Horror master David Cronenberg is hitting a major milestone on March 15th, with his 75th birthday. The Canadian born writer, director, and actor was a major innovator of the body horror subgenre, and has long revulsed audiences with his visceral brand of psychological and bodily transformation horror. His untraditional, personal filmmaking translating on screen as some of horror’s most uncomfortable, surreal journeys sets him apart. While he’s long since departed from genre films, his work is still relevant today. With a remake of Rabid underway, and a recent announcement that rights have been acquired to adapt Scanners as a TV series, to say the auteur still has a firm hold on horror would be an understatement. To celebrate such a major milestone, we look back at Cronenberg’s major contributions to horror and what made them so great:
After two art-house features and numerous shorts, Cronenberg went into partnership with producer Ivan Reitman and unleashed Shivers upon Canadian audiences. Also known as The Parasite Murders or They Came from Within, Cronenberg’s first major feature followed a strain of parasites infecting residents of a suburban high-rise apartment building, turning them into rage-filled, sex-crazed fiends that in turn infect others with sexual contact. The violence and sexual content meant the release was met with a lot of controversy. Shot in a short 15 days, Cronenberg’s major debut may have infuriated critics, but from a horror perspective, it’s a brutal, bleak voyage through terror that marks the beginning of the director’s gross-out body horror.
A unique twist to the zombie formula in a way only Cronenberg could deliver, in which a young woman undergoes experimental plastic surgery after a severe crash, leaving her with a hunger for human blood. Her victims then turn into rabid zombies that then infect others, causing an epidemic. Cronenberg keeps to his intimate storytelling and body horror; the young woman stricken with newfound bloodthirst feeds by way of a stinger that emerges from her armpit. Cronenberg initially wanted to cast Sissy Spacek as the woman, but the studio overruled because of her accent. So, porn star Marilyn Chambers was cast instead.
Considered by Cronenberg to be one of the most classic horror films that he ever did, it’s also very autobiographical. During development, Cronenberg was fighting for custody of his daughters from his first marriage. Starring Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar, this twisty sci-fi psychological horror film follows a psychologist’s therapy on his institutionalized wife during a series of brutal murders committed by a brood of mutant children. It grossed out the critics at the time of release, particularly for the scene that featured Eggar eating her own afterbirth. A great horror classic, it also marks the score debut from Howard Shore.
A futuristic sci-fi thriller that centers around industrial conspiracy and espionage as a scientist sends a man, Revok, with extraordinary psychic powers to hunt down others like him. The head explosion scene is forever iconic, but Cronenberg has called this one the most frustrating film he’d ever made due to the forced rush job through production. Filming had to begin without a finished script, making the director write and direct simultaneously. The first of Cronenberg’s films that spawned sequels, though he wasn’t involved.
One of Cronenberg’s most beloved films by fans, it follows James Woods as a sleazy cable TV programmer whose life begins to spiral out of control once he stumbles about a broadcast signal featuring extreme torture. The concept stemmed from Cronenberg’s childhood, when he used to pick up television signals from Buffalo, New York after Canadian channels had gone off air, and his childhood worry of seeing something not meant for public eyes. The surreal imagery combined with special effects master Rick Baker’s work on the film combined to create one of the strangest, entrancing horror films way ahead of its time.
The Dead Zone
One of only three of Cronenberg’s films to not have been scored by Howard Shore, and the first major studio film directed by Cronenberg, The Dead Zone was adapted for screen by Jeffrey Boam based on Stephen King’s novel. Even as a major studio film, Cronenberg still filmed in his home province of Ontario. Christopher Walken plays the empathetic Johnny Smith, a teacher with a future ahead of him until an accident lands him in a coma. When he wakes years later, life has moved on without him, and the discovery that he know has a psychic ability becomes a blessing and a curse.
The only film directed by Cronenberg to win an Oscar (for Best Makeup), this magnum opus is one of the best horror movies of all time. A tragic love story that plays out like an opera, Seth Brundle’s transformation into a grotesque human fly while his lover, Veronica Quaife, helplessly watches on was made more compelling by Cronenberg’s revisions to Charles Pogue’s original screenplay. He kept the basic concepts the same, but injected his trademark themes of sexuality, personal identity crisis, and body horror. So much more body horror. Thank you, Cronenberg.
The last of Cronenberg’s true horror films follows twin gynecologists spiral out of control in drug addiction and codependency once a new woman enters their lives. Jeremy Irons played the dual role of twin brothers Elliot and Beverly Mantle. Checking off all the requisite Cronenberg boxes, from intimacy, sexuality, and downbeat tone, Dead Ringers is more subdued than previous efforts in that the director delves more into the psychological over shocking imagery- though there is that here too. A deep character study with masterful double performances by Irons, Dead Ringers is extremely unsettling, and often over looked.
Though classified as sci-fi, this 1999 release still bears Cronenberg’s characteristic body horror and is a great thrill ride that genre fans will love. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a game designer on the run from assassins, who must play her latest VR game with a marketing trainee to test if the game has been tampered with. A mind-bending psychological examination of how humans interact with surrounding technology, or in this case, video games, Cronenberg delivers on the weird and surreal. It may sound all techno-pulp, but the gooey body horror still applies.
Cronenberg can often be spotted in cameo roles, from the Gynecologist in a nightmare sequence in The Fly to small appearances in John Landis’ comedy Into the Night. But when he steps into a more prominent role on screen, the director proves to be a jack of all trades. Some of his more notable horror acting roles include:
It’s not the monsters that you should be afraid of in this Clive Barker film, but the cool, calculated Dr. Phillip K. Decker, a psychotherapist who moonlights as a masked serial killer. Cronenberg is chilling as the film’s antagonist, his intelligence translating on screen in making Decker a formidable, deadly foe for Midian and its inhabitants. In a film full of creatively designed creatures, Cronenberg’s Decker stands out.
Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) reteams with Christopher Lambert in this Canadian production of a grisly serial killer procedural by way of Se7en. This film’s killer is one that uses missing body parts to rebuild the body of Christ in the nick of time for Easter, and Cronenberg this time plays a priest, Father Roussell.
Before Jason Voorhees was cryogenically frozen and ended up in space, he was captured and kept in statis by the U.S. government. Cronenberg played Dr. Wimmer, a scientist researching Jason’s cellular regeneration. Of course, this is the beginning of the movie, so Dr. Wimmer and his military team don’t last long at all. Yup. Cronenberg gets slaughtered by Jason Voorhees in this over the top sequel.