David Cronenberg Essay - Critical Essays

Cronenberg, David


David Cronenberg 1943-

Canadian filmmaker, screenwriter, and memoirist.

The following entry provides an overview of Cronenberg's career through 1999.

Cronenberg is a successful screenwriter, director, actor, cameraman, editor, and producer. During the flourishing 1970s horror film renaissance, Cronenberg found himself at the hub of the movement among such auteurs as George Romero, Larry Cohen, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Tobe Hooper. Cronenberg's films, which graphically portray both physical and mental degeneration, are unique in the horror and science fiction genres. In his films, Cronenberg consistently addresses the relationship between technology and human physicality, and the often chaotic effects that result when man tampers with nature. Many of Cronenberg's films depict a penchant for psychic violence, and equally liberal doses of visceral gore, which has earned him nicknames such as the “Baron of Blood.” However, his determination to transcend genre boundaries and address a wide variety of themes has solidified his reputation as an intellectual's horror screenwriter and director.

Biographical Information

Cronenberg was born in Toronto, Ontario, in 1943. Raised in a creatively stimulating environment, Cronenberg was encouraged early to pursue various intellectual and imaginative endeavours. It was during his childhood that Cronenberg developed a fascination with insects, science fiction novels, the cinema, and horror comic books; interests that would later manifest themselves in his films. As a teenager, Cronenberg lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he attempted for a time to become a novelist. At the University of Toronto, which he began attending in 1962, Cronenberg abandoned his original course work in science, opting instead for an English curriculum after winning a writing contest during his freshman year. Impressed with the creative impulses and experimentation he witnessed among the community of 1960s liberal arts majors, especially after watching a group of several students develop and create a film themselves, Cronenberg decided to devote himself entirely to filmmaking.

Major Works

Cronenberg's first “short” (a short film of about ten to twenty minutes), Transfer (1966), set a thematic pattern that he would revisit numerous times in later work. Transfer is about the relationship between a psychologist and one of his patients, evincing Cronenberg's burgeoning preoccupation with the mind. Stereo (1969), Cronenberg's first full-length feature, depicts sexual experimentation among a camp of telepaths. In this picture, the viewer is first introduced to a now familiar Cronenberg concept: the presence of an unfeeling, vaguely evil organization that controls or manipulates the film's characters. With Crimes of the Future (1970), Cronenberg imagined a North America devoid of most of its female population due to poisoned cosmetics. This is the first movie in which Cronenberg addresses the theme of biological mutation, employing terms such as “creative cancers” and “new organs.” These early films were essential in creating a small cult following for Cronenberg, and helped him to secure a deal with Cinepix, a Canadian production house. They Came from Within (1975), Cronenberg's first project for Cinepix, focuses on a mad scientist who creates a parasite that infects people with both a venereal disease and uncontrollable sexual urges. The phallic parasite is set free in a post-modern luxury apartment complex where the inhabitants are ultimately destroyed by their own boundless libidos. They Came from Within has been compared to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as all three films portray a society collapsing upon itself. Starring pornography film star Marilyn Chambers, Rabid (1976) tells a story of experimentation and mutation, with typical Cronenberg features such as sexual carnality, blood, and phallus imagery. Cronenberg's next films were The Brood (1978), a melodrama about child abuse and a mother who gives birth to physical manifestations of her rage, and Scanners (1979), a commercial breakthrough focusing on a group of telepaths (known as “scanners”) who plan to take over the world. After the success of Scanners, Hollywood studios sought Cronenberg out to direct the film adaptation of Stephen King's novel, The Dead Zone (1983), his only film for which he did not write the screen play. The Dead Zone was received favorably, but after its success, Cronenberg released Videodrome, (1983) a dark exploration of voyeurism and transformation in the video-age, starring James Woods and Debbie Harry. Videodrome, however, did not did not perform as well as The Dead Zone at the box office. Cronenberg's next feature, The Fly, (1986), is a remake of the 1958 B-movie classic. Cronenberg chose to pare down the original story to its most basic premise and create a new narrative which deals with an anti-social scientist who accidently merges himself with a housefly while attempting teleportation. Dead Ringers (1988) is based on the true story of identical twin gynecologists. The twins, both played by Jeremy Irons, each become sexually involved with their patients. One twin, the more reclusive of the two, falls in love with an actress who is a patient and lover to both brothers. When she learns of the brothers' subterfuge, she angrily confronts them; a confrontation that crushes the sensitive twin who has fallen in love with her. The film follows the ultimate degeneration of both twins which occurs during a haze of narcotic use, gynecological experimentation, obsession, and insanity. Naked Lunch (1991), based on William S. Burroughs's 1959 semi-autobiographical novel, explores a world of irrationality filled with talking beetle-typewriters, giant centipedes, and other hallucinatory creatures. M. Butterfly (1993) is based on the Broadway play by David Henry Hwang, who co-wrote the screenplay with Cronenberg. In this film, a Frenchman conducts a seventeen-year affair with a Chinese opera singer who turns out to be a male spy. Many of Cronenberg's favorite reoccurring themes are included in M. Butterfly, including sexual transformation, the fusion of fantasy and reality, and the study of gender relations. Crash (1996), a film based on the J. G. Ballard novel, examines the idea of sexual relations as a cause of death. The masochistic main characters exhibit a fascination with bodily wounds, sex and violence, and set out to enact car crashes to satisfy their lust. The film eXistenZ (1999) addresses technology, the human body, and alternative realities through its portrayal of a virtual reality/video game world. The film's title is derived from a video game created by Allegra Geller, a noted game designer. The game, which one must “plug” into by using bioports located at the base of the spine, allows players to become part of an alternate reality. The movie follows the exploits of Geller through a world of political intrigue, biological gore, bodily evolutions, and electronic media satire.

