A Crash Course in the Early Films of David Cronenberg

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Today marks the 70th birthday of David Cronenberg, the Canadian filmmaker J. Hoberman once called “the most audacious and challenging narrative director in the English-speaking world.” While the 21st century has found him moving closer to the mainstream with such films as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, he is better known to generations of cultish fans as a founding father of the “body horror” genre, exploring the fear people have of uncontrolled physical changes in their body and eventually expanding the idea to fit into his psychological thrillers and sexually charged dramas. Below, for those who remain unfamiliar with the first few decades of his work, we’ve put together a crash course in early Cronenberg.

1969-1977: A Frightening Future

Cronenberg began his feature-film career with two hour-long narratives, Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970). Both were shot without sound, with commentary added afterwards, and were set in the future (the mid-’90s, to be exact). Stereo, which involved scientific experimentation, sexual exploration, and telepathy, introduced the preoccupations of his later films. After those first two films, Cronenberg detoured into more straightforward horror, releasing Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), which dealt with parasitic invasions and zombie epidemics, respectively.

1979-1981: Room for Experimentation

In 1979, Cronenberg took a break from the horror films for which he was building a reputation. Fast Company, an action flick about a drag racer and his corrupt boss, reflected the filmmaker’s fondness for cars and racing and is still something of an oddity in his filmography. But he hadn’t given up horror. In the same year, Cronenberg made The Brood, which added a layer of family drama into the scary-movie mix, exploring themes such as psychoanalysis and domestic abuse. His biggest breakthrough during this period was 1981’s Scanners, which featured a dystopic plot involving people who can read strangers’ thoughts. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you may well recognize its unforgettable head-explosion scene. The film was a cocktail of action, sci-fi, and horror, and brought Cronenberg closer to commercial success than ever before.

1983-1991: Cronenberg’s First Golden Age

After his first big hit, Cronenberg hit his stride with five iconic and diverse feature films that showcased both his diversity and the themes consistent throughout all of his work. Videodrome (1983) took on a similar dark, futuristic tone to Scanners, but focused on the senseless, violent, and disturbing frontiers of television. The Dead Zone (1983), adapted from the Stephen King novel, starred Christopher Walken as a man who awoke from a coma to find he’d acquired psychic abilities; another adaptation, 1988’s Dead Ringers, dealt with the bond between identical twins… who also happen to be gynecologists. The Fly, from 1986, remade the 1958 sci-fi/horror movie of the same name, this time with an eye on the AIDS crisis. In 1991, Cronenberg successfully adapted William S. Burroughs’ counterculture classic, Naked Lunch — a heroin dream of a novel previously assumed to be unfilmable.

1993-1996: The Sex-Fueled Dramas

One of the greatest injustices done to David Cronenberg’s filmography is the general neglect of his sexually-driven dramas, M. Butterfly (1993) and Crash (1996). M. Butterfly was adapted from the Tony Award-winning 1988 play of the same name, and told the story of a French diplomat who has a 15-year affair with a male Chinese spy pretending to be a woman, leading to one of Jeremy Irons’ best monologues ever. Crash, meanwhile, explored the world of extreme fetishes by following characters who are aroused by getting into car accidents — and tends to be forgotten because it’s been overshadowed by the bland 2005 Oscar winner of the same name. For those who are intrigued by Cronenberg’s early style but could do without the gore, these two films make a great starting point.

1999-2002: Back to Body Horror

Before his Viggo Mortensen-starring breakthroughs, Cronenberg revisited the body horror territory of his older films in eXistenZ (1999), a futuristic warning similar in tone to Videodrome, and Spider (2002), whose psychologically traumatized, institutionalized protagonist recalls characters in Dead Ringers and The Brood. By the time he got to A History of Violence, Cronenberg had fine-tuned the violence and horror in his films to create something Roger Ebert (one of his toughest critics) would go on to say “seems deceptively straightforward, coming from a director with Cronenberg’s quirky complexity.”