Revisiting David Cronenberg

I've just been to the strangest of places. Taking a walk through the caverns of the Baron Of Blood's grey matter isn't a task for the faint of heart. It's a horrific labyrinth of dripping walls and twisted psychological dead ends that keep you awake for hours wondering if you've really seen such things.

Systematically overlooked by the industry, David Cronenberg developed a hard-won reputation as one of the most outrageous but compelling directors working today but his success hasn't come without its detractors. His career has spanned over four decades and traverses such dangerous ground as "body horror" (if you aren't quite sure what that is. give it a look as you're sure to get a fright), the complexities of psychological unreality, and the terror of what might be considered by some to be unfilmable.

If you look over his body of work carefully, you see the progression and complexity of his films continue to escalate until you begin to wonder if the man who made The Brood is indeed the same director who helmed A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises. Because we are nothing if not thorough in our movie-watching habits, we embarked on a nonstop Cronenberg film festival to watch the slow-creeping progression from the very beginning.

The Brood

We started with the earliest movie we could get our hands on: The Brood, which I remember having nightmares about after watching it on a late night cable channel during my childhood. There's a psychologist, weird therapy methods, and a group of mutant children causing all kinds of crazy shenanigans. I had to pause and worry for a few minutes that I could use the movie's tag line for the life I'm currently living. But I digress. It's disturbing cautionary tale about the bizarre manifestation of rage and a resounding thud of disapproval for psychiatrists everywhere! Yay, therapy!


Next on our list was Scanners and in the spirit of full disclosure, I must reveal that I've seen this movie no less than fifty times. The legendary scene with Michael Ironside is still like getting sucker punched in the gut to this day. There was a point in time that his movie led me to believe that I might have some untapped reserve of super psychic power which I could use to further my all important causes of staying up past bedtime and getting an extra scoop of chocolate ice cream on my cone. It's got a solid plot (good powerful psychics vs. bad powerful psychics), some decent acting, and a chilling soundtrack.


Since we decided to go in chronological order, we came next to Videodrome and The Dead Zone. Wildly divergent but both released in 1983, it's hard to believe the same man was involved. I'll be honest, I saw Videodrome but was only mildly entertained. James Woods works with what he's got and tries to give an intelligent performance in the role of Max Renn, but the plot twists involving the pirate TV station with the torture and killings for pure entertainment were a little much. Still, any parent whoever told you that TV rots your mind need only to refer to the brain tumor-inducing programming available to the people in the world of Videodrome for absolute proof.

The Dead Zone

Sigh. This is where things really started to heat up for me. Love the premise, adore Christopher Walken (the world is a better place for his "Weapon Of Choice" hoofing), Martin Sheen does a fabulous job of making my skin crawl, and it's shot so beautifully that I never tire of watching it. Walken's Johnny Smith awakens from a coma caused by a car accident and finds out he's been out of the loop for five years but he's gained something for his loss: kick-ass psychic powers. Just shake his hand and see!

The Fly

Oh Seth Brundle, you were sweet, bumbling, brilliant and you had just gotten Geena Davis into bed when everything went horribly wrong. Man makes matter transportation pod. Man gets distracted by stupid fit of jealousy and starts drinking. Man makes bad decision to jump into pod for fun without checking it thoroughly. Man turns into freaky fly. I'm not sure which was worse: vomiting corrosive goo onto Geena's ex-boyfriend's hands and feet and leaving him with bloody stubs or the various human body parts that start to fall off Goldblum toward the end of the picture. Still, it's good scary fun with a little bit of sadness added for extra punch. For if we didn't love Seth so much, it wouldn't have hurt so badly to see him disintegrate.

Dead Ringers

I can thank this movie for making me uncharacteristically suspicious of my OB/GYN. Jeremy Irons has a strange icy quality that gets under my skin no matter what role he is playing and his portrayal of the absurdly kinky gynecologist twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle pushes the creep factor up ten notches. The dominant twin and the quieter submissive one share women, work commitments, and intertwined lives until their bond is tested by a pretty lady. It runs a little long but I remember it having a tremendous impact on the audience when I saw it in the theatre which I can say hasn't lessened after a more recent viewing. I have also never understood why red didn't become the color for hospital scrubs after this.

Naked Lunch

I believe that Cronenberg may be the only person alive who could attempt this and not fail miserably, probably because he had the smarts not to go with an exact interpretation and seemingly had no fear of treading on a beloved beat generation writer's prose. It works in an oddly appealing way. For those looking for a How To on how to accidentally shoot your wife, become addicted to deadly substances, and have some involvement in strange government plots while your household items turn into bugs, this is your movie.

M. Butterfly

It was 1993 and what were you doing? I'll tell you what you weren't doing: watching M. Butterfly, and that's kind of a shame. I can't say that it had broad appeal for a wide audience but it's definitely worth a watch for it's purely operatic origins and the broad scope of the classic love story with a hidden dose of deception. Jeremy Irons pops up once again, proving he's the Cronenberg go-to-guy when there's a role requiring a tortured Westerner, or in this case a French diplomat, as he works his broody charm on us. Not my favorite Cronenberg film, but the one that sent my indicators buzzing into the "we haven't even begun to see what this guy can deliver" territory.