Critical Reception

Cronenberg once stated that “the only meaning that there is in the universe comes from the human brain.” This belief informs all of Cronenberg's films to date, each of which depicts the impact of the cerebral world on the physical one—and vice versa. Some critics feel that Cronenberg is a misogynist; in his films, women often act as mere tools that male characters employ in order to achieve their ends or as creatures who exhibit a destructive carnality. Others claim that Cronenberg's repeated portrayal of men who are inept, inefficient, and incapable, or who invariably commit suicide, serves as a refutation against charges of misogyny. Critics generally complain that Cronenberg's films—in addition to their shocking visual elements—rely too heavily on showy special effects and contain simple plots with minimal character development. Sources such as Motion Picture Guide describe Cronenberg's early work—especially They Came From Within and Rabid—as overly voyeuristic due to lack of characterization and sufficient plot development. In the United States and Britain, attempts have been made to censor Cronenberg's work, which many consider sensationalistic and unneccesarily gory.

Principal Works

*Transfer [also director] (screenplay) 1966

*From the Drain [also director] (screenplay) 1967

Stereo [also director] (screenplay) 1969

Crimes of the Future [also director] (screenplay) 1970

They Came from Within [also director; also known as The Parasite Murders, Shivers, and Frissons] (screenplay) 1975

Rabid [also director; also known as Rage] (screenplay) 1976

The Brood [also director] (screenplay) 1978

Fast Company [also director] (screenplay) 1978

Scanners [also director] (screenplay) 1979

The Dead Zone [director] 1983

Videodrome [also director] (screenplay) 1983

The Fly [with Charles Edward Pogue; also director] (screenplay) 1986

Dead Ringers [with Norman Snider; also director] (screenplay) 1988

Naked Lunch [also director] (screenplay) 1991

Cronenberg on Cronenberg [edited by Chris Rodley] (memoir) 1992

M. Butterfly [with David Henry Hwang; also director] (screenplay) 1993

Crash [also director] (screenplay) 1996

eXistenZ [also director] (screenplay) 1999

*Also cinematographer and editor.

†Also cinematographer, editor, and producer.

‡Also cinematographer and producer.


Owen Gleiberman (essay date October 1988)

SOURCE: “Cronenberg's Double Meanings,” in American Film, Vol. 14, No. 5, October, 1988, pp. 38–43.

[In the following essay, Gleiberman discusses the themes in Dead Ringers.]

One doesn't expect to see David Cronenberg shooting a love scene, yet that’s what he’s doing—and damned if he doesn’t recall one of those legendary directors from the silent-film days, staring raptly at the set before him and murmuring commands into the air. His two leads, Jeremy Irons and Genevieve Bujold, are kissing in bed, and, as Cronenberg gazes into his video monitor a few feet way, he shapes the action as it happens. “Kiss his neck, Genevieve,” he says. “Move down,...

