David Cronenberg has been on movie hiatus for a while, leaving his canon in stasis. From features to shorts to student output to TV work, for a long time I had seen most of them but not quite all… but this month I closed the gaps, and now I can bring you this ranking of his filmed output. Because after all, what better way is there to pay homage to a man’s life work than to order it by personal taste?
Note: not included are:
- a handful of very early documentary shorts;
- two episodes of TV legal drama Scales of Justice;
- the episode of Canadian drama anthology Peep Show entitled “The Victim” which seems to have been lost (see #20, “The Lie Chair“, for the other episode he directed); and
- the supposed 2014 short Consumed, which in fact is just a shortened version of his 2013 short Nest with some advertising text for Cronenberg’s novel Consumed added to the end.
Most of the shorts and TV work can be found on YouTube, Daily Motion, etc., and the films are largely available to stream. Let’s go.
30. Secret Weapons (1972)
This 22-minute TV curio – described by Cronenberg as “my suppressed film” – starts off along the lines of his other, better, works from the time by showing us a vaguely Ballardian future gone mad. In a time of civil war, a pharmaceutical company has taken over the state, and is developing a drug for soldiers. In turn, the pharmaceutical company seems to have been itself taken over by… a sort of Puritan Church? Which in turn holds inquisitions that demand people pledge belief in magic?
This all sounds sort of fun, but the film sustains itself for just 10 minutes before losing its way – first pretty obviously ripping off the “Hammer Into Anvil” episode of The Prisoner, then descending into vague nonsense about the ability to kill. It becomes quite boring in its second half, which introduces Cronenberg’s beloved motorcycle gangs but doesn’t know what to do with them. In the end, talky and muddled, it just fizzles out. The only real highpoint is early Cronenberg regular Ronald Mlodzik as the Inquisitor.
29. Crimes of the Future (1970)
One of Cronenberg’s mid-length projects (at 63 minutes it’s not quite a feature, not quite a short). This tale of Big Cosmetics taking over the world in the wake of a vaguely defined gender-based disaster doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense. As with his other films from the time, Cronenberg seems mostly interested in showcasing some over-ripe concepts by having his characters discuss them obscurely while standing in front of alienating architecture. He had a strong sense of what he was trying to do (explore the human by exploring dehumanisation) and a sense of the genres that might help him (horror, sci-fi and a touch of thriller to keep things interesting). But he hasn’t yet grasped how to effectively tell a story, or at least acquiesced to the mainstream audience requirements that would be necessary to make a real impact.
Crimes of the Future nudges ham-fistedly at the idea of gender as an emergent property by having men, in the absence of women, start to become women (in behaviour, dress, and perhaps physical “mutation”). As with the later Videodrome, a concept (here “femininity”) starts in the mind but then manifests physically. This work also has a deeply unsettling ending that touches on paedophilia but then leaves everything unresolved. It’s the most interesting thing about the film, but to leave something so disturbing and provocative hanging as a Twilight-Zone style ‘stinger’ feels wildly misjudged. Pretty wild that the Canadian government would fund this, to be honest. Anyway, ending aside, it’s very boring.
28. Transfer (1966)
The earliest known Cronenberg film. A psychiatrist and his patient discuss their progress in a snow-covered field. This 7-minute student short has terrible sound and goofy acting. But it’s snappy, direct, and I quite liked the bit where a character pointed at a barn in the background and referred to it as his cathedral. Even here, Cronenberg is interested in architecture. In fact this contains the first examples of several of his motifs: arch, alienating characterisation and dialogue, abnormal psychology, humanity overwhelmed (here by the landscape), and a queer sensibility. It’s not good. But it is short, and of some interest. It also marks an interested in transference, a key concept in clinical psychoanalysis. Here the transference is so strong that the characters may even have swapped bodies. This idea will turn up again in such films as Scanners, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly and many others.