Hello NC-17. The first time I saw this movie I kept repeating the phrase, "What the hell is even going on here?" as I sat enraptured and scarfing down large bowls of heavily-buttered popcorn. Never one to show much interest in bizarre subcultures, especially ones that revolve around sexually deviant thrills, I found myself oddly compelled to research this phenomenon further after watching. Hmmm. Might have been all that James Spader that did it to me. Still, this boasted a stellar cast, including one of my all time favorites, Holly Hunter, and the criminally underused Elias Koteas. If you can get past the idea that people can drive around without seatbelts (I found myself perpetually tense from whispering, "Buckle up" under my breath) and concentrate on sexual pleasure while twisted steaming steel curls around them during a vehicular bang up, then your suspension of disbelief is more firmly in place than mine. Wildly unlikely but totally hot! Mental note to self: never get in a car with James Spader.


This was the year I gave birth to my first child so I can be forgiven for not seeing this until just now. Did you take a look at this cast? Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe: it reads like a understated and secretly fabulous list that some hipster bigwig keeps under his gold-plated Hollywood paperweight. So while this one could have been considered groundbreakingly original, its plot smacks so heavily of The Matrix that I was driven to distraction. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the world's leading game designer who is thrown into the world of her own making after an ill-fated attempt on her life during a trial run with a focus group. She narrowly escapes but needs Jude Law's character to jump into this alternate gaming reality where she becomes hopelessly mired in the strange adventure, increasingly unable to decipher what is real and what isn't. Honestly, I know that Cronenberg does not need the added headache of listening to another Wachowski Brothers compare-and-contrast, so I'll spare him the agony. Watch if only for the chance to experience Law in that brief window he had before becoming labeled a walking nanny banger.


This is where things begin to turn and we see what Cronenberg can do with the subtle psychology of slow quiet madness. Ralph Fiennes is terrifyingly real as the mentally askew man who makes the questionable decision to move into a halfway house where his inner demons are allowed to run rampant and drag us along screaming for the ride. Ralph Fiennes has always unnerved me and it's not the Voldemort thing or the Schindler's List stuff. He seems to harbor some internal quality that threatens to break right out of his skull and smash you in your face like a rabid squirrel attacking from a low tree. I'll put it to you this way: I wouldn't want to fight him for the last morsel of food during the end of days or go up against him in Jeopardy. Scary. Anyway, we watch all this unfold as Ralph's character revisits his own childhood and see how the terrible things that took place shaped his totally screwed up adult life. I'll tell you one thing, I'll never do a jigsaw puzzle with an old person again. Sheesh. Anyway, see this movie I am begging you!

A History Of Violence

This movie is a multi-level seduction expert. On the surface, it had huge appeal as a gritty violent drama disguised as a "hero takes a fall" cautionary tale. Do you even know who your husband is, for god's sake? Then there are the many onion layers of imagined idyllic existence that we all like to pretend we are a part of, and don't even get me started on Maria Bello raising the bar for cheerleader dress up foreplay. Ahem. Viggo Mortensen really brings it as Tom, the world's most virile and loving husband and Ed Harris does his sleazy underworld bad guy thing with aplomb, although I still get a Jackson Pollock flashback here and there. Anyway, this one hits all the bells hard with a huge mallet, so do yourself a favor and get in front of a television screen while this is playing. You won't regret it.

Eastern Promises

So here we are again, Viggo. You, me, Cronenberg, this bowl of popcorn. Actually, I should point out that this brilliantly-executed and well-written story doesn't center around my imaginary escapades with the virile but unexpectedly kind Mr. Mortensen. It's a tale with brutal beginnings, horrible happenings, and sad discoveries that involve the Russian mafia, young prostitutes, and the sins and sometimes redemption of those that seem beyond redeemable. Naomi Watts is like poetry in motion pictures here and I still to this day can't watch Vincent Cassel in a movie without feeling like I need a shower with a full-powered fire hose afterward. Yuck. Anyway, here is the movie where Cronenberg is firing on all cylinders and you need to make sure you witness it.

A Dangerous Method

What are the chances that Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung actually looked like this? Never mind. This is the story of what happens when two good friends don't see eye to eye and they drift apart as a result. Okay, that is a big lie; it's actually a fully realized account of the tear in the fabric of the cosmos that resulted from the ferocious conflict between the godfathers of modern psychology. The 800 pound gorilla in this masterpiece is Keira Knightley's Sabina Spielrein and the love it or hate it performance she turns out. The first person I viewed this with was completely put off by her "overwrought" nonsense, saying it took time and energy away from concentrating on more important things. Personally, I don't know how else you'd portray someone who studied "under" some of the most important men in the field, but hey it's all artistic licence with me. Good stuff. If my analyst had looked anything like Fassbender or Mortensen, I would have been on the couch a lot longer. Also, why is it mandatory for Vincent Cassel to creep into yet another film? I keep waiting for him to jump out of my closet now.

Cosmopolis (2012)

Long ago, I read Don DeLillo's claustrophobic account of one jarring limo ride across town for a simple haircut that results in the protagonist's worst day ever. Eric Packer is everything you hate in a master of the universe. He's got the world by the nut sack and yet he's no better for it. When I first heard of the ballsy but odd choice for the role I gasped collectively along with the rest of the world but then I reconsidered. Robert Pattinson may make or break his future career trajectory with this role. Time will tell if he's got the powerfully aloof big money affectation that's needed to pull off Packer's icy persona, but here's to hoping. You know I'm rooting for you, big boy.

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