Director Profile: David Cronenberg

We take a look at David Cronenberg's career in this director profile.

Date of Birth: 15/03/43
From: Toronto, Canada
Best Known For: The Fly, Videodrome
Regular Collaborators: Viggo Mortensen

A true auteur with an expert ability to thrill, David Cronenberg’s filmography is marked by its astounding consistency and artistic prolificacy. Intelligent, dark, complex and provocative; his films are guaranteed to quicken pulses and dilate brain cells. Cosmopolis
is his 2012 release, adapted from Don DeLillo’s brilliant novel.

Once dubbed the ‘King of Venereal Horror’ the Canadian’s trajectory toward the cerebral completed its course with the absorbing period thriller A Dangerous Method (2011). A film about the birth of psychoanalysis, it could not be more thematically different than the ‘body horror’ sub-genre that characterised his early work. Tracing his career there is an evident progression, yet the staple tone that distinguishes his films remain constant throughout; with an acute but twisted viewpoint he explores elements of the human condition with enthralling results.

Born on March 15th in 1943, Cronenberg was raised in Toronto, the son of a musician and a writer. At an early age he became fascinated by science and studied the subject at the University of Toronto before switching to an English Language and Literature degree. Enthused by both science and storytelling these passions would be combined by his interest in film. Unsurprisingly, he excelled at academia. There are only a few film-makers who make films of such intellectual ambition than Cronenberg. If he had never picked up a camera you would imagine he would be a crazed scientist locked in a laboratory or an Edgar Allen Poe figure scrawling metaphysical mysteries.

After graduating in 1967 he had already found inspiration from the New York underground film scene and had begun making short films. Afforded the opportunity to shoot by the practical conventions of an art-house style he soon generated notoriety among his Toronto contemporaries. With his first feature – the black and white, micro-budget Stereo from 1969 – he was already dealing with science-fiction quandaries with the motif of telepathy, which he would revisit in Scanners (1981).

Gruesome metamorphosis and parasitic disease, Cronenberg’s early work played on our human fear of physical degeneration – high-concept films that boil dread from under your skin. Ostensibly B-movies Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979) would appear to fall somewhere between George A. Romero zombie flicks and Dario Argento slashers in a catalogue of horror movies as Cronenberg envisaged weird worlds of venereal dystopia. Nurturing fine performances from infamous porno actress Marilyn Chambers in Rabid and the legendary Oliver Reed in The Brood these films offer grubby entertainment. As a car enthusiastic he also made the automobile drama Fast Company (1979) – one of the strange anomalies in Cronenberg’s filmography.

A precocious director in his prime, Cronenberg’s five films of the 1980’s are prized gems. Maturing as an auteur, he weaved dark satire and confrontational drama among customary scenes of body horror. The fantastical Videodrome (1983) is a self-aware, techno-thriller and is gloriously compelling. Commentating on the dehumanising effect of unhealthy consumption of visual media, the film is surreal and unnerving – prying in to the ‘video nasty’ sub-genre with a discerning, yet slightly ironic, eye. In the same year he adapted the Stephen King novel The Dead Zone (1983) which starred Christopher Walken alongside a supporting Martin Sheen. Now firmly on the precipice of Hollywood, Cronenberg was even offered the chance to direct Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983).

‘Be afraid, be very afraid’ – Of all Cronenberg’s films The Fly (1986) has arguably had the greatest impact on popular culture. Widely considered one of the best horror films ever made, it can be enjoyed as a diverting suspense story or as an essay on the horror of malignant disease. It’s also a convincing romance. His gynaecological thriller Dead Ringers (1988) is among his most ambitious with the thematic progression from the flesh to the psychological becoming more apparent. A parable about the modern divided self, Jeremy Irons gives a career best performance playing twins in a film that recalls Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) but with steely, surgical instruments and sexualised subtexts.

Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1996) are Cronenberg’s two misunderstood near-masterpieces. Both novels largely thought to be unfilmable, they polarised audiences and critics upon release. His meditation of William S. Burrough’s seminal novel of the beat generation is a mosaic, nearly incomprehensible, portrait of the author and his battle with heroin addiction. Crash (1996), inspired by J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name, is Cronenberg’s most overtly controversial film with its daring premise of car-crash sexual fetishism

eXistenZ (1999) and particularly Spider (2002) are by no means dull, but of Cronenberg’s later period A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) stand out as contemporary classics. Cronenberg’s philosophical evolution has seen him move from fleshy horror to psychodrama and his two crime offerings are magnificently watchable. The first film he collaborated with lead actor Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence, is a neo-noir tour-de-force. Adapted from a graphic novel, it combines Peckinpah-like violence with archetypal Cronenbergian mystery. Staged in London, Eastern Promises is an equally absorbing gangster film with ethical nuances to contemplate. The new wave of Cronenberg films are just as exciting as the old.

While A Dangerous Method may not be Cronenberg’s most dazzling cinematic work it marks an important step in his career. What makes him one of the most valuable contemporary directors is his constant progression as an auteur, and as his journey from body horror to the psychological is finalised audiences wait with baited breath for his next move.

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