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Marcie Frank (essay date May 1991)

SOURCE: “The Camara and the Speculum: David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 106, No. 3, May, 1991, pp. 459–70.

[In the following essay, Frank discusses the portrayal of male identity and the representation of women inDead Ringers.]

I expected somebody who looked like a combination of Arthur Bremmer and Dwight Frye as Renfield in Dracula, slobbering for juicy flies. The man who showed up in my apartment in New York looked like a gynecologist from Beverly Hills.

Martin Scorcese, describing David Cronenberg

In the...

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Donald Lyons (review date January 1992)

SOURCE: “Lubricating the Muse,” in Film Comment, Vol. 28, No. 1, January, 1992, pp. 14–16.

[In the following review, Lyons examines the typewriter imagery in Naked Lunch.]

The typewriter is a lonely place. The typewriter is also a doorway into a crowded theater of beings from the Id that, if the writer is not very careful, or especially if he is, will destroy him. The typewriter is a major fetish in some recent films. Why? From a materialist view, the typewriter is obsolescent, a talisman of late-bourgeois literariness now increasingly replaced by the instant, disembodied community of the modem. So these meditations on the dying implement are elegiac, like Ford...

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Mark Kermode with David Cronenberg (interview date March 1992)

SOURCE: Interview in Sight and Sound, Vol. 1, No. 11, March, 1992, pp. 11–3.

[In the following interview, Cronenberg discusses the similarities between his and William Burroughs's creative work, his use of visual imagery to reproduce metaphors onscreen, and his creative process.]

“I think that the body of a person living now is substantially different from one which was alive even ten years ago”, says David Cronenberg, master of mutation and champion of viral change. “We’ve altered the earth, the magnetic waves in the air, and we’ve altered ourselves. I think that change itself is fairly neutral, but it contains the potential to be either positive or...

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Amy Taubin (review date March 1992)

SOURCE: “The Wrong Body,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 1, No. 11, March, 1992, pp. 8–10.

[In the following review, Taubin argues that Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch does not sufficiently recreate the homoerotic elements presented in William Burroughs's novel.]

Naked Lunch is less an adaption of William Burroughs’ novel than David Cronenberg’s fantasy about how it came to be written. The young Cronenberg wanted to be a writer: Burroughs and Nabokov were his models. He claims that he turned to film-making when he realised he’d never write as well as either of them.

Affronts to the ‘I married Joan’ sit-com...

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Karen Jaehne with David Cronenberg (interview date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: “Dead Ringers Do Naked Lunch,” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 3, Spring, 1992, pp. 2–6.

[In the following interview, Jaehne talks with Cronenberg about the making of Naked Lunch, particularly how the film tackled the difficult, then-taboo subject matter found in William Burroughs's 1959 novel.]

It is hard to imagine two people more allied by phantasmagoric visions than David Cronenberg and William Burroughs. Both men are attracted to the shiny metallic but mercurial intellectual vein in their subject matter, even though at first blush their imagery is often grotesque, visceral, and unnerving. Plot is always secondary. In Naked Lunch,...

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Anne Billson (review date 24 April 1992)

SOURCE: “A Meal in the Best of Taste,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 5, No. 199, April 24, 1992, pp. 34–5.

[In the following review, Billson writes that despite the good acting in Naked Lunch, the film contains “an excess of refinement.”]

David Cronenberg loves gloop. Some critics have interpreted this as evidence that he finds the human body disgusting, but the opposite is true. Cronenberg loves the human body in all its permutations: surgically altered or diseased, insideout, mutated into radical new forms. His films explore the effect physical changes have on the mind, and vice versa. The psychosomatic killer midgets of The Brood, the...

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William Beard (essay date Winter 1992–93)

SOURCE: “An Anatomy of Melancholy: Cronenberg’s Dead Zone,” in Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter, 1992–93, pp. 169–79.

[In the following essay, Beard provides an in-depth analysis of The Dead Zone, placing it within the context of Cronenberg's other works.]

