Ranked: David Cronenberg

For a while there it seemed like there probably wouldn’t be another David Cronenberg film. Five years became six, six became seven, seven became eight. Increasingly, Maps to the Stars was looking like a swansong. And then whispers. Rumour. And then confirmation. And now Crimes of the Future has played in competition at this year’s Cannes film festival, with advanced word and trailers to suggest the Canadian king of body horror returning to his early-to-mid period of visceral think-piece sci-fi. That film hits UK cinemas today and a review is coming soon. But where will it fit beside his later, more literary work?

Here then I’ve forged a personal countdown of Cronenberg’s extensive prior filmography. It’s possibly contentious. So be it. It’s certainly not definitive. And who knows where his forthcoming feature will fit into this spider diagram of obsessions, kinks and recurring motifs. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

21. A History of Violence (2005)

A History of Violence

This may be the first upset. A History of Violence was well-received, especially after the bemused reception to 2002’s Spider, and for many it marks the start of his late ‘purple patch’. But its always been the puzzling outlier in his filmography for me; the least sophisticated or interesting of his literary adaptations. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, an average Joe living in middle America who turns into an unstoppable action hero at a moment’s notice; unable to escape his violent past as, effectively, a mobster John Wick… much to the dismay of his corn-fed family. Cronenberg has managed tonal surges deftly elsewhere in his career, but Stall’s opposing sides never quite cohere, leaving a kind of open wound in the film that never quite closes with satisfaction.

20. The Dead Zone (1983)

The Dead Zone

Another upset, as The Dead Zone has some avid fans, but I can’t count myself among them. Cronenberg’s Stephen King adaptation feels bitty, cliff-noting the horror author’s tale of car-crash survivor Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), a teacher who comes to possess psychic abilities that allow him to see the terrifying future in store should corrupt politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) get elected. The film contains some scenes of violence that don’t sit pleasantly (I know, it’s Cronenberg), but it’s a thoroughly cold, hostile and mean-feeling picture that lacks the sense of satisfying coherence found elsewhere in this filmography.

19. Spider (2002)

Spider

A funny one, this. Cronenberg crosses the Atlantic to drizzly England to enter the mind of mentally frail Spider (Ralph Fiennes), a man trapped in a web of his own traumatic childhood memories, struggling to unknot his mixed feelings toward his mother (Miranda Richardson) and father (Gabriel Byrne). A dour, mumblesome psychodrama that leans rather crudely into working class stereotypes. A slow and ponderous oedipal project that requires a lot of patience.

18. Fast Company (1979)

Fast Company

A perfectly serviceable for-hire gig. Cronenberg’s bodily proclivities often take away from his clear gearhead leanings, so its nicely fitting that tucked away in the recesses of his career is this fairly typical drag racer story, about a hotshot driver facing off against the oil company sponsoring his race to victory. Likely had a positive impact on his overall growing confidence as a filmmaker.

17. Crimes of the Future (1970)

Crimes of the Future

No, you read that right. Following on from his debut Stereo, the first Crimes of the Future shares a lot of similar qualities; brutalist academic setting, a lot of psychobabble mixed with quasi-sci-fi concepts. This one isn’t quite as stark as his first offering, and feels like a developmental, transitional project, but for those who appreciate Cronenberg’s kinship with Dick, Ballard and their contemporaries, there are charms enough here to pass the time, even if it leaves something of a mercurial, half-formed impression.

16. M. Butterfly (1993)

M Butterfly

a.k.a The Missing One. Rarely spotted in the UK (in fact Out of Print for years now), M. Butterfly sees the director analysing the mysteries, fluidity and betrayals of love, if a little stiffly. Reteaming with Jeremy Irons who captivated throughout Dead Ringers, this tale of a French diplomat falling for a Chinese opera singer shares some of the heady atmosphere of the film it follows; Naked Lunch. Perhaps it’s arrival in the wake of The Crying Game stifled it’s ability to provoke or arouse commercial interest leading to it’s long-lasting relative obscurity. A shame as, fitfully, there’s plenty to swoon over.

15. Eastern Promises (2007)

Eastern Promises

Maybe a little low on the list for some, and in truth Eastern Promises‘ only folly is being – on revisit – kinda average. A lean Russian gangster thriller set in cosmopolitan London, the film is most famous for Viggo Mortensen’s nude fight scenes, which still scan impressively; a logical extension of his action work for A History of Violence. This tale of human slavery and merciless killings is among the most morbidly cynical of Cronenberg’s works, not to mention one of his most casually explicit. It is good, but this is a filmography pocked with more curious and remarkable efforts.

