To mark the release of Crimes of the Future, Steph Green sorts the body-obsessed auteur's vast filmography from worst to best...
“For me, the first fact of human existence is the human body.” This, spoken by David Cronenberg in a 2005 interview, could synopsise the maverick auteur’s vast body of work: an approach to corporeal examination that has only grown more searching, more fun and more fluid as he has ripened into old age. As Canada’s resident cyborg/wicked uncle/mad scientist, the filmmaker has spent five decades lovingly creating appendage-bruising cinema that slashes at our skin and blisters our brains, catering to genreheads and self-serious philosophers alike. Walking defiantly to the beat of his own drum, his 22 features together form a fascinating, fleshy patchwork.
But in a back catalogue so tumescent with body horror, there’s plenty still for those allergic to the specifically gruesome type of carnal gore that we now call “Cronenbergian.” From spy thrillers to period dramas, revenge flicks to Hollywood satires, any and all can glean pleasure from the director’s discreet sense of humour and expert grasp on sheer entertainment value. In Crimes of the Future, his first foray back into body horror since 1999, he returns to his protoplasmic roots to bring us a world where “surgery is the new sex.” Ahead of its release on 9 September, we take a scalpel to the director’s vast filmography to see which of his works survive the operating table…
22. Fast Company (1979)
“…That’s it?” is the overarching feeling when you reaching the end of Fast Company, Cronenberg’s most straight-edge work to date: no gore, no sex, no humour, no satire. We follow ageing star Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson as he navigates the world of drag racing (no, not the fun, RuPaul kind), zipping around a series of low-stakes scenarios involving engine fix-ups, test runs, disreputable oil company execs and bronzed blonde babes. It’s clearly made with love from the director, who is a self-confessed automobile fanatic (more on that later), and yet it’s hard to work through the whiplash of this flick being parallel-parked between Rabid and The Brood – this film completely lacks any of the director’s verve or viscerality.
21. Crimes of the Future (1970)
“His body, he believes, is a galaxy… and these organs are solar systems.” While the director was keen to stress that his sophomore feature had no thematic link to his most recent release of the same name, that wasn’t strictly true: there are certainly similar echoes, right down to the phraseology. Here, an employee of the “House of Skin” discusses how a certain disease is like “a form of creative cancer”; in 2022’s Crimes, Lea Seydoux’s Caprice talks about how “organism needs organising… otherwise, it’s just designer cancer.” In this Crimes, we dive into a strange, stilted dystopia whereby people are suffering from severe skin conditions caused by contemporary cosmetics. Unfortunately, even at 70 minutes, it’s a real slog.
20. A Dangerous Method (2011)
There’s something deeply off-putting about this film, and I’m not talking about Keira Knightley’s biology-defining jutting of the chin, in what is possibly the most bizarre performance in a Cronenberg flick (and that’s saying something). Set in the early 20th century as Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) are both deep in their psychology research, we follow Jung’s affair with Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein as she goes from hysterical patient to respected psychologist in her own right. Normally when a Cronenberg protagonist spends a good deal of the runtime pontificating on philosophical matters it makes us want to stand up and exclaim “kino!”, but alas, something doesn’t quite flow here. Ultimately, the director has been so much more interesting about the slipperiness of psychosis elsewhere, without needing to hew so closely to, well, actual psychologists.
19. Spider (2002)
There’s nothing particularly thrilling about this so-called psychological thriller, in which we’re stuck with Ralph Fiennes puttering and murmuring his way through a dour and unfocused film ostensibly about exploring childhood trauma. Strands of yarn form webs (get it?) in his depressing, London-based halfway house lodgings, while the paper around him peels like a Rohrscach test as he retraces the steps of what went wrong with his mother (Miranda Richardson), who is alternately presents as a dowdy housewife and a brash streetwalker in our protagonist’s unreliable narration. Cronenberg and his cinematographer Peter Suschitzky carve some beautiful imagery out of these oppressive environs, granted, but there’s just something so dull about the way we’re thrust into the main character’s mental dilapidation and vignetted memories. A lazy “he’s crazy, geddit!” ending entirely undoes any kind of interesting work the film puts in prior to the final scenes.