With the exception of some discomfort experienced by those speaking for high culture, scarcely anyone disputes any longer that David Cronenberg is an artistic presence in this country. Still, between the continuing reluctance of traditionalists to make a place in the pantheon for anyone whose principal identifying feature is the habit of depicting gooey inner body parts, and...

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Andrew Parker (essay date Winter 1993)

SOURCE: “Grafting David Cronenberg: Monstrosity, AIDS Media, National/Sexual Difference,” in Stanford Humanities Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 7–21.

[In the following essay, Parker explores sexuality, AIDS, and national identity in Rabid. He theorizes that the horror genre and other “narrative systems” contributed to a popular conception about the nature of AIDS and about how it is transmitted. In addition he compares the struggle for male identity to Canada’s struggle for national identity.]

Q: What is the symbolism of the lesbian agents with penises grafted onto their faces, drinking spinal fluid?


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William Beard (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “The Canadianness of David Cronenberg,” in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. 27, No. 2, 1994, pp. 113–33.

[In the following essay, Beard discusses Cronenberg’s work in the context of the debate on what English-Canadian culture is and means. He asserts that Cronenberg’s male protagonists mostly resemble “the long line of Canadian cinematic and literary unheroes and their pattern of failure, powerlessness and hopeless waste.”]

It is becoming more difficult, in a postmodern environment, to speak with any confidence of “national character” or to define nationality in broad cultural (as opposed to sociopolitical)...

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William Beard (essay date Winter/Spring 1996)

SOURCE: “Lost and Gone Forever: Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers,” in Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, Vol. 15, No. 2, Winter/Spring, 1996, pp. 11–28.

[In the following essay Beard examines several themes found in Dead Ringers, such as sexual otherness, the struggle for a male identity, emotional paralysis, rationality versus nature, and science and sexuality.]

I’ve had a response to the movie that I’ve never gotten from any of the other films. I went to one of the first public screenings in Toronto and one guy, a doctor, said, “Can you tell me why I feel so fucking sad having seen this film?” I said,...

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Michael J. Collins (essay date Winter/Spring 1996)

SOURCE: “Medicine, Surrealism, Lust, Anger, and Death: Three Early Films by David Cronenberg,” in Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, Vol. 15, No. 2, Winter/Spring, 1996, pp. 62–9.

[In the following essay, Collins examines the films They Came from Within, Rabid, and The Brood, comparing each with the work of surrealist artists, and also treats Cronenberg's use of medical procedures as a way of addressing the fear of the body.]

All Right, nurse, bring the next patient in.
Get up on this table, pull off that gown
Raise up that right leg, let that left one down
Pull off them stockings, that silk underwear
Doctor’s got to cut you, mama, lord...

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Robert Haas (essay date Winter/Spring 1996)

SOURCE: “Introduction: The Cronenberg Monster: Literature, Science, and Psychology in the Cinema of Horror,” in Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, Vol. 15, No. 2, Winter/Spring, 1996, pp. 3–10.

[In the following essay, Haas places Cronenberg within the tradition of the gothic narrative, and compares his “monsters” with those found in films of the 1930s.]

Over the past twenty years, the films of David Cronenberg have remained remarkably consistent in subject matter and theme. Exploring his own conception of the nature of horror (often with bloody excess), his initial films were at first dismissed as grade “z” horror films, relegated to second...

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Jennifer Wicke (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Fin de Siècle and the Technological Sublime,” in Centuries’ Ends, Narrative Means, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 302–15.

[In the following essay, Wicke analyzes The Fly as a “fin de siecle narrative” that addresses technology, specifically genetic science, and its relationship to the body, or the human subject.]

As a bridge to the longer analysis of David Cronenberg’s film The Fly (1986) that I will make in this essay on fin de siècle narrative and the technological sublime, I interpolate a short piece of text that meditates on the technologization of narrative’s body. A Mr. James Stephenson, writing in 1907 for Star...

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Asuman Suner (essay date Winter 1998)

SOURCE: “Postmodern Double Cross: Reading David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly as a Horror Story,” in Cinema Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2, Winter, 1998, pp. 49–64.

[In the following essay, Suner writes that the foundation of Cronenberg's film M. Butterfly is based upon the conflict between the colonizer and the colonized, between West and East, between male and female. Suner also argues that the film addresses the male search for identity through the use of an inwardly fragile male protagonist.]