27. The Faith Healer (1987)
Following his smash hit The Fly, Cronenberg was on top of the world. So he immediately took a job for hire on one episode of the (entirely Jason-less) Friday The 13th anthology TV show. The Faith Healer is a standard Twilight Zone/EC Comics style morality tale with a dark twist. A fraudulent faith healer discovers a glove that cures ailments, but there’s a catch (there’s always a catch). The glove inflicts the ailment on the wearer, but of an order of magnitude worse – unless you can pass the affliction on to a third person, in which case it’s an order of magnitude worse again. We get the idea when the healer cures a woman’s facial lesions, then finds that under the glove (which is throbbing like a Max Renn videocassette) his hand is rotting off. In a panic, he face-palms a passing policeman, who immediately slumps to the floor, dead, skin bubbling.
You can see why Cronenberg would enjoy the opportunity to revel in false religion and in the terrifying corruption of flesh and soul. Things proceed much as you’d expect, and it’s an enjoyable enough 45 minutes – aside from the scenes involving the three dull series regulars trying to track down the artefact, as they did every week. Cronenberg clearly doesn’t care about these stiffs, and nether do we. Nonetheless, this is by far the best episode of season one. There was no season two.
26. The Nest (2013)
A 10-minute short, and a late-career return to body horror… or is it? The plot is connected, obscurely, to the plot of Cronenberg’s novel Consumed, and in fact a cut-down version of the short was later used to advertise the book online. A surgeon (or is he a psychiatrist?), filming from his point of view with a head-mounted camera, interrogates a topless patient about her breasts. She claims she needs the left one removed, because it’s not really a breast at all – it’s a nest of insects. One would assume she’s insane. But why are both characters in what appears to be a garage?
Nest is fine, but doesn’t really go anywhere, or much develop its idea. It feels a little bit like a student film from a Cronenberg admirer. But it does find the time to fit in a reference to Jewishness – the patient points at the camera, and asks if it’s like one of the boxes like “Orthodox Jews wear sometimes on their heads.” An pronounced late-career interest in Jewishness is also on display in A Dangerous Method, and at least one other recent short (see number 18)…
25. Stereo (1969)
Very much a sister film to Crimes of the Future: more architecture, institutions, queerness, paranoia, opaque psychobabble, vague dread, post-humanism, psychic trauma, physical and moral transformation, biological experimentation, hypnotic alienation and muddled indications of impending terror, all delivered in 63 minutes. This film, the earlier of the pair, doesn’t make the concessions to audience expectations. There’s no vague thriller angle, and relatively little classical shot-reverse-shot editing. The whole thing is instead framed as an educational documentary, so the voiceover should clarify things – yet Cronenberg can’t let go of his use of wilfully obscure jargon as an alienating device. He’s yet to work out a way to depict and explore alienation while still keeping audiences invested in the story. Once again we see early Cronenberg regular Ronald Mlodzik – and once again he’s the best thing in it.
The plot prefigures Scanners in that it’s (very obliquely) about psychic mutants at war. Like Scanners, Crimes of the Future, Transfer, M. Butterfly, and to a lesser extent Dead Ringers and The Brood, the plot hinges on the transfer of the self from one biological vessel to another – a very Cronenbergian preoccupation. (See also: Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor.)
24. The Italian Machine (1976)
A motley gang of gear-heads plot to steal a rare Italian motorcycle (the ‘Ducati 900 Desmo SuperSport’) from the home of an art collector who is exhibiting it as a sculpture in his front room. That moron doesn’t deserve to own a Ducati 900 Desmo SuperSport! He’s not even putting oil in it! At first glance this looks like one of Cronenberg’s rare deviations from horror and violence into the joys of bikes, cars, and racing. But look again – the plot hinges on the fact that the art collector not only has a motorcycle in his front room, he also has a sort of pet… man? If the man had an Italian name, that would make the title of this 30 minute short wonderfully double-edged… instead he’s called Ricardo, which is Iberian. So near and yet so far, Cronenberg! Still, themes of dehumanisation are here to be found, and the idea of tool-as-sculpture prefigures Dead Ringers‘ Instruments For Operating On Mutant Women.
