Canada is often (and unfairly) seen as America’s milder cousin to the North, but few American filmmakers travel where David Cronenberg has gone. While Cronenberg hasn’t made an explicit horror movie since 1986’s The Fly (and even categorizing that as “horror” is pushing it), nearly all of his movies, including the recent drama/thrillers A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises, contain strong, shocking elements. Cronenberg’s later work may be more “mainstream,” but they’re just as difficult to wrap your head around as mind-blowers like Scanners, Videodrome, Naked Lunch and ExistenZ.
Long-considered the forefather of “body horror” (or “venereal horror,” as some have put it), Cronenberg started out making exploitation movies in the 1970’s following a pair well-regarded but somewhat emotionally sterile shorts (Stereo and Crimes Of The Future, both of which can be found on Blue Underground’s DVD/Blu-Ray of his decidedly non-horrific 1979 car-racing movie Fast Company). His debut feature, 1977’s They Came From Within (aka Shivers) is a terrifying look at a planned community in a Toronto high-rise that comes under attack by a maggot-like parasite that’s passed from person to person via physical — and often sexual — contact, turning them into sex-crazed maniacs. Cronenberg keeps his distance from the proceedings, forcing us to judge who’s worse— the dull young professionals who want to rent here, or the frenzied infected who are at least acting on some kind of primitive impulse. The final showdown in a swimming pool is genuinely disturbing.
Cronenberg carries on notions of our bodies reacting against us in 1977’s Rabid, produced by none other than Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman, where porn star Marilyn Chambers, following surgery as a result of a motorcycle accident, develops a weird orifice/stinger under her arm that causes her to be a vampire-like carrier of a disease that turns people crazy. The pinnacle of the Cronenbergian notion of horror made flesh is 1979’s The Brood, where concerned father Art Hindle tracks down therapist Oliver Reed, who’s been caring for Hindle’s emotionally disturbed wife Samantha Eggar. Reed’s Dr. Hal Raglan has written a book called “The Shape Of Rage,” where, through therapy he calls “psychoplasmics,” he urges patients to manifest their anger via their physical bodies; one man has developed a monstrous tumorous growth on his side as a result. Hindle tries to protect his daughter Candice from strange, white-suited children who attack those around her and discovers that his estranged wife may be the cause of this mysterious evil. Stemming from a painful custody battle over his daughter with his own ex-wife, Cronenberg has never made a movie as out-and-out frightening or as explicitly personal as The Brood, which, while dealing with serious issues (parental responsibility, the breakdown of relationships, etc.), still delivers the terror— the image of the mutant children's arms punching through a door is what nightmares are made of.
While 1981’s Scanners took its sci-fi telepathy story to (literal) mind-blowing heights and 1983’s Videodrome combines Cronenberg’s “venereal horror” with a decidedly surrealistic point of view — hand-guns become gun-hands and poor James Woods ends up with a vaginal orifice in his stomach — Cronenberg didn’t really get under our skins again until 1988’s devastating Dead Ringers. While 1983’s The Dead Zone is a masterful, restrained adaptation of Stephen King’s novel and 1986’s The Fly, while genuinely haunting and full of ick-imagery, is more a tragic drama with sci-fi overtones than a straight “horror” movie, Dead Ringers is deeply unsettling.
In telling the story of gynecologist twins Elliott and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons), Cronenberg graduates from fantasy horror to something much worse— an internal horror that addresses the darkness within oneself. The story is based loosely on that of late doctor twins Stewart and Cyril Marcus, but Cronenberg pushes the material past its sensationalistic origins to deal with a decidedly human story about characters who, ironically enough, seem deeply detached from their own humanity. It’s bad enough that the Mantle twins are gynecologists — a fact which already makes audience members of either gender queasy — but when the introverted Beverly breaks the bond he has with playboy brother Elliott by falling for an actress (Genevieve Bujod) with fertility problems, the relationship between the twins spirals badly out of control. Cronenberg directs with such a deft hand that we find ourselves caring deeply for the two decidedly dysfunctional brothers. As with Jeff Goldblum in The Fly and Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, Cronenberg wrests a career-defining performance by Jeremy Irons here, turning the Mantle twins — even at their most extreme (and there’s a horrific surgery sequence which redefines “extreme”) — into sad, vulnerable human beings. The horror element here is one more of dread and anxiety — anyone who’s ever been uncomfortable in a doctor’s office will feel their skin crawl at the sight of Beverly Mantle’s custom-made medical instruments (for "mutant women," no less) — but is no less affecting.
Cronenberg’s career has taken some detours back into the genre (1996’s Crash embraces a perverse creepiness its tale of car-accident enthusiasts), but horror fans who fear that Cromenberg has sold out should watch A History Of Violence again to reassure themselves that the Master Of Canadian Horror hasn’t turned away from embracing man’s inner darkness.