its anus is ever going to be a study in coherence. Special mention to Peter ‘Robocop’ Weller as the solid and sardonic core that keeps the endeavour from careering totally off the rails.
There’s no other movie quite like Crash (ignoring the 2004 film of the same name, which is just as unlike it as anything else is). It’s been described as ‘a porno set on an alien planet’ and so it proves; not many films have three sex scenes in the opening ten minutes, as detached couple James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger float through their empty lives seeking thrills from mutually shagging anything that moves but finding no satisfaction. That is until Spader is in a fender bender and starts an affair with the other victim, Holly Hunter, whose husband was killed in the incident, a liaison that leads them to Elias Koteas and his underground movement of re-staging famous crashes (Mansfield, Dean) and generally gaining sexual arousal from car crashes. Definitely odd and unsettling – it featured in a typically childish ‘band this filth!’ Daily Mail campaign upon release – but also somehow haunting and beautiful.
A History of Violence (2005)
Often I regret watching movies in the cinema, since an audience’s noise can ruin the experience – the worst is comedies that turn out to be unfunny but still elicit hysterical laughter at obvious jokes and warmed-up scenarios. I saw A History of Violence on the big screen, and the audience reaction was telling, and very interesting. There was actually a lot of laughter at a film that no one would describe as a comedy; but this was awkward, uncomfortable laughter, caused by the tonal shifts as Viggo Mortesten’s family man Tom Stall jolts into his old self, gangster Joey Cusack – sudden, brutal, and shocking. Cronenberg doesn’t shy away from the viciousness, and that extends beyond just showing blood and gore to an under the surface dissection of a family that becomes infected with violence. In this way, the movie is as much about disease and transformation as any of his others, and was even more accessible vehicle for bringing the Cronenberg themes to a wider audience than The Fly.
M. Butterfly (1993)
Jeremy Iron’s character must have slept through Biology class, since he fails to clock that the ‘woman’ he’s been having an affair with is really a bloke. Even if you can suspend your disbelief enough to get over this ridiculousness, M. Butterfly is still a dull and pretentious operatic misfire.
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Despite a trio of good lead performances – Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender excel as Freud and Jung, and Keira Knightley is, despite some reports, solid – A Dangerous Method never find a narrative foothold and is just a collection of intriguing but shallow psychoanalytical insights with no coherent flow. The result is as boring as a droning undergrad lecture; when Knightly-spanking doesn’t liven things up, you know you’re in trouble.
Fast Company (1979)
Those complaining about how ‘un-Cronebergian’ the man’s recent output is would do well to remember that he could go against his own grain decades earlier. Despite having no body mutilations, transgression themes or identity crisis, this tale of drag racing across the US does showcase one of the director’s more covert obsessions: things that go vroom. Only unlike in Crash, no one has sex with a car crash wound.