David Cronenberg: Inside the Mind of the Filmmaking Master
Why did David Cronenberg direct so many films in the horror genre? Simultaneously cold and emotional, visceral and removed, horror is a genre constantly undergoing rebirth. Horror can be psychological, playing on unseen fears, or physical, assaulting us with gore. Horror films by classic directors like Alfred Hitchcock dance elegantly between onscreen violence and suspense.
Contemporary filmmakers like Joss Whedon mash genres together, creating horror-comedy hybrids like The Cabin in the Woods. Directors like Wes Craven are admired for their perfection of the slasher flick, while films like The Exorcist and The Omen tend to top “most frightening” lists for their depiction of the satanic and the supernatural.
A film is a particular product, manufactured within a given system of economic relations, and involving labour to produce-a condition to which even ‘independent’ filmmakers are subject-assembling a certain number of workers…transforming into a commodity, possessing exchange value, which are realized by the sale of tickets and contracts, and governed by the laws of the market.
Yet no director combines psychological and physical horrors in such original ways as David Cronenberg. In each of his films, David Cronenberg plays with themes of boundary-crossing and abjection. In 1979’s The Brood, the figures of mother and child become monstrous, while in 1986’s The Fly, the healthy human body becomes a site of grotesque metamorphosis.
In 1988’s Dead Ringers, the horror object shifts from an obvious monster to a concealed one, exploring the depths of human perversion. 1996’s Crash blends body horror and sexuality in ways that are both inspired and deeply unsettling.
On The Fly:
A virus can’t exist in a vacuum-it has to have a host; it has to embed itself in something. I mean viral film making sounds like film making as a disease, art as a disease, but also as something that embeds itself in your genetic structure, your chromosomal structure, and in that strange way becomes part of you even though it’s not.
Yet while films like The Brood and The Fly remain cornerstones of Cronenberg’s career, the director has gradually moved away from fantastical fears and body horror. 2005’s A History of Violence and 2007’s Eastern Promises, both starring an arresting Viggo Mortensen, are more like crime dramas or thrillers than straightforward horror movies.
On Dead Ringers:
Elliot and Beverly are a couple, not complete in themselves. Both the characters have femaleness in them. The idea that Beverly is the wife of the couple is unacceptable to him. He cannot accept that they are, a couple. Elliot has fucked more women, has a greater facility with the superficialities if everything, with the superficialities of sex. But in terms of ever establishing emotional rapport with women, Elliot is totally unsuccessful. Beverly on the other hand is successful, but he doesn’t see this success as a positive thing. Instead he sees that as another part of his weakness.
Yet each film touches on Cronenberg’s key themes, of maternity, physicality, perversion and the monster within. Also departing from the horror genre, 2011’s A Dangerous Method blends elements of the psychological thriller, the tragic romance and the biopic.
Yet even in this historical depiction of the fraught relationship between Sigmund Freud (Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and the mentally-ill patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Cronenberg’s classic themes creep in, as sexuality and violence converge, and the respectable human being embraces monstrosity.
…the first fact of human existence is the body and the further we move away from the human body the less real things become and have to be invented by us. Maybe the body is the only fact of human existence that we can cling to. And yet it seems to be much ignored in movie making, although maybe not in art generally.
- Transfer (1966)
- From the Drain (1967)
- Stereo (1969)
- Crimes of the Future (1970)
- Shivers (1975)
- Rabid (1976)
- Fast Company (1979)
- The Brood (1979)
- Scanners (1980)
- Videodrome (1982)
- The Dead Zone (1983)
- The Fly (1986)
- Dead Ringers (1988)
- Naked Lunch (1991)
- M. Butterfly (1993)
- Crash (1996)
- eXistenZ (1999)
- Spider (2002)
- A History of Violence (2005)
- Eastern Promises (2007)
- A Dangerous Method (2011)
- Cosmopolis (2012)
- Maps to the Stars (2014)
David Cronenberg on David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg and the Cinema of the Extreme
This is a 20 minute documentary about David Cronenberg’s films, broadcast on the BBC in 1997 and never repeated. It contains contributions from Cronenberg, George A Romero and Alex Cox.
Eastern Promises: A Study of Bodies
The Making Of The Fly 
If you liked David Cronenberg: Inside the Mind of the Filmmaking Master take a listen to:
John Cassavetes – The Godfather of Independent Film
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