It goes without saying that David Cronenberg’s films are unique. Nowhere else could you find films that combine an intellectual arthouse sensibility with visceral, disturbing violence – where philosophical musings about the Cartesian mind/body schism are explored through the use of exploding heads, mutating televisions and nude knife-fights.
Cronenberg’s other talent lies in his ability to create truly memorable, disturbing images that burn into your subconscious – and in this reckoner I’ve picked out my favourite from each film.
Shivers (1975)Cronenberg’s first feature. Despite a visibly low budget, the film contains some quite inventive effects. A residential building is infected by parasitic organisms that turn the residents into sex crazed lunatics. As odd as it sounds.
Memorable moment: The parasites emerging from a character’s stomach, predating Ridley Scott’s chest bursting Alien by several years.
Rabid (1977)Ex porn actress Marilyn Chambers stars in her first ‘straight’ role, playing a motorcycle crash victim whose skin graft transforms her into a mosquito-like predator with a blood-sucking proboscis under her armpit.
Memorable moment: Marilyn Chambers attempting to suck blood from a cow.
The Brood (1979)An odd blend of horror and custody battle drama. Oliver Reed is on typically robust form as a shouty psychologist who inadvertently causes Samantha Eggar to give birth to a horde of shell-suit clad monsters.
Memorable moment: The bit where Eggar licks the blood off her newborn progeny. Ugh.
Scanners (1981)In my opinion Cronenberg’s first true classic. Michael Ironside has never bettered his performance as psychic maniac Darryl Revok. The film is only slightly let down by the weak lead, played appallingly by Stephen Lack.
Memorable moment: The infamous exploding head.
Videodrome (1983)Another classic, this one starring James Woods as a sleazy Cable TV exec whose exposure to Videodrome (an underground ‘snuff’ TV show) causes some very bizarre hallucinations.
Memorable moment: James Woods whipping a large, throbbing television set.
The Dead Zone (1983)Christopher Walken is mesmerizing as a car crash victim cursed with clairvoyant powers. This easily ranks as one of the best Stephen King novel adaptations.
Memorable moment: The surprisingly harsh ‘suicide with scissors’ scene.
The Fly (1986)Cronenberg’s first studio feature and his greatest commercial success to date. Brilliant.
Memorable moment: Two words: Arm wrestling. Ouch.
Dead Ringers (1988)The director’s most ‘mature’ film up to this point, and an indicator of the sort of films he would make later on. Jeremy Irons really deserved an oscar for his dual role as Beverly and Elliot Mantle, a pair of identical twin gynecologists. A well-made, disturbing drama that was unpopular at the cinema but well worth watching.
Memorable moment: A drug-addled Jeremy Irons shuffling around in a dressing gown wailing ‘I want birthday cake.’
Naked Lunch (1991)William S Burroughs’ source novel was regarded by most as unfilmable. Cronenberg cunningly sidestepped the problem by ignoring the source material and coming up with something almost entirely unrelated.
Memorable moment: The insect/typewriter creature with a talking sphincter…
M. Butterfly (1993)This little-seen (and seemingly unavailable on DVD) movie is a career low for Cronenberg in my opinion. A sort of Chinese Crying Game, the film stars Jeremy Irons as a French diplomat who embarks on a love affair with a ‘female’ opera singer. Unconvincing.
Memorable moment: Jeremy Irons’ rather camp prison suicide.
Crash (1996)An adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel of the same name, Crash caused quite a stir when it was first released. It may be a film about people aroused by car accidents, but it’s made with considerable restraint and isn’t particularly graphic. Unfortunately, brave though the film is, Crash’s characters are rather unsympathetic and ultimately fail to engage.
Memorable moment: James Spader making sweet love to the scar in Rosanna Arquette’s leg. Nice.
eXistenZ (1999)Cronenberg returns to his reality-bending roots in a sort of Videodrome for the Playstation era.
Memorable moment: Jude Law shooting a waiter in the face with a gun assembled from fish bones.
Spider (2002)Ralph Fiennes plays the titular role; a mumbling, shuffling man haunted by his past. A powerful, moving psychological drama that is a far more realistic portrayal of mental illness than, say, Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind.
Memorable moment: The first glimpse of Fiennes as Spider – he’s almost unrecognizably disheveled.
A History of Violence (2005)Probably Cronenberg’s biggest financial success since The Fly, and a brilliantly acted, well paced film.
Memorable moment: The ‘death-by-splintered-nose’ scene.
Eastern Promises (2007)Viggo Mortensen, and indeed the whole cast are excellent in this tale of Russian gangsters in London. The attention to detail is superb, and the world Cronenberg creates is thoroughly absorbing.
Memorable moment: The unforgettable steam-room fight. I’ve never heard a cinema audience gasp so loudly.