Welcome to Psycho Drive-In’s 31 Days of Schlocktober celebration! This year we’ve decided to present the ABCs of Horror, with entries every day this month providing Director information, Best-of lists, Genre overviews, and Reviews of films and franchises, all in alphabetical order! Today brings us C is for Cronenberg!
Horror, by its very nature, is transgressive, and nobody does film transgression like Canada’s David Cronenberg. Since 1975, nearly every single film Cronenberg has written and/or directed has done everything in its power to push the viewer into the most uncomfortable psychic spaces, regardless of whether or not the films are overtly horror. But since this is the ABCs of Horror, let’s take a look at the examples of Cronenberg’s horror output that every fan of the genre should experience.
Going back to the very beginning, Shivers was Cronenberg’s first feature film (released in the US as They Came from Within) and from its opening scene, the director established himself as a filmmaker more than willing to confront the viewer with scenes of sexualized violence designed to elicit uncomfortable reactions. In this film, a scientist develops an experimental parasite designed to combat humanity’s over-reliance on rationality and suppression of physical instincts.
It’s easy to see why this film disturbed and outraged audiences.
1977’s Rabid continued this trend, as Cronenberg cast porn star Marilyn Chambers as a woman critically injured in a motorcycle crash. Her treatment, another experimental medical procedure, saves her life, but with an unforeseen complication: a phallic organ with a stinger develops in her armpit. The stinger is designed to feed on the blood of victims while also erasing their memory of the assault. Eventually the victims transform into rabid zombies (sort of), plunging society into chaos.
Cronenberg’s third horror film moved from the carnal to the more familial, but was no less horrifying and disturbing. The Brood (1979) was influenced by the director’s own custody battle over his daughter with his first wife, and tells the story of a series of murders apparently being committed by a group of children; hideous monster children. The success of his earlier films allowed Cronenberg the opportunity to work with a bigger name actor this time around, and Oliver Reed took on the role of Dr. Hal Raglan, a psychotherapist using an experimental treatment called “Psychoplasmics” (which, for the trivia-minded out there, was very nearly the name of this website while we were in the planning stages!), that helps patients let go of suppressed emotions through physiological changes to their bodies.
You have been warned.
The Eighties saw a shift in subject matter for Cronenberg, beginning with 1981’s Scanners. This film was more science fiction than horror, focusing on rival groups of psychics and served as something of a precursor to other contemporary superhero films of a similar nature, like Push, Leaper, or even X-Men. Lacking the overt sexual content of his previous horror films, Scanners became Cronenberg’s most profitable film, and allowed him to stretch his creative legs for his next two films, both of which were released in 1983.
It’s a groundbreaking film on any number of levels, not least of which is the way that it plays with reality, shifting characters in and out of hallucinations until nobody is sure what’s real and what’s a dream. Disorientation is practically guaranteed while watching and the film almost feels like it is infecting the viewer, undermining reality and indoctrinating us into the politics of the characters. There’s a kind of dream logic at work in the film that helps to cement it as one of the greatest mind-fucks of modern horror cinema.
It’s a very straight-forward narrative, and Walken is excellent as Johnny Smith, working his way through depression, assisting the police in tracking down a murderer, and ultimately getting a glimpse of an apocalyptic future after shaking the hand of Senatorial candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen). While it wasn’t a huge hit, it was extremely well-received, and is without a doubt one of the best Stephen King film adaptations to this day.
The transformation scenes are revoltingly believable — brilliant triumphs of practical effects work — and Goldblum is perfectly cast as the oddball scientist who thinks he’s becoming a superman before things go very very wrong. Amazingly, The Fly was a perfect storm of inspiration and execution, becoming Cronenberg’s most critically acclaimed film and the biggest grossing film he’s directed to this day. The metaphorical heart of the film, dealing with disease, aging, and death, captured the imaginations of critics and audiences and the film was easily seen as a commentary on the AIDS crisis. This, combined with the tragic love story and the amazing effects make it one of the most impressive pieces of work in Cronenberg’s catalog.
Cronenberg’s post-Fly films never quite veer back into pure horror the way he consistently did up to 1986, but that doesn’t mean that he abandoned challenging the comfort levels of his audience. Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), eXistenZ (1999), and Spider (2002) in particular are great examples of virtuoso filmmaking that refuses to compromise artistic vision. And even his most mainstream work, A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007), and Cosmopolis (2012) tell stories that while being more accessible to audiences are no less unflinching in their honesty and exploration of obsession, violence, and identity.
Even when it’s not Schlocktober.