23. From the Drain (1967)
My favourite early (e.g. pre-Shivers) Cronenberg horror; the humour is to the fore, which helps. Two men sit in a bathtub while discussing the recent biological war (see: Secret Weapons, Crimes of the Future, etc). Mismatches between their recollections keep things interesting – as if they don’t quite share the same past reality. Then something emerges from the plug-hole. Themes once again include biological experimentation, duplicitousness, mysterious and untrustworthy institutions, extreme paranoia, queerness and escalating dread. No great shakes but enough fun to sustain its 13-minute runtime, some well-judged absurdism, and a nice gag at the very end that makes you appreciate the film’s tight construction.
22. Fast Company (1979)
100% horror and thriller-free, this is a straight up drama about drag racing! It’s also the first full-length feature on the list. The plot, re-written by Cronenberg from someone else’s script, in turn based on some else’s story, is perfunctory junk – like one of the “wrestling pictures” from Barton Fink, except about the Canadian drag racing circuit of the late 70s. In the first half things are quite meandering and dull, and I found it a slog. But in the second half John Saxon’s* duplicitous promoter turns fully evil, cars get stolen and sabotaged, and there are some pretty violent deaths! You could say that when it embraces its exploitation nature, it… finally slips into gear (sorry). Worth seeing for Saxon, especially if you’ve got something else to multitask on for the first 40 mins.
*Yes, that John Saxon of Nightmare on Elm Street and Tenebrae fame.
21. Spider (2002)
A unreliable narrator movie. Usually that would be a spoiler, except it’s wildly telegraphed right from the beginning. Ralph Fiennes is the titular ‘Spider’, mumbling and clearly mentally ill, moping around London. He keeps having visions of his childhood. You can sort of see where this film is going – he’ll remember some traumatic incident or other – and eventually, after 90 minutes, it goes there.
Very well shot, and Ralph Fiennes does his best with 90 minutes of confused mumbling, but this doesn’t have enough going for it. The same ideas have been used much more effectively in a number of other films, and the narrative relies entirely on withholding information then revealing it – but you can see it being withheld, so the effect is an hour and a half of waiting around for the big reveal.
Worth watching for the London theatre-scene acting – Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Lynne Redgrave, John Neville, etc. Lensed by Peter Suschitzky, who did a lot of Cronenberg’s best work and also The Empire Strikes Back. This film has no substantial thematic links that I could find to The Fly. Boo!
20. The Lie Chair (1976)
One of two episodes Cronenberg directed of the just-one-season Canadian drama anthology Peep Show (the other is the hard-to-find “The Victim“). This wasn’t written or developed by Cronenberg, and isn’t his usual style. But you can see why a horror fan would like it: it’s very ‘Nigel Kneale-meets-EC Comics’. A young couple knock on a house’s front door in the rain. They’ve had a spot of car trouble and might like to use the phone to call for help. The old lady at the door invites them in, but suggests they will have to pretend to be the owner’s grandchildren, as she is senile and that is who she is expecting. But senility is the least of their worries as reality starts to unwind…
Cronenberg’s directing style is very by-the-numbers for this quick TV job, and he largely just gets out of the way of the material. But it’s an effectively creepy little chiller, and he makes sure to capture the ominous looks in the faces of the cast… The Lie Chair is watchable, fun – and has some interesting points of connection with the recent Charlie Kaufman film, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things.
19. A Dangerous Method (2011)
A great subject, a great cast, and a real dud of a script. Keira Knightly is off-putting at first, with her maniacal fits centred around just how far she can stick her pointy jaw out. After her first couple of scenes, once she dials it back a bit, she’s the best thing in the film. Vigo Mortensen has a lot of fun around the edges as Freud. Sadly, Michael Fassbender as Jung is required to be a bit of a damp squib. As for the plot, it subscribes to all the worst aspects of biopics – starts at the beginning, clunks through all the key moments scene by scene, gets to the end, and stops – before delivering a “how they died” sequence of paragraphs for each key player. The lighting and blocking are completely unimaginative. A Wikipedia article of a movie.
18. At The Suicide Of The Last Jew In The World In The Last Cinema In The World (2007)
Cronenberg’s section of the 2007 Cannes anthology film, To Each His Own, celebrating 60 years of The Cannes Film Festival. Just four minutes long, and very funny, in a Verheoven-esque sort of way. Compare this punchy satirical use of voiceover (two chatty news anchors waiting for a man to kill himself) with his overwrought cod-scientific voiceovers from Stereo or Secret Weapons etc. I’m glad he lightened up. Bursting with energy, anger, and humour. This is also possibly Cronenberg’s best acting performance – helped by the fact it is entirely wordless.
