Top Ten Underrated Thrillers

(Article written for starpulse.com in time for Halloween)

Horror movies are some of the most consistent pieces of the film industry. Sure there have been highs and lows in the genre, and resurgences have come and gone, but one thing remains true: people will always yearn for those cinematic chills.

The demand, however big it may be, is always constant. The golden age of cinema through the 60s brought on big studio monster movies, sly noir thrillers, and of course, Hitchcockian suspense (a subgenre, respectively). The 1970s, arguably the paramount epoch of cinema, period, saw the expansion of the genre and gave filmgoers some of the best nail biters out there.

The creation of VHS and movie rental houses triggered a massive wave of low-budget, schlock video nasties from across the globe during the 1980s and helped spawn the current highly exploitative, gross-out horror phase that horror movies are stuck in now. Then there were the 90s, dominated by a fairly lame return to teen slasher films-the Party of Five horror heyday.

Some say the new millennium has been a breath of fresh air for the genre with an overall rise in popularity of no holds barred gore fests (Saw, uh hum, V opens soon) and a surge of film curiosities coming from East Asia, aka. the “fear the black haired ghost chick with eerie feline larynx” genre. It could be said that the horror of today is more focused on shock than on scares. Still, over the years (despite a saturated market of genre films) there have been a fair share of gems that managed to break through to stand the test of time.

The following is a run down of some of the most underrated thrillers out there. Some have a large niche following, others have gone under the radar for too long, but all are worthy of checking out this Halloween season.

Lost Highway – David Lynch, 1997
Lost Highway
Trying to classify the films of David Lynch is one of those futile exercises that is part of the reason his work is so polarizing for filmgoers. Lynch does not make horror films in the traditional sense of the genre but he is a master of crafting horrifying scenes and psychologically disturbing stories. “Lost Highway” is often overlooked amidst the auteur’s more renowned films but it remains one of his creepiest. Much of this can be attributed to Robert Blake’s bone chilling portrayal of the Mystery Man-a pale-faced spook with shaved eyebrows and a knack for videotaping people while they sleep. Add this to an eerie soundtrack-a blend of Angelo Baldamenti’s creepy sonic ballads and 90s industrial rock-and menacing cinematography and you get what is not so much a horror movie but rather a surreal, nightmarish, and mind bending viewing experience. The late author and culture commentator David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The absence of point or recognizable agenda in David Lynch’s films lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t.” “Lost Highway” does just this and resonates in your subconscious long after the first viewing.”

Suspiria – Dario Argento, 1977
Suspiria
Dario Argento has always been an atmospheric weaver of gruesome films, which are drenched with stylized cinematic technique. From a storytelling point of view his films are full of plot holes, laughable dialogue and the kind of low-brow over dubbing that was the norm of so many 70s genre flicks. “Suspiria” is no exception. It is, however, one of the most frightening films for the senses. Already an established giallo or crime genre filmmaker, “Suspiria” was Argento’s first foray into the supernatural, blending classic ghost story themes with eye piercing gore. Thanks to a driving score from Euro prog-rockers Goblin and a visionary color and shadow palette, “Suspiria” manages to make some of the most unassuming moments truly hair-raising. A blind man walks a dog in an empty plaza, the protagonist is awoken to a spine chilling wheezing sound, even the creepy Bavarian dance school where the film is set carries the kind of unsettling gothic feel to arise suspicion during the daylight scenes. A possible remake is in talks with indie filmmaker David Gordon Green at the helm, but nothing will ever come close to capturing the brutal suspense of Suspiria.

Jacob’s Ladder – Adrian Lyne, 1990
Jacob's Ladder
Lyne is often painted as an erotic thriller filmmaker thanks to films like Fatal Attraction andUnfaithful but his true masterpiece is this little psychological thriller. Tim Robbins (in one of his best performances) plays a Vietnam Vet who is forced to deal with some inner demons, literally, and uncover some haunting discoveries about his past. The film deals with paranoia, the use of mind altering drugs, the collapse of the human psyche and true-life conspiracy theories regarding government experiments on American GIs in Vietnam. Going more into the plot might spoil the movie, which is best viewed fresh but it should be noted that one of many horrific dream sequences set in a hellish hospital ward remains one of the most frightening sequences on celluloid.