18. Rabid (1977)
Similar in style and form but less effective than his prior feature Shivers, the erotic and epidemeological Rabid almost feels like Cronenberg parodying himself. It stars adult actress Marilyn Chambers in her first mainstream role – if you can call playing a patient zero who discovers a phallic growth in her armpit which fucks, infects and zombiefies the local Canadian populace “mainstream.” When you’re in a Cronenberg film you already know that medical institutes helmed by bushy-browed men are Bad Places, and so the botched nip and tuck that results in a menagerie of foaming-at-the-mouth sex freaks is basically met with a cool acceptance. Beyond the gross-out premise, there’s little to enjoy here: questionable acting, amateurish practical effects (somehow shoddier-looking than those in Shivers) and a lack of interesting characters to root for makes the whole thing pretty inert. Quite the feat with a plot this bonkers.
17. eXistenZ (1999)
“I have this phobia of having my body penetrated,” says Jude Law’s Ted, a security guard who gets sucked into the virtual-reality nightmare of game design genius Allegra Geller (a sphinx-like Jennifer Jason Leigh). Unluckily for Ted, penetration is what’s in store, by Willem Dafoe and others, in a film that strangles us in umbilical knots. Though we’re initially blissed out by the Matrix-esque style and Y2K anxieties when watching this in the present day – with opening scenes so fun and camp that we don’t mind puzzling through later layers of fleshy unreality – things quickly become repetitive, with the mundanity of the game itself wearing thin. Specifically, a predictable “are we still in the game or not?”-style ending feels like a bit of a cop-out, a director with a great idea he doesn’t quite know how to tie up.
16. Stereo (Tile 3B of a CAEE Educational Mosaic) (1969)
Few films give off “first film energy” quite as much as this mumbling 63-minute feature, but it’s strangely compelling nonetheless – and Cronenbergian through and through. We watch as a caped loon (recurring early collaborator Ronald Mlodzik) guides us through a series of unnerving liminal spaces amid angular modern architecture, preaching monotonously about “severe psychic disorientation” and the “potency of human eroticism” and “erotic morphological communication.” A tongue-in-cheek essay delivered in voiceover that parodies medical institutions with its jargon and bureaucratic absurdity, there’s something about its bizarre, avant-garde stylings that still draws you in.
15. The Brood (1979)
In The Brood, Samantha Eggars embodies what academic Barbara Creed characterises as the Monstrous Feminine: an ultimately misogynistic horror trope that derives fear by exploiting matriarchal traits and abhors the womb as something intimidating. She plays Nora, a woman who parthenogenetically produces a murderous brood of tiny, axe-wielding children due to controversial “psychoplasmic” therapy, much to the chagrin of her saintly ex-husband who is just trying to protect their adorable daughter. There’s huge ‘dude going through a divorce’ energy emanating from Cronenberg’s direction and script; even without Creed’s academic context, the narrative is so patently pregnant with misogynistic subtext, with this baby-obsessed madwoman who is sectioned and driven insane by her desire to control, kill and breed at the centre. Still, it’s somehow impressive that the director can thrill and entertain with his own brand of B-movie schlock while making something personal and deeply felt.
14. Shivers (1975)
A synthy, seventies nightmare about domestic utopia gone awry, Shivers may be more fun as a batshit exploitation sci-fi than anything with something of substance to say about sex. But that isn’t to say that this wild zombie flick – with its little wriggling parasites that look like sentient penises – isn’t a total blast. Set in a new luxury apartment complex on a small island in Montreal, inhabitants have to navigate the outbreak of a man-made STD that is created to function like its own human organ and “turn the world into one beautiful mindless orgy.” Any film that is debated about by the local government questioning its “artistic and social integrity” is worth a watch in my books – though I still think the film’s original title, Orgy of the Blood Parasites, is way more metal.