17. Cosmopolis (2012)
Speaking of overwrought, cod-technical jargon… there’s plenty of it to be found in Cosmopolis (aka ‘the one with Robert Pattinson in the back of a limo’). Never quite as clever at it thinks it is, this Don Delilo adaptation nonetheless serves as the purest example of a particular strain in Cronenberg’s work – the gap between the unknowable real and our model of the real, that we live in and manipulate… and how the two are at war, and the potential of our model to reign supreme – and the possibility that the actual real doesn’t even exist. A genuine philosophical point then, here explored via maths and capitalism and some kind of savant day-trader… but sadly the story is not quite as interesting as the theme. I am reminded of Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy, burbling on about bio-digital jazz.
16. M. Butterfly (1993)
The 1960s love story between French diplomat Rene (Jeremy Irons) and Beijing Opera singer Liling (John Lone), and the political repercussions of their actions. Far more interesting than I expected, but weighed down by its flaws. Orientalist one moment, interrogative of orientalism the next, and coming at transgender issues from outside that discourse, as a continuation of Cronenberg’s general interest in bodily reconception. It’s trying to be truthful and sympathetic, in its own way, but in between Rene’s repression and Liling’s “inscrutability” any exploration of trans-ness gets lost in enigmaticism. It’s extremely well shot and edited (especially compared to the dull and prosaic approach to A Dangerous Method), and Irons is great (except when he’s playing drunk – failing to take the “play a drunk man pretending to be sober” approach, and instead simply slurring smugly and waving his glass around.)
The most interesting element comes right at the very end, when it toys with the transference idea contained in Stereo and Scanners etc, but comes at it from a very different angle: to say any more would be a spoiler. The score is overbearing, as was the style at the time.
15. Crash (1996)
Adapting JG Ballard cinematically is almost impossible – and for all the furore around this film’s release, particularly in the UK, the sad truth is that Cronenberg just doesn’t quite manage it. There’s a lot to “enjoy” here in theory – that superb cast, those blank Canadian cityscapes, the empty sex – once again exploring the human by stripping parts away until nothing is left, exploring at what point humanity is annihilated – or transformed. But just because the characters may be on the point of lacking a soul doesn’t mean the film has to, and despite all the talent on display there is a certain spark that’s missing here. Perhaps it’s just not unsettling enough. Sometimes there’s a thin line between alienation and stupefaction.
14. Maps To The Stars (2014)
Worth watching mainly for the Julianne Moore performance, although with Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, and Carrie Fisher you can’t go far wrong. Another film of modern alienation that doesn’t quite land – in this case the through lines on the plot doesn’t seem clear enough, and so the punches don’t connect fully. It feels like a multi-strand film that’s been partially flattened out, and the pacing and rhythm don’t entirely catch. A stronger, clearer, genre hook was probably needed, but for all that it’s a fascinatingly nasty look at soured dreams. In that, at least, it’s a quintessential American fable.
13. Camera (2000)
Hands down my favourite Cronenberg short. Like his Cannes film in 2007, and Maps to the Stars in 2014 (and perhaps similar to Videodrome too) it’s a look at the nature of cinema – and what cinema does for us and to us. There’s a lovely sense of ominous dread in this 6 minute short, derived merely from the process of the narrator being filmed. And this might be just me, but… is there something of The Brood in that murmuring gaggle of kids? Even in 2000, Cronenberg was interested in passing over to a new generation…
12. A History of Violence (2005)
A strong, well crafted confident film – which I can never fully embrace as it’s a simple straight-ahead adaptation of a comic book which in turn directly rips off Out of the Past (1947). If you want to watch Out of the Past, well, watch that. I don’t know why you’d ever watch A History of Violence instead – Vigo Mortensen is good in it, but is he Robert Mitchum good? No. That said, there is one key strength to this movie that shouldn’t be overlooked – the terrifying aura of Ed Harris. That and the practical effects work on someone’s blown-away jaw. Now that’s body horror.