The Fly – David Cronenberg, 1986
The Fly
To be fair Cronenberg’s gross-out remake of a mediocre, late-50s Vincent Price sci-fi vehicle is widely considered to be one of the best monster films of time. Those who view it as just that are missing Cronenberg’s true raison d’etre. The film is an allegory for themes of madness, romantic jealousy, the pitfalls of modern science, the deterioration of the human anatomy (flesh has long been one of Cronenberg’s many twisted fascinations) and even abortion and fear of childbirth (as seen through a truly horrifying larvae labor sequence). Then again it also lives up to its clichéd monster movie tagline of, “be afraid, be very afraid.” An operatic stage re-imagining of the film is in the works but there is no replacing Cronenberg’s grotesque but strangely poetic vision of modern day horror.

The Descent – Neil Marshall, 2005
The Descent
Amidst a slew of procedural teen slasher flicks, remakes of Asian ghost stories, and countless torture porn gore fests there are a handful of modern day horror films that have joined the ranks of some of the staple horror classics. “The Descent” is one of these recent examples. Tagged as the ultimate spelunking nightmare film, “The Descent” is a one of a kind terrifying experience that taps into that exhilarating emotion of fear-fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of tight spaces, fear of heights, etc. Sure the film features subterranean Gollum like monsters brutally terrorizing a group of fearless cave explorers, but the real horror comes in the films claustrophobic moments (an homage to Alien) as the characters descend deeper into the crevices of the unknown. By the time the monster element to the story arrives halfway into the film the viewer is already exhausted from the nail biting climbing sequences and that mounting sense of unavoidable doom that the protagonists are soon to face. See also Marshall’s premiere outing, Dog Soldiers, a smart little werewolf flick shot in Scottish forests.

Wait Until Dark – Terrence Young, 1966
Wait Until DarkOne might not consider the oh-so-dainty Audrey Hepburn as being a horror movie icon but witnessing her shear brilliance in Wait Until Dark changes on all common misconceptions. Adapted to film (the original text was a play) during the grand old days of simply told tales of suspense, Dark is horrifying account of trust, loneliness and overcoming a physical disadvantage during harsh times. Hepburn stars as the blind tenant of a dimly lit basement apartment who is drawn into a home invasion scheme perpetrated by a gang of drug smugglers trying to track down some lost goods. The storyline is not without its flaws but the film is all about moments of intense shock, often shot in the dark. When the film was released theater patrons around the country killed the house lights during crucial moments of terror on screen as a neat little gimmick to enhance the experience. While not as grisly as the horror of today, this is film is an essential viewing for Hitchcock enthusiasts and those who like jumping out of their seats.

Repulsion – Roman Polanski, 1965
RepulsionPolanski is generally credited for Rosemary’s Baby, an essential in the genre, respectively but two of his lesser known works, 1976s The Tenant and “Repulsion,” remain his unspoken masterpieces. Repulsion is, above all, a disturbing look at psychological trauma induced by sexual angst. The film was the first in what has now been coined Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” (“Baby” and The Tenant completed the run) due to its characters trip to madness in a confined space. “Repulsion’s” Carol (played by a very young Catherine Deneuve) is trapped inside a surreal world of paranoia, ill thoughts of her sister’s sexual habits and some external threats from male visitors. A scene involving a dark hallway with hands suddenly reaching out through the walls, boxing our protagonist in, is one of the film’s many unexpected scares.

