Cronenberg: A Curious History of Violence

Tackling Cronenberg’s Canon


There are only a handful of directors working today who, thanks to an extremely distinctive cinematic style and an unparalleled repertoire behind them, have created their own personal subgenre of film. Surrealist auteurs David Lynch and Terry Gilliam, new wave hipsters Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson, post-modernist European art house filmmakers Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Pedro Almodóvar, and indie legends the Coen Brothers come to mind. Few directors though have had as curious and diverse a career as the Canadian born psychological film weaver, David Cronenberg.

Last week marked the opening of Cronenberg’s 16th feature film, the harsh but mesmerizing Eastern Promises, which is not only one of the director’s finest contributions yet but also a film that proves that his broad range and natural maturation as a filmmaker continues to pay off.

There are a number of certainties one can expect walking into a Cronenberg film. The film score will no doubt be contributed by longtime Cronenberg musical muse, Howard Shore, the chances of scenes of the grotesque generally involving gore, mutilation, deformation, or unnervingly realistic violence are high, there will no doubt be an underlying fascination with the human body, mind alterations via drug use, and sexual curiosity pulsing through the film’s veins, and above all viewers will be drawn deep into the harsh and sometimes surreal realms of the human psyche, even just for 90 minutes.

To truly appreciate and possibly understand Cronenberg’s unique style it is important to know his roots. Beginning as a TV filmmaker in Canada, Cronenberg spent the early part of his career focusing on low-budget horror schlock. Films such as 1975’s Shivers (a sci-fi B-grade horror film dealing with infectious parasites, sex fanatics, and of course gross out violence), 1977s Rabid (a medically themed zombie film starring a then famous female porn star thespian) and his cult favorite 1981’s Scanners (a film that Garth in Wayne’s World sums up nicely as the one where “that dude’s head blows up!”) are sub par in comparison to his later works but were no doubt important to his cinematic growth.

After the low-budget, but still fairly fascinating and ‘ahead of their time’ gross out horror lineup, Cronenberg broadened his style in this niche genre taking on socially conscious themes and focusing more on suspense than merely gore. The Brood showed the director’s true thriller chops and ability to get the most out of his actors thanks to a standout performance by the late great English actor Oliver Reed. In Scanners and 1983’s Videodrome Cronenberg explored science fiction, the latter also serving as a fascinating commentary on pop culture, violence in the media and the negative effects of television addiction, a theme that is still relevant today.

Then there was The Fly, a remake of a horror classic that truly helped land Cronenberg as an auteur with a promising future. The film paid homage to classic horror themes, particularly the mad scientist, Frankenstein storyline, utilized beautifully grotesque and realistic special effects and makeup (watching it today it’s still hard not to cringe at the bizarre sights Cronenberg dishes out), and stellar acting performances by Gina Davis (still her best role to date) and the distinguished Jeff Goldblum.

While The Fly remains one of Cronenberg’s landmark films it was 1988’s Dead Ringers, arguably his career masterpiece, that allowed the director to branch out yet again into drama, psychological thriller and above all tragedy. Fueled by a riveting performance or should I say performances by Jeremy Irons (curiously overlooked by the Oscars) playing twin gynecological surgeons whose psychological equilibrium is challenged by themes of lust, love, paranoia and drug use. The film was a radical 180 from The Fly or any of its predecessors, save Videodrome, but still managed to standout as a Cronenberg film thanks to the director’s ongoing fascination with the human body, medicine, mutation and a number of gruesome bloodstained visuals.

Cronenberg’s 90’s career was just as notable, again showing cinematic growth but is often overlooked. His bizarre adaptation of the puzzling William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch again explored drug use and paranoia with the weirdness and surreal vision that the story needed. M. Butterfly, a stage to film adaptation set in China circa the 1960’s, was a radical departure for Cronenberg tapping into the realms of quiet melodrama and romance but was done was a level of grace that again showed the director’s range.

The sexually controversial 1996 indie sleeper Crash (not to be confused with Paul Haggis’ Oscar winning film) was panned by critics, had a limited release due to its NC-17 rating when in reality it is a fascinating look at psychological and possibly perverse sexually fascinations that is really a clever allegory for any of humankind’s many obsessions and addictions.

The new millennium brought on yet another Cronenberg persona this time straying away completely with his horror and science fiction roots and focusing almost exclusively on dramas in which characters tackle their inner demons, troubled pasts, and unforgiving realities. The brilliant but under-appreciated Spider featured a brilliant performance from a Ralph Fiennes that was completely overlooked again due to limited distribution. It wasn’t until 2005’s A History Of Violence that Cronenberg truly returned to the forefront.

The film marked the first collaboration with Viggo Mortensen, a wonderfully versatile actor who, through his work with Cronenberg, is successfully shedding his majestic Lord of the Rings typecast. Adapted from a graphic novel, the story of revenge and redemption divided audiences (always a good thing in my opinion) due to a clever tongue-in-cheek script and standout scenes of sex and violence but is not to be missed.

Eastern Promises like all of Cronenberg’s films is not for everyone but it is a sophisticated and in many ways an important look at the realities of the mafia and the underground international prostitution market coming out of Russia and the former Soviet satellite states. The Cronenberg experience can be grueling for some. His use of violence has always been realistic and in-your-face. Tapping into the human psyche is not for casual filmgoers but for those looking to be challenged by films that aren’t afraid to tackle themes seldom explored in celluloid then Cronenberg’s impressive gamut is one to be explored.

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