Canadian-born filmmaker David Cronenberg is someone synonymous with film buffs and students worldwide. With a critically acclaimed career lasting nearly five decades, Cronenberg’s work has become both cult and popular by preying on people’s fears. Often acknowledged as one of the creators of the ‘Body Horror’ sub-genre, his films explore psychological and metaphysical horrors and phobias, usually within the confines of science fiction.
Cronenberg’s Point of View
Cronenberg’s career started with an early partnership with Ivan Reitman, who’s notably well known for his work in comedy, something rather at odds with the content in Cronenberg’s films. He produced Shivers and Rabid, the breakout successes of Cronenberg’s early filmography. Cronenberg has often worked under the radar of Hollywood, with none of his formative features having big budgets like some of his affiliates. He frequents the collaboration of the cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who has worked on every Cronenberg film since 1988’s Dead Ringers. Suschitzy is famous for being the director of photography on The Empire Strikes Back, which pushed Cronenberg to pursue a working relationship with him. Cronenberg has come close to working on big-name projects, having been considered to direct Return of the Jedi and work on Total Recall before leaving the project due to creative differences with the producers.
Cronenberg has become the most associated with films such as The Fly, or Videodrome, the former being a perfect example of Body Horror within cinema. Body Horror is usually based around the degeneration of the human body, whether it is through mutation, disease, or other equally uncomfortable manners. The natural human instinct to be repulsed by this is capitalized on within Cronenberg’s films, often using practical makeup effects to concoct bizarre imagery, such as Seth Brundle’s transformation in The Fly, which won an Academy Award for Best Makeup.
It should be noted, however, that this is just a section of Cronenberg’s filmography. While he built a reputation on Body Horror, the latter half of his career diverged away from science fiction into much more diverse projects. Since 2005, Cronenberg has explored crime drama with Eastern Promises, period drama with A Dangerous Method, as well as satire in Maps to the Stars. While these films, as well as the others during this time (A History of Violence and Cosmopolis), are changes of pace for Cronenberg, they still undeniably share the underlying theme of fear that we come to expect from him, even if it manifests itself in different manners.
Cronenberg’s filmmaking style, as mentioned previously, manipulates fear, often being represented through the exploitative imagery of gore, sex, and violence. This isn’t put trivially, nor done without reason. Social issues play an important role in the way Cronenberg constructs films, for example in Naked Lunch, where the alien creatures have appearances and behave like the subconscious thoughts of the characters. The imagery in Cronenberg’s films is often a bitter pill to swallow, being an uncomfortable watch, but gratifying. The depth of the films is what allows the films to be palatable – you’re not only grossed out by the imagery but also what it represents. The tone in Cronenberg’s films is so important – the blending of camera angles, lighting, and sound creates viewing experiences that often do not correlate with mainstream blockbusters.
Another important aspect of Cronenberg’s filmmaking is the repeated use of psychology and psychic abilities. Throughout a number of his films, psychology in various manners is present, from Videodrome’s subconscious messages within broadcasting, to The Brood’s Dr. Raglan, a psychologist who uses strange techniques. Even in his later work that has moved away from Body Horror, such as A Dangerous Method, which revolves around Sigmund Freud. Psychic abilities make multiple appearances too, from Scanners, with its infamous head explosion to The Dead Zone, where Johnny Smith wakes from a coma and finds he can see the future. Exploring the subconscious is something we come to expect from Cronenberg’s work, which links back to the use of fear that we discussed earlier.
The characters in Cronenberg’s films share similar traits. Most of them are outsiders, different from those around them. Obsession is another theme that often is seen in his films. His characters are filled with strange obsessions, from Seth Brundle’s fascination with his teleporter to James Ballard in Crash, which involves sexual desires. The abnormality is the biggest follow-through. His characters are sometimes segregated from the other people within the film’s reality, having either a physical or social difference from those around them. This ties into Cronenberg’s attempts to produce uncomfortable viewing, with his lead characters feeling at odds with those around them.
Cronenberg’s work outside of the body horror genre is some of his finest. Exploring a wide range of genre territory while keeping many themes we have become accustomed to, Cronenberg proves he is a far more diverse talent than maybe some gave him credit for. The characterization in Eastern Promises and Maps to the Stars is deep, inventive, and nuanced. He doesn’t shy away from strong or graphic imagery in these later films. Eastern Promises showcases some very graphic violence during a scene that includes a prolonged fistfight in a bathhouse. It’s clear that Cronenberg has a distinct style and interests.
David Cronenberg is an archetypal auteur. Inventive and unique, Cronenberg has mastered a style of filmmaking that appeals to somewhat of a niche audience but is lauded for it by those interested. However, he has proved to be a powerful director, with a lot to say and many ways to say it. The father of, but not defined by body horror, David Cronenberg is someone to be studied to the goriest of details.