Session 9 – Brad Anderson, 2001
Session 9Director Brad Anderson may be one of the most underappreciated thriller filmmakers working today. His most recent film, Transsiberian, is a sly “fear of travel” picture set largely on a confined Soviet train en route from China to Moscow and 2004s The Machinist (featuring one ofChristian Bale’s finest performances to date) was the type of twisty psychological thriller that someone like M. Night Shyamalan wishes he was still making. Session 9 remains one of the best modern ghost stories that actually avoids the supernatural. Set inside an extremely creepy and perfectly chosen mental hospital this film is dripping with atmospheric frights. The camera follows a group of asbestos removers as they roam the abandoned wards and discover secrets from the hospital’s twisted past, while also uncovering their own personal mysteries. Anderson is all about building a feasible story (in this case one part Poltergeist one part Blair Witch) and then destroying all preconceptions towards the climax. The scenes filmed at night (in that nauseating handheld camerawork style) are certain to draw unease no matter how well seasoned you are at scary movies.

The Begotten – E. Elias Merhige, 1991
The BegottenArguably the most obscure films on this list, “The Begotten” is a visually horrifying but fascinating piece of the avant-garde that is, dare I say, biblical horror. God, Mother Earth, mortal man, and evil humanoids make up the dialogue-free story, which plays out as a twisted end of days scenario with the self-induced death of God opening the film. If you thought the deadly videotape featured in The Ring was creepy, “The Begotten” may or may not be for you. From a filmmaking standpoint E. Elias Merhige’s film is one of those cinematic achievements that is both dazzling and disturbing. To this day there is nothing that even remotely matches the film’s lasting effects. Shot in grainy black and white and then painstakingly altered and deconstructed during editing (Merhige has said that each minute of the film took ten hours of alteration to create the signature, almost primitive look), “The Begotten” is a mystery of a film with unforgettable nightmarish imagery. Merhige would eventually follow his masterpiece up with the interesting but overly preachy Shadow of a Vampire and the disappointing psychological serial killer vehicle Suspect Zero.Marilyn Manson enthusiasts will see much of “The Begotten” in the equally creepy music video for the song “Cryptorchid,” which Merhige helmed.

Them – David Moreau, 2006
While the international horror scene is currently favoring all films coming out of the “Extreme Asian” movement of Japan, Hong Kong and S. Korea (a subgenre which has grown rather tired thanks to recycled themes and Americanized remakes), some of the truly best thrillers are being made by the French. Them (or Ils in its native tongue) is the ultimate home invasion thriller. Set deep in the woods of Romania (always an effective setting for horror) the film involves a French couple being plagued by a group of hooded evildoers who raid the large farm house and make lots of goose bump inducing noises along the way. The focus on silence interrupted by man made sounds (party noisemakers never sounded freakier) is part of this film’s charm not to mention the director’s knack for crafting quick, jump out of the shadow scares. Clocking in at a surprisingly appropriate 77-minutes, this film benefits from edge of your seat tension that erupts in the film’s opening and carries through to the end.


Advertisements

Best of Lists: The Best Of


When it comes to best of lists you either love them or loathe them. Whatever your opinion may be these carefully or hastily compiled lists always seem draw readers dying for a quick fix of opinion based rankings.

