Top 5: David Cronenberg
It might seem rather trite to call David Cronenberg a “horror director”, though I think people’s reluctance to pigeonhole him as such says more about their lack of respect for horror as a genre than it does about Cronenberg’s ouevre. Though one can argue that Cronenberg hasn’t made a true “horror” film since before 2002’s Spider, he’s still a man who remains driven by a dark fascination with the horrifying, and though this fascination no longer manifests itself in the form of the visceral body-horror with which he made his name, his films still come loaded with a fierce and often satirical psychological terror.
His latest film, Maps to the Stars, is a classic example of this. At face value, Maps… is a thriller, a drama and a black comedy, yet its aesthetic and its politics are very much influenced by the stylings of a horror film. It combines hints of body-horror with the sensibilities of a traditional ghost story, while simultaneously launching a quite devastating attack on the culture and politics of Hollywood. This is classic horror, even though its shrouded in the a more dramatic cloak.
Cronenberg is a controversial director (that’s why I love him so much!) but the themes in which he dabbles are always consistent, not to mention progressive. He’s a man who abhors censorship and views sexual repression as an inherent evil. His films are obsessed with the dire consequences of authoritarian social policies and, as a liberal Canadian looking in on an America in turmoil, he often takes aim at middle-class prudishness and the pernicious nature of the modern “American Dream”.
With such a rich back catalogue to choose from, selecting my five favourite Cronenberg films was no easy task. Certain gems, such as Crash (described by the Daily Mail’s resident film reviewer / rent-a-gob Chris Tookey as “the point at which even a liberal society should draw the line”) and A History of Violence, miss out not because they’re no good but because I don’t feel like they truly encapsulate what it is that makes Cronenberg such a marvellous director. The five I have chosen are all over 20 years old, though this by no means suggests that his more recent efforts aren’t equally worth a watch.
So, without further ado, here are my five favourite Cronenberg films…
5. DEAD RINGERS
Jeremy Irons plays twin gynaecologists Elliot and Beverly in this psychological drama that represents Cronenberg’s ‘body-horror’ sensibilities at their most explicit; the horror in this case arising from the fact that the two main characters are identical in practically every way. It is a film about identity and what it means to be human, and it also boasts one of the finest performances of Irons’ varied career.
4. THE FLY
A remake in name alone, Cronenberg offers his distinct, visceral spin on George Langelaan’s story of the same name. Jeff Goldblum plays a scientist experimenting with teleportation whose DNA is spliced with that of a household fly. Unlike the original film, Cronenberg is much more interested in how Goldblum’s character deals with the effects of his own body revolting against him. It’s grotesque, bizarre and utterly engrossing.
Videodrome is Cronenberg at his most creative, his most political and, in many ways, his most furious. Starring James Woods and Debbie Harry, the film explores the next evolution in visual entertainment and dances chaotically between fantasy and reality to such an extent that one can never be sure what is real and what isn’t. It is a film about the limitless possibilities of human and technical evolution and acts as a dual attack from Cronenberg on cultural repression and society’s overconsumption, and marks the high watermark of Cronenberg’s visual inventiveness.
2. NAKED LUNCH
I could wax lyrical about how Cronenberg is the only director who could have truly understood Burroughs’ seminal work, but I don’t want to bore you all to death for hours on end. All I’ll say is this: Cronenberg’s adaptation might well be the greatest book-to-cinema adaptation ever made, despite not always being completely faithful to the source material, and that really is saying something.
Boasting some of the most laughable visuals and pitiful acting in all of cinema, at face value Shivers is downright awful. As a feature debut, however, it is all but unparalleled, and if you can get past the obvious flaws and look at its deeper message, Shivers is a fiercely ingenious piece of cinema. It is ripe with sexual politics and acts as a scathing assault on the banality of contemporary life, so much so that the Canadian Federal Parliament attemped to ban it. Shivers is one of the best B-movies ever made and is, in my view, Cronenberg’s greatest cinematic achievement.