David Cronenberg is the undisputed master of body horror. No director pulls off gory body transformations and dismemberment like he can. Over his five-decade career, Cronenberg has delivered several classic horrors and sci-fi movies that still pack a punch today. But he’s also adept at handling more realistic stories like Cosmopolis and A History of Violence. This is because, fundamentally, Cronenberg is more interested in his characters and their psychology than he is in schlock (although he’s not afraid to dive in deliberately).
Where lesser filmmakers might be content with showing a character in a terrible situation, Cronenberg wants his audience to feel what that character is going through. He’s a master at transporting the viewer inside his protagonist’s head. All of his best projects display this, from The Fly to Eastern Promises.
‘The Brood’ (1979) — IMDb: 6.8/10
Frank (Art Hindle) grows suspicious when he discovers bruises on his daughter Candace (Cindy Hinds) following one of her visits with her mother, Frank’s ex-wife Nola (Samantha Egger). Nola is being sequestered inside a psychiatric institution known for its unorthodox methods. Frank investigates further as a series of gruesome murders unfold.
The Brood is a brutal horror film reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg‘s Don’t Look Now. Cronenberg wrotethe script in the aftermath of his divorce. The film incorporates some autobiographical elements, like a divorced couple navigating their damaged relationship as they co-parent their child. It has since been praised for exploring themes like mental illness and parenthood.
‘eXistenz’ (1999) — IMdb: 6.8/10
eXistenz is like Cronenberg’s version of The Matrix, which came out the same year. It centers on Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a videogame developer who suspects there is a glitch in her latest project, and Ted (Jude Law), a trainee at her company who is dragged into the mess.
Allegra and Ted enter a virtual reality game that plugs directly into their spines, but the dangers inside the game become all too real. The boundaries between the real world and the simulation break down. eXistenz boasts excellent practical effects and impressive performances from the stars, especially Leigh, who excels at these kinds of anti-heroine roles.
‘Spider’ (2002) — IMDb: 6.8/10
Spider follows two stories: in the present day, schizophrenic Dennis (Ralph Fiennes) is released from a mental institution and moves into a halfway house; in 1950s London, young Dennis suspects that his father (Gabriel Byrne) has murdered his mother and started a new relationship with prostitute Yvonne (Miranda Richardson).
Spider features surprisingly little gore and violence for a Cronenberg movie. Instead, the focus is on Dennis’s fragmented mind and his desperate attempts to order his memories into some truth. It’s a skillful blend of psychological thriller and realistic drama, which works thanks to a layered, subtle performance from Fiennes.
‘Naked Lunch’ (1991) — IMDb: 6.9/10
One of Cronenberg’s more bizarre movies, Naked Lunch revolves around an exterminator (Peter Weller) who becomes addicted to the chemical he uses to kill pests. He then accidentally kills his wife (Judy Davis) in a failed William Tell stunt and is swept up by a plot involving devious giant insects.
Naked Lunch is probably Cronenberg’s worst-performing film at the box office. It grossed just $2.6m against a budget of at least $16m. It’s understandable: this grim, surreal tale isn’t for everyone, but the initiated will find a lot to appreciate.
‘The Dead Zone’ (1983) – IMDb: 7.2/10
Schoolteacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is just a regular guy—until a coma leaves him with psychic powers. He has visions of possible futures, including one where local politician George Stillson (Martin Sheen) becomes president and leads the country into a nuclear World War III. Against his nature, Johnny sets out to kill Stillson to prevent this future from coming to pass.
Cronenberg nails the tone of the Stephen King novel and draws realistic performances from the cast. Walken, in particular, is brilliant as the leading man. The Dead Zone has aged well and remains a believable blend of thriller and sci-fi. It touches on intriguing questions about whether taking the law into one’s own hands is ever justified.
‘Videodrome’ (1983) — IMDb: 7.2/10
Max Renn (James Woods) runs a small TV station and is struggling to get by. He thinks he’s struck gold when he comes across a mysterious TV signal broadcasting snuff films. But things quickly escalate: the signal induces terrible hallucinations in viewers, and those questioning Videodrome wind up dead. Max soon finds himself trapped in a conspiracy involving mind control and murder.
Videodrome was a box office flop but has since become a cult favorite and one of Cronenberg’s most iconic films. It’s like the greatest hits of the director’s hallmarks: femmes fatales, gruesome body transformations, and themes around people’s fascination with on-screen sex and violence. “Long live the new flesh!”
‘Dead Ringers’ (1988) – 7.2/10
Dead Ringers ranks among Cronenberg’s darkest, strangest movies. Jeremy Irons plays a pair of twin gynecologists who exploit the fact that no one can tell them apart. They routinely pretend to be the other, especially around their patients. But their relationship is destabilized when one twin, Beverly, falls in love with their patient Claire (Geneviève Bujold).
What follows is a truly twisted saga of drug abuse and paranoia not for the faint of heart. Making it more unsettling is the fact that Cronenberg drew on a real story of twin doctors who died under strange circumstances. The film won’t be to everyone’s taste, but Irons deserves kudos for his intense performance.
‘A History of Violence (2005) – IMDb: 7.4/10
A History of Violence is one of Cronenberg’s more realistic and restrained movies. Here, he ditches sci-fi and horror for a small-town drama mixed with a thriller. Viggo Mortensen stars as Tom Stall, a family man who runs a diner, where one day, he kills a pair of criminals. This act turns Stall into a local hero but has unintended consequences. Soon, secrets from Stall’s past return to haunt him.
Mortensen is excellent in the lead role, as is Maria Bello as his wife, Edie. Ed Harris and William Hurt also put in solid supporting performances. The result is a compelling character study, with plenty to say about violence, identity, and redemption.
‘The Fly’ (1986) — IMDb: 7.6/10
The Fly is easily Cronenberg’s most entertaining film. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious and charismatic as Seth, a scientist working on a teleportation device that goes very, very wrong. A fly finds its way into the module, causing its DNA to fuse with Seth’s. Slowly, he transforms into a hideous insect.
The movie boasts gore galore (the scene in which a baboon is turned inside out is a case in point) and a lot of sci-fi wackiness, but at its core, it’s about one man’s reaction to his terrifying new circumstances. It’s like a pulpy version of Kafka‘s Metamorphosis, in the best way.
‘Eastern Promises’ (2007) – IMDb: 7.6/10
Cronenberg’s best movie is this gangster film about the Russian mob in London. Naomi Watts plays Anna, a midwife who delivers the baby of a teenage Russian prostitute who dies in childbirth. Anna seeks to find out what happened to the mother and bring her rapist—the baby’s father—to justice. Along the way, she crosses paths with the mobster Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).
Eastern Promises is a detailed look at the Russian criminal underworld, including their mannerisms, code of honor, and the meanings of their tattoos. Mortensen gives one of the best performances of his career as a complex figure navigating this brutal environment (not to mention, he nails the Russian accent). One of the film’s climactic scenes, where a naked Mortensen fights off attackers in a bathhouse, is among the most compelling moments of on-screen violence of the last two decades.
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