Entertainment Weekly Magazine recently released its “New Classics” list for the publication’s 1000th issue. The extensive feature compiled the top 100 supposed new classics from the past 25 years covering damn near every medium–film, music, books, video games, stage, and even technological advancements. While there were a number of WTF entries in each category and countless “I can’t believe you left that out” moments, the lists were entertaining.
Best of lists are inevitable in the world of pop culture criticism. The media realizes that it’s easier for the masses to skim through a list of what certain highly opinionated folk deem the best of the rest than actually dive into something more substantial. Whether it’s Rolling Stone’s recent “Top 100 Greatest Guitar Songs,” Spin magazine’s upcoming “Top 25 Greatest Live Bands,” or the countless end of the year critics picks, there is an over abundance of best of lists for media hounds to soak up.
While an entire column could be devoted to merely debating Entertainment Weekly’s recent feature (its poorly thought out series of lists is most certainly begging for discussion) I thought it might be interesting to list a handful of truly thought out and highly comprehensive lists that are available for music, film and literature. Consider this the Best of “The Best of lists.”
Rolling Stone Top 500: Sure Rolling Stone puts out a lot of pointless, space filler lists (the formerly mentioned Greatest Guitar Songs being one of them), the magazine’s Greatest 500 Albums of All Time may be the most well put together list for rock geeks out there. Sure the Beatles take up four of the top ten slots (and rightfully so in the grand scheme of things), the list focuses primarily on America and British artists, the top ten entries all come from the 60s and 70s, and certain classics end up lower on the totem pole than one might expect (Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation at #329, twelve slots below No Doubt’s Rock Steady), but reservations aside, this list pretty much nails it. Reading through each album’s descriptions and arguments for their importance, one can’t deny that a lot of time and painstaking debate went into compiling this list.
Moment of Brilliance: Listing Stevie Wonder’s terribly underappreciated 70s masterpiece Innervisions (#23), propelled by the epic centerpiece “Living for the City,” above more obvious choices like Talking Book (#90) or the mass hit Songs in the Key of Life(#56) shows that substance always prosper over hype and sales.

ImageTime All-Time 100: The most striking aspect of Time Magazine’s take on the greatest albums, films and novels of all time was the decision not to rank the entries by greatness. By taking away the urge to argue for the placement of certain titles over others, the critics were able to focus on why these selections are the most important. For films, Time’s two main critics Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel, compile a global list that includes obvious choices like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, or Fellini’s 8 ½, with more curious but respectable picks like Terry Gilliam’s surreal sci-fi classic Brazil, Kurosawa’s highly influential samurai classic Yojimbo, or David Cronenberg’s gross out, mind bending horror film The Fly.
Like the film list Time’s All Time 100 novels encompasses the best of a world of literature placing as much emphasis on modern American authors such as Philip Roth or Don DeLillo with the likes of international greats such as Nabokov or Chinua Achebe. They also pick the best of certain underappreciated genres such as science fiction (Philip K. Dick’s Ubik), fantasy (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien) and even a bit of horror (James Dickey’s frightening Appalachian woods novel Deliverance).
For music Time’s critics again tried to highlight the album’s impact on music in terms of its importance. Understanding that an artist like Little Richard influenced everyone from Paul McCartney to Axl Rose or playing up the importance of the Prince’s genre bending double LP Sign of the Times (they believe it is the best album of the 80s) shows a focus on how the album’s hold up now, the criteria for true greatness. Skimming through the list (organized by decade) and noticing the absence a single Pink Floyd record (a band that many feel is overrated) is evidence that the crew at Time spent many grueling late nights and drank lots of bad office coffee while debating the history of popular music.
Moments of Brilliance: Film critics choose the Coen Brother’s often forgotten noir masterpiece Miller’s Crossing over Fargo, book worms play up the importance of Alan Moore’s staple graphic novel Watchmen as well as Zora Neale Hurston’s beautiful Their Eyes Were Watching God, music critics highlight two of alternative’s best female leads by including Hole’s Live Through This and PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert: When it comes to film criticism Chicago has given the world some of the greats. Rosenbaum, the long time critic for the Chicago Reader street publication and Ebert, head critic for the Chicago Sun Times, are both living encyclopedias of a world of film that stretches well beyond Hollywood. Both continue to recognize the current greats while also going back to shed light on the forgotten gems of yesteryears. Ebert’s ongoing Great Movies series is the place to look for the film masterpieces of past and present. Ebert revisits his picks for the Greats often highlighting their importance in present day and why some classics only get better with age. While he covers the obvious greats in his bi-weekly or monthly entries to the lists he also plays up lesser-known titles that are often overlooked upon its release and forgotten with time. Take his admiration for Nicolas Cage’s daring and haunting performance in the great but devastating Leaving Las Vegas or his argument for Sam Peckinpah’s brutal Western Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a film reviled upon its release but important in the long road, paving the road for films like Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
Rosenbaum goes even further down the obscure rabbit hole of global cinema. His end of the year best of lists go completely against the grain of his fellow, more predictable film critics shedding light on films that the majority of moviegoers never saw. At his website, www.jonathanrosenbaum.com, this one of a kind critic provides readers with a different take on the best films of each year as well as an alternative to the American Film Institutes top 100 films of all time. While the AFI played up obvious choices likeCitizen Kane or Casablanca, Rosenbaum argues for more obscure fare like Jim Jarmusch’s surreal Western Dead Man (a film which Rosenbaum also wrote a book on) or Kubrick’s early heist film The Killing. Of his list of the best films of the 90s only three–Dead ManEyes Wide Shut, and When It Rains–were American, while the other hailed from Taiwan, Iran, Hungary, Belgium and Portugal.
Moments of Brilliance: Ebert’s in-depth essay on Spike Lee’s still polarizing film Do The Right Thing discusses, among other things, how certain movie going experiences–that is sitting in theater alive with other viewers–can truly penetrate your soul. While it’s clear Rosenbaum has a bit of a soft spot for indie-darling Jim Jarmusch, there is no denying the importance of this unique auteur whose films continue to puzzle viewers.