11. Naked Lunch (1991)
For an “unfilmable” novel, Cronenberg does an amazing job, blending fact and fiction, interiority and spectacle – Bill Lee (Peter Weller) is a heavily fictionalised version of William Burroughs, and the death of his wife (played here by Judy Davis) at his own hands is depicted more or less as it supposedly went down in reality. Once she is no longer present to anchor him in reality, Lee voyages further and further into the Interzone: half way between Burroughs’ own haunt of Tangiers and the dark nightmare of his own subconscious.
Naked Lunch is absolutely loaded with practical effects and junkie/queer humour. You really couldn’t make this film today, you couldn’t make it before 1991, and to be honest I’m not sure you could really make it then either… maybe it dropped through to us from a parallel reality. This sits alongside M. Butterfly as a double bill of highly problematic attempts to explore trans ness, and it also probes a similar existential misogyny as Dead Ringers. Cronenberg at the time was mulling over a species of butterfly for which the male and female are so different it took scientists forty years to realise they were the same animal. That said, this is also a movie where you can rip a lady’s face apart and find Roy Schieder grinning underneath.
10. Rabid (1977)
Perhaps the less successful, junior partner of Cronenberg’s early grindhouse one-two punch of Shivers and Rabid. The story is a set of loose ideas more or less successfully strung together, but it never quite coheres into something more that the sum of its parts. But what parts! Cronenberg was developing an accessible pulpy approach to his obsession with flesh and transformation, and this film confirms that horror was the right laboratory for his experiments. Rogue scientists accidentally create a sort of hermaphrodite sex organ in the armpit of a motorcycle accident victim, and give her a taste for blood!
So many of Cronenberg’s emerging preoccupations run into each other there in one concept – mutation, gender, motorcycles, self as slave to biology… sadly he doesn’t know what to do next except treat her as a Typhoid Mary in a zombie plague, at which point things get less interesting, but by now Cronenberg at least knows how to deliver a visual that really sticks – the final scene is wonderfully bleak, and all-too relevant in our COVID times.
9. Eastern Promises (2007)
The best non-horror Cronenberg ever made – a straight up gangster thriller in which he lingers on his interests when the material suits it (tattoos as a form of bodily manifestation of a transformed self?) but uses that to give the material flavour instead of overwhelming it – this is designed and played as a straight up pulp crime tale with class, and Cronenberg is enough of a master at this point to give the audience what they want with all the panache and moxie you could wish for. There’s no special effect in this movie as great as Vigo Mortensen’s sculpted, ageing body and Kermode hairdo. And the fight in the sauna – perfection.
8. Shivers (1975)
Cronenberg’s big horror breakthrough came when he embraced grindhouse, and accepted classic horror storytelling. This is a great, nasty, eccentric, distinctive, erotic, disturbing, biological little riff on bodysnatcher movies, and it’s remarkable how well it marries Cronenberg’s major themes – the body as treacherous, the self as malleable, the biological as king, and architecture as suspicious in its association with the rewriting of human nature – and uses a tightly written paranoia/horror plot to deliver those ideas but also also make that plot more interesting and idiosyncratic than it would otherwise be. As with Crimes of the Future and Rabid, Cronenberg knows that value of a great final scene. And watch out for Ronald Mlodzik, in his final Cronenberg collaboration!
7. The Dead Zone (1983)
Arguably the most mainstream horror Cronenberg ever made, on paper, and yet its bleakness is so unremitting, so all-pervasive. It’s hero’s plight is like a night that will never end, an eternal winter of the soul: no explicable reason for where it came from, no mechanism for release. No repentance can grant Christopher Walken relief in this movie. He should’ve died. He has to die. Prophecy as annihilating burden – a cosmic horror, or perhaps cosmic error. The Dead Zone, from the novella by Stephen King, is all existential dread with no sublime transcendence. That guy was happier in his coma. A Paramount release.
6. eXistenZ (1999)
The closest thing Cronenberg ever made to a sequel – in theme if not in plot – was this film, doing for games consoles what Videodrome did for cable TV. Jude Law takes plate of manky fish bones and builds a gun that fires human teeth. Reminds me in part of Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, with its weird melding of play-world and alien church. Arguably the last great Cronenberg movie.