13. The Dead Zone (1983)
If you could go back in time and kill baby Hitler, would you? That odd dinner party conundrum is essentially the basis of The Dead Zone, whereby schoolteacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) awakens from a five-year coma with supernatural, telepathic powers that allow him to anticipate and influence events that have not yet happened. Adapted from the Stephen King bestseller of the same name, the book is not so much a pulpy paperback but a strange and thorny text that parses the supernatural, but also the ethics of assassination. Sometimes a film is ultimately just fine, and yet it pulls off such a killer ending that you walk away from it with an overly positive, perhaps skewd opinion about its quality. A small but crucial role by Martin Sheen helps this happen.
12. Scanners (1981)
It doesn’t matter if you already know about the exploding head. When it happens, it’s just ludicrously cool – a filmic splatter of practical effects and genuine terror, symbolizing Cronenberg’s galaxy-brain approach to filmmaking as a whole. Scanners, about a telepathic subculture fighting against a renegade corporation bent on exploiting their mental prowess for nefarious gain, was the first film to put the Canadian auteur on the global map. And what an excellent introduction: the B-movie thrills, paired with a highly literate, deeply intelligent script, would certainly have grabbed the attention of a cold audience. Maybe those practical effects are more impressive or interesting than the characters themselves, but it’s a forgivable imbalance.
11. Naked Lunch (1991)
Long-considered unadaptable in literary circles, Cronenberg once again proved his singular ability to tackle unwieldy novels with this version of William S. Burrough’s absurdist drug trip. Peter Weller stars as a writer-cum-pest-controller – “that’s just what the world needs… more literate exterminators” – who is guided through a series of absurdist vignettes, flanked by a giant talking cockroach-typewriter hybrid to the tune of a squawking free jazz score. With gnarly practical effects, a guiltily erotic undertone and an uncanny ability to wrangle emotion out of nonsensical chaos, this may still feel a little neatly constructed considering the veritable chaos of the source material but it feels true to faith for the director. Entomophobes beware.
10. M. Butterfly (1993)
There’s a lot of tonal tightrope-crossing in M. Butterfly, Cronenberg’s flawed but compelling adaptation of the play by David Henry Hwang. It stars Jeremy Irons as a French diplomat in 1960s China, who falls in love with a beautiful opera singer Song Liling (John Lone), unaware that Song is both a man masquerading as a woman as well as a spy for the Chinese government. It may not initially strike as trademark Cronenberg, but there’s certainly something here about bodily transformation and psychological unraveling that he’s able to put his own stamp on – and this outside-in look at dysmorphia, in its myriad forms, is constantly slipping out of reach of easy answers. At times there’s a wobbly line between critiquing Orientalism (a white man exploiting his fantasy) and relying on it (an Asian temptress “fooling” a man using her sexual wiles). An operatic ending, however, helps the film’s genre and form bleed at the edges; in its most impressive and bombastic moments, the film is constantly zigging when you think it’ll zag.
9. Maps to the Stars (2014)
A cutting and deeply funny parable about Hollywood’s festering underbelly, Maps to the Stars is a satire with a serrated edge, though is still considered something of an acquired taste. Yet its droll genius is yet more proof that Cronenberg isn’t concerned with po-faced philosophy, but has a deeply mischievous side. The Canadian auteur took a scalpel to the cult of celebrity here, exposing its tautly botoxed neuroses surrounding repression, ambition and guilt: the way we cut each other up in order to feel whole, elucidated through cringe-out, gobsmackingly funny dialogue. Throughout this poetic annihilation of the super-rich there are so many unobtrusively impressive performances: particularly, Mia Wasikowska is marvellous as the skittish, homicidal Agatha, but it’s Julianne Moore’s hyper-enlightened actress Havana that is the film’s psychotic polestar.