National Public Radio’s 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century:Leave it to NPR to create the snobbiest best of list for music. Rather than focus solely on recorded albums (as almost every other list does) NPR 100 goes beyond to cover all composed pieces of music. From rock to reggae, classical to country, songs to albums, NPR tries to encompass it all and does a damn good job. For serious listeners out there this is one of the best reference lists out there for important pieces of music. Similar to Time’s All-Time 100, NPR does not rank the pieces but rather focuses on their importance in the tide of time. From Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” to Paul Simon’s multi-cultural record Graceland, NPR’s critics intermix their own opinions of the recordings with interviews with experts and the artists that helped shape American music.
Moment of Brilliance: Rather than talk more about Talking Heads’ records or its unforgettable concert film Stop Making Sense, NPR focused on David Byrne and gang’s composition, “Once in a Lifetime” as being one of the first popular jam tunes. The Heads were able to compose an entire song built around Tina Weymouth’s simple but tight bass line and worldly percussion rhythms.

Amazon.com’s Listmania Feature: While the latter lists and list makers are all from well-seasoned critics and know-it-alls, sometimes you just want to know what the average Joe likes. Amazon became much more than a bookstore years ago and while it tries to everything–some better than others–one of the sites most ingenious features was the creation of Listmania. Want to know which are the best James Bond flicks? Interested in diving into the music of Neil Young but don’t know how to navigate through a discography of over 30 albums, check out the many Young fans who post their rankings on Amazon. Sure some lists will interest you more than others, the feature gives fans a chance to be the critic.
Moment of Brilliance: Want to dive into the world of avant-garde, experimental films? Check out one user from Japan’s list of“Totally Trippy Films For Your Multi Colored Nights.” Other random and fascinating lists are waiting for those curious.

This is Not ‘Nam. This is Bowling. There are Rules


Not too long ago some friends and I sat down for a nice little dose of The Coen Brother’s immaculate ode to all things leisurely. It’s been ten years since the The Big Lebowski hit the theaters and even a decade later the film remains one of the finest cult classics ever. Repeated viewings never cease to shed Lebowski’s one of a kind sense of humor. The script and long list of memorable quotes still feel as fresh today as they did back in the 90s and above all the film is one of those rare cinematic treats that can truly be savored properly amongst a group of equally adoring fans. As I sat back and soaked in the film’s one-of-a-kind narrative and bizarre group of characters I began realizing that we really haven’t been treated to a really classic cult film in quite some time.

I suppose in order to ponder over recent films destined for cult status it’s important to define what it is that makes a movie a cult classic?