14. The Brood (1978)

The Brood

The notion that mental instability can manifest as physical sickness isn’t a particularly new or revelatory one, but trust Cronenberg to visualise it with twisted panache. Your mileage with The Brood will depend wholly on your capacity to tolerate Oliver Reed at his most blustery, here playing controversial therapist Dr. Hal Raglan whose role-playing techniques with his patients are linked to cancer by an eager saboteur (Cronenberg regular Robert A. Silverman), claims that barely scratch the surface of the film’s startling third act revelations. Before that we’re confronted by a spate of vicious murders and a set of diminutive cloaked killers that hearken back directly to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Made the same year as his journeyman effort Fast CompanyThe Brood also exhibits a growing adeptness from Cronenberg. Howard Shore piles on the Bernard Herrmann strings on the score.

13. Stereo (1969)

Stereo

Not well loved, and yet Cronenberg’s first feature has a lot going for it, I’d argue. Like the first Crimes of the Future that came directly after it, it’s a studious, wordy affair, conflating the Canadian’s recent medical training with Ballardian musings on the psychic potentiality of the human mind. The stylish black and white cocoons this one in an almost knowingly pretentious sphere of speculation, while Cronenberg reveals his early self as wily, eagerly experimental. It feels like a ’60s hangover projected into the future.

12. Cosmopolis (2012)

Cosmopolis

Or, how Robert Pattinson shrugged off Twilight and got weird. The closest Cronenberg has come to making a Jim Jarmusch picture, Cosmopolis runs at the mouth, part economic thesis, part evisceration of human nature. Pattinson is young CEO Eric, driven silently through a city of protests over the course of an entire day simply to get an unnecessary haircut. The likes of Samantha Morton and Juliette Binoche drop in and out of the picture like guests on his own perverse, privileged talk show. One of the more indulgent and absurdist entries in this filmography, Cosmopolis retains it’s own knowingly pretentious sense of savvy.

11. Scanners (1981)

Scanners

Scanners is a cult classic that features some all-time physical effects work, undoubtedly. It has a killer premise – government engineers assassins with the literal power to blow minds! – and it spawned four(!) sequels. Yet it doesn’t break this Cronenberg top 10. Why? Well, not to be mean, but largely because of the unfortunately named Stephen Lack; the limpest of Cronenberg’s leading men who single-handedly stalls an otherwise solid slice of hard sci-fi. The pacing, too, is a little cumbersome, yet there’s some low-budget mastery shimmering through here. In a sense this is Cronenberg’s boldest B-movie. Defiantly nerdy and kinda cool because of it.

10. A Dangerous Method (2011)

A Dangerous Method

You can often tell a lot about a Cronenberg film by the tone-setting opening titles. In the case of A Dangerous Method, we’re invited into the film with sharp, cursive penmanship. A period piece and a curious study on the development of the talking method by Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Yeung (Michael Fassbinder), what the piece lacks in Cronenbergian’s horror tics it more than makes up for with it’s active mind and assured work from it’s three leads. The trifecta is completed by Kiera Knightly, giving some of her best work (and best jaw work) as the duo’s troubled muse. Weirder and spikier than your average prestige picture, it’s easy to see why this subject stimulated the director’s mental curiosity. Generally a little undervalued in his oeuvre.

9. Maps to the Stars (2014)

MTTS_00745.NEF

With Maps to the Stars Cronenberg paints a vile portrait of incest-ridden Hollywood, vapid and morbidly fixated. Howard Shore’s music is at it’s lightest and dreamiest, but the picture coldly sees a nightmare unfold, one which feels as singular and apocalyptic as Richard Kelly’s more literal Southland Tales. It’s not the most well-loved of Cronenberg’s late-period efforts, but look closer and you’ll locate the connective tissue to the rest of his works. There’s the slick glide of Crash and Cosmopolis. John Cusack’s massage therapy sessions with Julianne Moore’s pitiable has-been recalls the melodramatic work at the heart of The Brood. And the lattice of scars wrapped around the skin of Mia Wasikowska’s ingenue connect, well, everywhere. It’s delicious watching this outsider auteur tear Tinseltown to shreds.

8. The Fly (1986)

Jeff Goldblum In 'The Fly'

Among his best-known films, The Fly has become an ’80s horror classic, sitting alongside John Carpenter’s towering The Thing as an example of a remake ‘done right’. Cronenberg is as inventive and adept as expected by this stage in his career, but this is Jeff Goldblum’s show; a deeply charismatic, physical and damned acrobatic performance showcasing both his eccentricities and oft-overlooked talents. Things get appreciably gooey along the way too, as the film follows its clear trajectory to an inevitable if unforgettable conclusion.

