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Retrospective: The Films Of David Cronenberg

by The Playlist Staff
November 22, 2011 11:50 AM
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"Rabid" (1977)
This early, low-budget, but quite effective fourth film from Cronenberg is notable for several reasons, mainly as a blueprint, of sorts, for better films he’d go on to make in the near future (it could be said to feature the balance of the micro/macro apocalypse of “Scanners,” leading to the weird sexual politics of “Videodrome” and then to the genre and makeup/gore of “The Fly”). His take on the vampire and zombie genres (a year before Romero would return to zombies with “Dawn of the Dead”) is unique, and pure, bizarre Cronenberg: a woman (Marilyn Chambers, serviceable in the role) receives life-saving/altering skin grafts at a pseudo-idyllic plastic surgery clinic, which also creates a phallic stinger under her armpit (why not, right?) that lives off blood and turns her victims in to rabid zombies whose bites spread the disease. It’s the second film of Cronenberg's produced by a pre-“Animal HouseIvan Reitman, who, legend has it, had the idea to cast porn star Chambers after the studio shot down Cronenberg’s first choice for the role, Sissy Spacek. While by no means a great film, “Rabid” is still pretty damn good. Its subversive, satirical take on plastic surgery and its effects on a lazy, quick-fix society, is pointed and ahead of its time (it’s pretty amazing how common this is in the Canadian director’s oeuvre, especially his ‘70s and ‘80s period) and the ending is a satisfying, tragic and totally earned downer. [B]

"Fast Company" (1979)
While "Fast Company" remains--as a brightly colored action-drama about professional drag racers--an anomaly in the Cronenberg canon, it's still a key text for any devotee of the auteur. For one thing, it united Cronenberg with a number of people who would go on to become frequent creative collaborators (most notably cinematographer Mark Irwin and production designer Carol Spier), and for another, because it's the first exploration of Cronenberg's personal love for automobiles and car culture. You can feel the director's fascination with the material in his almost documentary-like approach to capturing these vehicles on the screen--the crackle of the engine and the tremble of the cockpit; it borders on obsessive. Cronenberg, who, on the commentary track, describes the film loosely as a "tone piece," plays up its archetypal western imagery despite its Canadian setting. "Fast Company" is an essential oddity for fans, fun and breezy and filled with B-movie actors (including John Saxon) and one Playboy Playmate of the Year (Claudia Jennings, who died tragically in a car accident a few months after filming the movie); its charming banality makes it all the more bizarre. [B+]

"The Brood" (1979)
Cronenberg has never been as personal (or as brutal) as he is in the squishy-squirmy allegory "The Brood," which he made during a prolonged and painful child custody battle following his divorce from his first wife. The movie concerns an experimental psychotherapy technique that Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed, mercifully light on the ham) is pioneering. His primary client is Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) who is going through a divorce from her husband Frank (Art Hindle) and struggling for custody of their young daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds). When Candice shows up with bruises, Frank suspects Nola and Raglan of something untoward. But what's more untoward is the band of dwarfish creatures that skitters onto the screen and quickly dispenses with Candice's grandmother (among others). These creatures, less than knee-high and absolutely vicious, are some of the most terrifying and often-overlooked creatures Cronenberg has ever dreamed (nightmared?) up, a batch of demons literally born from rage. Like all of the director's most uncanny creations, they work both metaphorically and viscerally – there's an emotional gut-punch that accompanies the sheer terror. The finale, which features (spoiler – and vomit – alert) Eggar birthing one of the creatures, tearing open its embryonic sack, and licking the little creature clean, is an operatic high in the outré Cronenberg oeuvre. [A-] 

"Scanners" (1981)
Even in more of a blockbuster mode, Cronenberg remains distinctly Cronenbergian. “Scanners,” a genuine full-throttle b-thriller, deals with an underground society of telepaths developing the ability to alter the world through the mutation of their own minds. While there are plenty of pyrotechnics saved for the special effects sequences (including a head-exploding scene that has, in some ways, outlived the movie), Cronenberg seems less frightened and more fascinated by this twisted take on the potential next phase of evolution. Being the earlier iteration of Cronenberg, he also can't resist the lure of a good prosthetic, leading to a number of visual freakouts. "Scanners" never focuses its curiosity into a coherent idea about evolution, making the picture more of a tantalizing what-if for ideas that would skew in a more academic direction with Cronenberg's next film ("Videodrome"), but as far as cheap schlock thrills go, it was matched by very few in the early '80s, mostly thanks to a career-defining performance by Michael Ironside as the villainous Darryl Revok. It's an often intense experience, but the film's lasting impact stems from the superficial absurdities of the project more than from any particular directorial thesis. [B-]

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  • Bill Reynolds | March 16, 2014 1:20 AMReply

    Apparently, whoever wrote about eXistenZ is unfamiliar with Philip K. Dick since Perky Pat's is a direct reference to both a PKD short story and elements of a subsequent novel.

  • Viggo Davids | June 20, 2013 1:50 PMReply

    Seriously?....did u find issue with the ending of 'A History of Violence' disappointing?....It was full of fireworks!....2nd best from cronenberg after Dead Ringers

  • Carry | March 15, 2013 7:27 PMReply


  • Fred | November 22, 2011 9:58 PMReply

    Thanks for a great, spot-on retrospective and one that happily doesn't undervalue his wonderful earlier features.

  • Erik McClanahan | November 22, 2011 9:51 PMReply

    Echo chamber for the ending to History. So great. Chris, I'm with you on Spider, but no love for Eastern Promises? I wasn't crazy about it the first viewing, but the second one proved more satisfying for me, especially since I knew where the plot was going, I could focus on and appreciate everything else that works so well in the film. Its ending is also really strong. And re watching Videodrome recently, I'd say it's one of my favorites now, easily nestled in my top 10 of all time.

  • Christopher Bell | November 22, 2011 6:00 PMReply

    I too loved the ending of "History"... not a fan of "Eastern" or "Spider," though.

  • Christopher Bell | November 22, 2011 6:00 PMReply

    I too loved the ending of "History"... not a fan of "Eastern" or "Spider," though.

  • Justin | November 22, 2011 1:35 PMReply

    Continuing the love for the coda of A History of Violence. Sure, the article credits the "so much going on beneath a frozen surface" but the greatness is in the ambiguity of that look between Mortgensen and Bello concerning what man Tom/Joey is anymore. Unmentioned is the fact that Eastern Promises has the exact same ending only the 'good'/'bad' reveal is reversed but maintains the same ambiguity.

  • zatopek | November 22, 2011 1:34 PMReply

    The ending of A History of Violence is perfect.

  • rotch | November 22, 2011 1:00 PMReply

    Completely with Styles on this one. Naked Lunch is a major work. And the only film of his that can be labeled a comedy... of sorts.

    As for the anticlimactic ending of A History of Violence, I find it funny that you mentioned it. I read the graphic novel before watching the film, and it has a really gory, Cronenbergian ending. So the fact that he and screenwriter Olson decided to tone it down came as a pleasant surprise. Love that coda at the dinner table.

    Also worth mentioning, his short film Camera. Hands down his most humane, touching work and one of my favorite short films of all time.

  • Styles | November 22, 2011 12:51 PMReply

    I cracked up at this line in your B- review of Naked Lunch, "Shame, then, that it never comes together into anything like coherence: the director didn't make his name with easy watches, but this is near impenetrable. "

    Uh...the tagline of the film is "Exterminate All Rational Thought." Naked Lunch is one of his best works.

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