8. Cosmopolis (2012)
“You eaten breakfast yet? I’m hungry for something thick and chewy.” Cronenberg’s deadpan takedown of the 1% found its perfect lead in Robert Pattinson, whose general “is this guy serious?” vibe perfectly fits with the film’s endless, shit-talking dialogue. Crossing the city in a limo to get a haircut (like the way Elon Musk took a 9-minute flight in his private jet, a journey that wouldn’t taken five train stops), billionaire Eric Packer has typically Cronenbergian exchanges with a series of acquaintances, including wife Elise (Sarah Gadon), art consultant Didi (Juliette Binoche), “Chief of Theory” Vija (Samantha Morton). So many lines of dialogue seem to be in conversation with other films by the director: “the urge to destroy is a creative urge” is the yin to Crash’s “the car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event” yang. But above all, Cosmopolis is darkly funny in that intelligent, amusing Cronenbergian way, locking you in disbelief in Kafkaesque scenarios, where circuitous conversations about power and sex leave you with more questions than answers.
7. Crimes of the Future (2022)
When that first trailer dropped for Cronenberg’s first foray into the body horror genre in 23 years, the internet was whipped into a full on “yes! sickos!” frenzy. Luckily, the finished product delivered and then some. Try not to tie yourself in intestinal knots unpicking the perplexing argot that underpins the post-pain future in Crimes of the Future. In and among all this high-concept, cerebellum-stretching dogma is a film that is consciously kooky; Kristen Stewart, who plays an excitable, horny weirdo called Timlin, knows exactly what kind of film she’s in. It’s textbook Cronenberg, this battle between bureaucracy and human biology, but it’s constructed with such style and stimulation that you forgive the niggling sense of familiarity. The final shot, where Mortensen evokes the great Renée Jeanne Falconetti from The Passion of Joan of Arc, is genuinely one of the most transcendent moments in any Cronenberg film – the mind and body working in cosmic harmony. What a thrill it is to see the Canadian auteur at the top of his game, still spinning out elegant and erogenous treasures aged 79.
6. Eastern Promises (2007)
Like Charles Foster Kane’s snowglobe, a diary is the puzzling passkey to understanding the events of the narrative in Eastern Promises, Cronenberg’s gnarly crime thriller about the Russian mafia in London. Just like the film’s brutes in seedy restaurants, Cronenberg holds a dirty knife to our throats – giving us not only a tense thriller but a fascinating lens into the ways we abuse our own and each other’s bodies for political gain (“for poetic reasons, I suggest you take his blood,” one character says to another as advice on how to prove rape via DNA analysis). Mortensen has perhaps never been better than his meticulously tattooed driver and mafia member Nikolai, the icily controlled epicentre of this bare-knuckled and bruising foray into mankind’s rotten heart. I cannot stress enough that there is an extended scene where Viggo Mortensen wrestles another man naked in a sauna.
5. A History of Violence (2005)
The closest Cronenberg ever came to directing a western, this small-town neo-noir delivers its parable – about the lies one tells to salvage a poisoned American life, where the nuclear family is a dollhouse to be crushed underfoot at any moment – with such a measured sleight of hand. As Tom Stall, the ordinary Midwestern Dad who is concealing an abhorrent secret from his family, Viggo Mortensen embarks on a deadly mission into his past. Violence here is presented not as cool, or redemptive, but as devastating inevitability when you shirk responsibility, with everyone having to pay the price eventually for their sins. The way William Hurt upends his usual charisma as a chilling eleventh-hour villain is extraordinary: no wonder he was nominated for an Oscar with a mere 9 minutes of screentime. A perfect addition to the “Ed Harris Turned Up And Now Everything Is Bad” canon.