7. Shivers (1975)

Shivers

Also known as They Came from WithinShivers was – for a while – the most profitable independent Canadian movie ever made, and is the film that single-handedly gave Cronenberg his inimitable reputation. It’s a little rough around the edges, but there’s plenty of strange, repulsive charm, not least thanks to the gumption with which Cronenberg attacks his central conceit that sees a parasite spread orgiastic behaviour like venereal disease inside an urban high-rise. Not the first or last time that the concerns of Cronenberg and Ballard would deliriously intersect.

6. Rabid (1977)

Rabid

If anything, COVID-19 has made Cronenberg’s grim pandemic movie even more chilling. Commendably loopy, this was an ambitious next step for Cronenberg following the breakout success of indie hit Shivers. Adult film star Marilyn Chambers stars as Rose, victim of a serious vehicular accident who is operated on by plastic surgeons with particularly questionable practices. The upshot? She becomes host to a vampiric armpit (yes, armpit) that spreads a deadly infection across Canada. Low budget but resourceful, Rabid anticipates many of the all-too-fallible and callous reactions to widespread contagion. It remains one of his best – and bleakest – pictures.

5. Naked Lunch (1991)

Naked Lunch

William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch sat atop the tower of ‘unfilmable’ novels until Cronenberg took a typically leftfield swing at the project, fusing elements of the book with Burroughs’ own life and his own peculiarities to create a jazz hybrid of a film, willfully at odds with anything pertaining to mainstream cinema then or now. The resulting film, however, is a mesmeric trip into themes of addiction, creativity, writer’s block, homosexuality, colonialism and so much more. Vivid, strange and as prone to mad tangents as both Burroughs’ text and Cronenberg’s own catalogue.

4. Dead Ringers (1988)

Dead Ringers

Often labelled a horror, but that seems ill-fitting for this dour downward spiral, speared by exceptional dual turns from Jeremy Irons as identical twin gynecologists Elliott and Beverly Mantle, whose entangled love life leads to irrevocable addictions to painkillers in a fateful attempt to re-syncronise with one another. Vivid dreams and ‘instruments for use on mutant women’ stamp Dead Ringers with the seal of auteurship, but this is among Cronenberg’s most tender and muted productions and features one of Howard Shore’s finest scores. A genuinely moving tragedy.

3. Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome

Long live the new flesh. Away from pop hits A History of Violence and The Fly, Videodrome is likely Cronenberg’s flagship cult title. James Woods is the unscrupulous TV exec trying to track down a seemingly addictive private broadcast of filmed torture that gives the movie it’s name. Along the way reality becomes corrupted, Debbie Harry gets off on stubbing cigarettes out on her breast and Woods gets intimate with his television set. A moody, prescient piece of work which would anticipate many facets of the world to come (the dark web, surveillance culture etc.) as well as – fittingly – a VHS rental staple, Videodrome more or less defines the tics and foibles that have come to represent all things ‘Cronenbergian’.

2. eXistenZ (1999)

eXistenZ

Now, time for a confession. This is actually my personal favourite Cronenberg movie, though it isn’t well liked by some. My reasons are partly nostalgic. A child of the ’80s whose teenage years landed in the late ’90s, this was a regular rental and source of indelible influence over my viewing habits at the turn of the millennium, and a title whose very slipperiness spoke more to me than its comparable peer The Matrix. But even separated from this sense of connection, I believe eXistenZ has a phenomenal amount going for it, not least the captivating lead performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh as seductive video game designer Allegra Gellar. This is a self-aware spiral into virtual reality that recycles some ideas from Videodrome but which also stands as our last example of Cronenberg drawing purely from his own fertile imagination. And, again, that Howard Shore score is a beauty. It’d take the top spot, except…

1. Crash (1996)

Crash

Except I can’t deny Crash it’s place as Cronenberg’s most artistically complete film. Adapting JG Ballard’s controversial novel about a subset of middle class professionals aroused by car accidents proved irresistible as Cronenberg took on greater literary challenges, but there’s something downright hypnotic and elevated in the resulting film – one of those rare instances where I’d comfortably say the adaptation outstrips the source.

The performances in the film are all unique and fabulous (with particular praise reserved for Elias Koteas’ coolly sexual portrayal of Vaughan and Deborah Kara Unger’s icily commanding Catherine) but Crash excels through the synergy of its components. Peter Suschitsky’s camera glides with assembly line precision, making it feel as though Crash is being robotically manufactured before your very eyes. And Howard Shore again creates something wholly befitting, here using electric guitars to accentuate the fetishistic collision of metal and flesh.  These elements in combination with the work of the ensemble, the judicious cutting and the explored themes of obsession and spiritual uncertainty give the film a unique – and uniquely disarming – dreamlike quality. Like the best of Cronenberg it is troubling and erotic all at once.

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