It’s David Cronenberg’s birthday today! It’s a time to celebrate our favorite Canadian master of disturbing cinema. While I enjoy most of the man’s films, I must admit to a fondness for his early horror films. So here are some of my favorites!
The only Cronenberg film to give me nightmares – and that from just the commercial! Scanners was the first of his films I ever saw, and it remains high in my list of favorite horror movies. It’s the story of Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a “scanner” who can read thoughts, control minds and – in a pinch – make computers blow up. The body horror of other early Cronenberg films is at a minimum here, with the plot leaning more into corporate espionage and a eugenics plan to create an army of scanners, but the apocalyptic ending battle between Vale and fellow scanner Revok (Michael Ironside) provides plenty of disturbing visuals by legendary effects artist Dick Smith. Even that plays second fiddle to the iconic head explosion early on, a gore effect that remains one against which all others are measured.
My absolute favorite Cronenberg film and one of my favorite movies of all time. A rich and disturbing tapestry of body horror, mind control, corporate and government malfeasance and madness. The story of TV producer Max Ren (James Woods), who discovers a pirate broadcast of violence and sex, pulls no punches in graphic imagery – with fleshy, pulsating video cassettes inserted into body cavities and guns that sprout from hands – but it’s the way Cronenberg questions how we experience reality and who controls that experience that remains with me after all this time.
The story of a sex zombie apocalypse was a late entry in my Cronenberg viewing, but I’d heard of it for decades. It’s rough in spots and can be frustrating, but it’s grown on me (not unlike the parasites that infiltrate the apartment complex that is the films setting). In some ways it’s the most disturbing and dark film in the man’s early filmography, with scenes (like an opening attack on a young woman that includes acid poured into a stomach wound) that feel transgressive and horrifying in ways that even Rabid or Videodrome don’t quite match. You never feel safe watching Shivers, and that’s why I put it up as high as I do.
The Dead Zone (1983)
The first film that Cronenberg didn’t write himself, The Dead Zone – based on the Stephen King novel – is a fantastic adaptation and one of the best of King’s work. Despite being something of a departure in style, the story of an ordinary man with an extraordinary gift and the price of that gift is the overlap between the two creators that makes it work. Anchored by a fantastic performance from Christopher Walken this is Cronenberg at his most restrained, but no less devastating.
While David Cronenberg is mostly known as a writer/director he has occasionally dabbled in acting, including in his own films (like The Fly and Dead Ringers) and even in TV (he’s recently been on a few episodes of Star Trek: Discovery). While I have a soft spot for his appearance in Jason X, it’s his turn as psychotherapist (and serial killer) Dr. Phillip Decker in Cliver Barker’s Nightbreed that takes the top spot. He’s fantastically disturbing and evil, a great counter point to the supposed monsters of the film – he looks perfectly normal but is more monstrous than any other character. (And that mask – geez.) I’d have loved to see the sequel in which Decker is resurrected (seen in an alternate ending).
So those are some of my favorite films by (and starring) David Cronenberg. What about you? What are some of yours?