For some it’s defined by niche genres. Everything from horror, exploitation, dubbed martial arts flicks, anything from teen film maestro John Hughes to films that embody that “so awful it’s good” mentality. For others cult status is determined by simple economics. How a film is received in theaters (generally sub-par) versus home consumption (record breaking sales)? What kind of budget was used? Finally cult films are the ones that garner a loyal following, for example hordes attending midnight screenings or entire festivals dedicated to a classic’s onscreen world. And most importantly these are the classics that can be revisited time after time and always seem to improve with age.

The Big Lebowski was the Coen’s follow up to the duo’s acclaimed baby Fargo, the Minnesota set dark comedy that helped launch the indie darlings to their Oscar winning status they have today. Upon its release Lebowski was a flop, both critically and financially. I distinctly remember seeing the film in a fairly empty theater and beforehand being disappointed by the film’s fair share of mediocre reviews. Still in typical cult film fashion when Lebowski hit the video racks it slowly became an underground phenomenon. 

Today the film is still screened around the country on college campuses and late night art house theater showings. DVD sales continue to be strong (the film is one of Amazon.com’s best sellers) and the film even has its own national festival,Lebowski Fest, which holds its seventh annual gala this July in Louisville, KY and also tours other major cities. When was the last time you saw a film that had this much potential for cult grandeur?

ImageIn all my pondering of this question the only recent cult classic I could come up with was 2001s Donnie Darko, a film which, personally I think is overrated but nevertheless has established an impressive underground following. LikeLebowski the film was a dud in the box office and baffled most critics but is now a staple at most midnight screenings. 
In fact this may be the only true cult film this side of the new millennium. 

Sure 2004s Napoleon Dynamite was quickly labeled cult upon its release, mainly because the film seemed like one giant homage to all things that have made films cult classics in the past, particularly 80s pop culture. Ultimately though the film more comfortably joined the ranks of low-budget indie success stories like The Blair Witch Project or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I mean honestly when was the last time anyone mentioned these films. 

The biggest problem today is too many films make attempts at establishing themselves as cult classics before the film is even released. Case in point 2006s overly hyped serpents riding the friendly skies action flick, Snakes on a Plane. Here’s a film that really did have potential to be one of those so-bad-it’s-good action films but once all the internet rumors started flying regarding Samuel L. Jackson’s involvement and admiration for the script’s title the film went from a potentially low-budget, straight to video action film to a “cult film” pet project for a major studio. More money was allotted to the budget, extra more “risqué” scenes were added, and Sam Jackson was even spoon fed a “soon to be memorable catch phrase.” Still two years later, does anyone really give a damn about those “motherfucking snakes on the motherfucking plane?” 

The Snakes experiment ultimately showed that you couldn’t force the process of a film gaining cult status. It’s the same way these big Hollywood remakes of once cherished cult horror classics–a Paris Hilton take on the classic Vincent Price filmHouse of Wax or the upcoming Michael Bay and Co. helmed remake of Friday the 13th–will never truly capture the mass appeal that the originals still hold. There is even an upcoming remake of Death Race 2000, that 1970s era lethal muscle car cult favorite, by the guy who made Mortal Kombat into a movie. 

Even certain directors deemed cult film Gods–Tarantino, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Richard Linklater, and John Waters–couldn’t seem to reclaim their early cult status with newest endeavors. Some have moved into the mainstream eye (The Coens, David Cronenberg), some have been completely forgotten about (Mike Judge’s last film Idiocracy was actually pretty funny but failed to make any kind of splash). Even a television show like Lost, which often garners comparisons to Lynch’s 90s cult classic turned mass phenomenon, Twin Peaks, is just too soap operatic and mainstream to truly be considered cult, despite its loyal following and hundreds, if not thousands of internet message boards dissecting every moment. 

There is something cool about a film or show or musician that can create such niche but loyal fan base and can stand the test of time. Perhaps Hollywood needs to let another Lebowski or Spinal Tap just come out on its own. Until then I’ll always have the dude, or his Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. 

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.