5. The Brood (1979)
I heard story that Cronenberg claimed this was his one true horror. That’s bonkers – The Fly, Shivers, Rabid? Even if you call some of those sci-fi, there’s the same quasi-scientific gloss here, albeit stretched to breaking point. Once again, Cronenberg is enchanted by the matter of flesh, or at least of fleshy matter – undifferentiated, at least until it’s given form and purposes by the hidden darkness of the human soul. His Kramer vs Kramer, he joked – but the corruption of love is deftly explored as a corruption of the body and of the family – and of the weaponisation of children. Secret Weapons indeed. Though it may not be his only horror, it is the most out and out terrifying of his films. A movie to watch through your fingers, and not just because of the gunk.
4. Scanners (1981)
First let me say that Darryl Revok is one of the best Cronenberg names – just the right side of plausible, while still being some sort of aggressive mutation of consonants. This film was a major breakthrough at the time – Shivers may have had some buzz, but Louis Del Grande’s head was the explosion heard all around the world. Stephen Lack’s acting abilities provide just the right kind of stilted, intensely superficial intensity – in a world in which you can get into anyone’s head, and they seep into yours, it makes sense that you would be a hollowed-out shell. Just the right kind of bleak, while having more of a fun exploitation edge than, say, The Dead Zone.
The rogue medical corporations and kiddie experiments of Crimes of the Future are here rendered in more prosaic terms, while Cronenberg’s grasp of classic storytelling and editing have definitely arrived. He’s also learnt to balance what mainstream, horror, and arthouse audiences will want, and hit the trifecta – or close to it.
More interesting than, say, Rabid, More accessible than The Brood, and delivering the grind house thrills that he held back from with his earliest work. Scanners balances the transgressive and the conventional, and is the peak of early, indie Cronenberg. What a gift, and, indeed, what a gif.
3. The Fly (1986)
The top three in this list flip around quite a bit in my estimation; kind of a holy trinity. The Fly is perhaps Cronenberg’s most perfect movie. Literally everything works. Goldblum is the ultimate Cronenberg avatar. In the early scenes, displaying his identical suits and muttering about the mysteries of The Flesh it almost feels like rummaging through the director’s diary. The effects, by Chris Walas, are among the very best in Cronenberg’s career and indeed in the horror canon, period. Building on the synthesis he managed with Scanners, here Cronenberg’s perennial themes and philosophical fixations are perfectly integrated with the storytelling requirements of a mainstream Hollywood picture, and the beats and gags of a traditional horror – albeit one willing to revel in mutation, abjection and decay.
The Fly also gives us the greatest line in any of his movies; one that adds to the somatic concerns of the film a psychological edge, bringing back the ideas of Transfer, Stereo and Scanners, and foreshadowing the end of M. Butterfly – “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man, and loved it. But now the dream is over and the insect is awake.” It is a remarkable thing to lose your self.
2. Dead Ringers (1988)
Famously described by Cronenberg as a movie the posed the question “what if identical twins existed?” Famous for it’s high-catholic blood-red medical scrubs and sculpture-as-tool ‘instruments for operating on mutant women’, this is a horror movie about the failure to integrate your self – or, in Jungian terms, achieve individuation – and the harm is can cause to you and your loved ones. Indeed, Dr Mantle’s persona is so heavily bifurcated that he has both two minds and two bodies. But perhaps he only has one soul, and that soul is in pain. To join the two halves together, he reaches for the only solvent that might work – total annihilation.
1. Videodrome (1983)
“The battle for the minds of America will be fought in the video arena – the Videodrome.” If The Fly is Cronenberg’s most perfect movie, Videodrome is his purest. The ultimate expression of his early and mid-career themes: control, loss of self, mutation and decay of body and mind, dehumanisation, the threat of the collective organisation against the individual, the seduction of transformation through annihilation, viral ideas taking root int he brain and overwriting what was there before, and the power of the moving image. As soon as you watch, they’ve got you, and your reality is ‘less than television’. Long live the new flesh.