David Cronenberg Critical Essays

Introduction

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.