4. Dead Ringers (1988)
Dead Ringers is possibly Cronenberg’s most moving film: one that emotionally disembowels you organ by organ, anchored by a devastating lead performance by a full-throated, earnestly committed Jeremy Irons. He plays both Beverly and Elliott Mantle, lothario gynecologist twins who upset their carefully calibrated equilibrium when one falls in love with a patient (Geneviève Bujold), gets hooked on drugs and whose sanity begins to metastasize. Cronenberg leads us grimly into this crimson-red nightmare with less humour and pulp than before, masterfully balancing the intellectual side of the twins’ binary breakdown with a creeping horror of medieval proportions. With the twins co-dependent and deeply obsessed with female sexual and reproductive health – “I’ve often thought that there should be beauty contests for the insides of bodies,” Elliott says – Cronenberg’s script puts the ‘hysteria’ in hysterectomy to use the female body as the site of male subjugation, pitting together two men who have a colposcopic cavern where their moral core is meant to be. Its trenchant final scenes are equal parts cathartic and self-immolating – Cronenberg’s most poignant work yet.
3. The Fly (1986)
“We've all got the disease,” David Cronenberg once said. “The disease of being finite. Death is the basis of all horror.” It’s in this grim acceptance of the body overtaking the mind, and the loss of humanity that comes with that, which forms the central premise in Cronenberg's scariest film: a vile creature feature-cum-Icarus parable about man’s own hubris being his own undoing. It is somehow – all at once – disgusting, romantic, high-concept and entirely simple in its depiction of a mad scientist gone too far. Jeff Goldblum is perfectly cast as the Faustian protagonist Seth Brundle, who – opposite an admirably controlled and likeable Geena Davis – plays on his affable weirdness to draw in a healthy amount of audience sympathy before his wretched descent into a grotesque man-fly hybrid. With decaying flesh and acid vomit, it’s frankly a miracle that we leave this film equal parts moved and revolted. The film’s final scene may house some of Cronenberg’s finest ever direction, where he seamlessly manipulates the audience’s empathy, pity and disgust in the face of the sickening creature’s inevitable end.
2. Videodrome (1983)
Look into the cursed future and kiss its pixelated lips. Videodrome, Cronenberg’s technosurrealist treatise on our addiction to gut-splicing spectacle, still shocks in its pin-sharp analysis of how the cancer of ever-evolving media is only growing more rotten within us, ready and waiting to spill out of our stomachs. Starring James Woods and Debbie Harry as a TV station president and sadomasochistic radio host, Cronenberg’s eighth feature, perhaps more than any of his others, feels most explicitly like his calling card. In a film that treats phases of consciousness like the lifecycle of a butterfly, we’re pinned to its analog horrors like a stuck tape – transfixed just like protagonist Max to television’s heady promises of expanded, heightened forms of reality. Everything that Videodrome has to say about instant gratification, voyeurism and complicity in the mass-produced violence we can access at our fingertips is prescient in a way that feels genuinely dangerous, like Cronenberg’s ear alone was finely tuned to a pirate radio of the future.
1. Crash (1996)
“Having worked with Cronenberg on the making of Crash,” wrote J.G. Ballard in 2005, “I know that in person he is good company, with the reassuring manner of a neurosurgeon explaining how he is going to remove the inoperable tumour buried deep in your brain.” In the adroit, antiseptic erotic thriller Crash, James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Rosanna Arquette and Holly Hunter form the film’s central symphorophiliacs, a group of detached and lonely individuals who find meaning within their sexual connection to automobile accidents. Cronenberg brings a startling level of poetry to this subculture, where a crumpled car bonnet has the same idyll of lovers in a post-coital embrace, shards of glass from a broken windscreen becoming a spill of diamonds under his benevolent lens.
Audacious, chilling, sexy: Crash is a chrome-hearted film that feels like it’s liquefying your bones into mercury. Lensed in inkily slick, chromatic hues by Peter Suschitzky and ensconced in Howard Shore’s piquant and threadbare electric guitar score, Crash is the perfect evocation of how Cronenbergian cinema is discomfortingly erotic: an impersonal yet deeply corporeal audit of our minds and bodies and environments, and how all three are destined to be fused together on a steaming scrapheap. Not only is this David Cronenberg’s finest films: it’s one of the greatest of all time.
Crimes of the Future is released in UK cinemas on 9 September.