David Cronenberg’s cinema has received considerable critical attention in recent years not only from film scholars but also from scholars working on contemporary...

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Kevin Jackson (review date May 1999)

SOURCE: A review of eXistenZ, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No. 5, May, 1999, p. 46.

[In the following review of eXistenZ, Jackson writes that the film is unthreatening and unsatisfying. Despite its unconventionality and its creation of an alternate-reality games world, the film fails to provoke an adequate response.]

North America, the near future.

A group of players gather to try out eXistenZ, the latest brainchild of the games world’s most notorious genius, Allegra Geller. eXistenz is an elaborate game in which the players wire themselves up via a bioport—a plug inserted in the spinal column—to a semi-organic game pod, to induce...

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Adam Lowenstein (essay date Winter 1999)

SOURCE: “Canadian Horror Made Flesh: Contextualizing David Cronenberg,” in Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter, 1999, pp. 37–51.

[In the following essay, Lowenstein defines Gothic films, shock horror films, science fiction films, and art films. He compares and contrasts Cronenberg’s Shivers and Crash, and also situates them into the horror genre.]

David Cronenberg has playfully suggested that the characters who inhabit Crash (1996) might actually be the parasite-infected condominium dwellers from Shivers (1975), his first commercial feature (Smith 17). Despite an interval of over twenty years...

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Chris Rodley (review date April 1999)

SOURCE: “Game Boy,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No. 3, April, 1999, pp. 8–10.

[In the following review, Rodley discusses the comedy, the double meanings, and the various levels of reality in the film eXistenZ.]

eXistenZ. It’s new. And it’s here. It’s a virtual-reality game that’s almost indistinguishable from lived experience and it’s also the new movie from David Cronenberg. What’s more, it’s the first wholly original creation from the director since Videodrome (1982)—the film his fans regard as his quintessential work because it most effectively captures the alarming nature of the cinema’s invasion of the passive self....

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Marq Smith (essay date Summer 1999)

SOURCE: “Wound Envy: Touching Cronenberg’s Crash,” in Screen, Vol. 40, No. 2, Summer, 1999, pp. 193–202.

[In the following essay, Smith discusses the auto accidents that occur in the film Crash in the context of Freud’s thought on male and female hysteria, trauma, and the connection between sex and death.]

The frantic use of automobiles is not … for the purpose of going somewhere in particular; here it is not a priori a question of distances to cross, which creates inevitably new travel conditions. To go nowhere, even to ride around in a deserted quarter or on a crowded freeway, now seems natural for the voyeur-voyager in...

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Don McKellar (essay date July 1999)

SOURCE: “Children of Canada,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No. 7, July, 1999, pp. 58–60.

[In the following essay, McKellar writes of his first impressions and his later impressions of The Brood.]

I saw David Cronenberg’s The Brood in Toronto in 1979 at the world’s first Cineplex. I went with a friend to see The Silent Partner, another good Canadian film, and afterwards we walked around the complex and looked in through the doors of all the other theatres—the doors had little windows, like in an operating theatre. You could only just see what was playing inside because in those days the screens were very small and the image was very grainy...

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Richard Porton with David Cronenberg (interview date 1999)

SOURCE: “The Film Director as Philosopher,” in Cineaste, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1999, pp. 4–9.

[In the following interview, Porton talks with Cronenberg about the censorship Crash faced in the U.S. and also about the film eXistenZ—including the movie's exploration of technology and the body and the self-reflexive humor that serves as a commentary on Hollywood films.]

Ever since David Cronenberg began directing films over thirty years ago, his career has been distinguished by a string of intriguing paradoxes. A brilliant student and the son of book-loving parents who scorned movies, Cronenberg soon abandoned the avant-gardist aspirations of his early...

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Further Reading


David Cronenberg filmography. Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 15, No. 2 (Winter-Spring 1996): 75-8.

A filmography of Cronenberg's works.


Current Biography 53, No. 5 (May 1992): 144-48.

A biographical summary of Cronenberg's life and career.


Cronenberg, David with David Breskin. “David Cronenberg: The Rolling Stone Interview.” Rolling Stone, No. 623 (6 February 1992): 66-70, 96.

In this interview, Breskin and Cronenberg discuss a variety of topics, including...

(The entire section is 304 words.)