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Retrospective: The Films Of David Cronenberg

Retrospective: The Films Of David Cronenberg

A few years ago when we first took a look through David Cronenberg‘s filmography, we we wrote that it had been a long journey to “respectability” for the eminent Canadian director. But that was just after a string of films (“A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method“) that suggested that Cronenberg had perhaps hung up his technophiliac/technophobic psych/body horror spurs for good, and that he was drifting into a more stately and accessible phase of his career. After only few prior dalliances with the mainstream, Cronenberg looked ready to settle down and go steady.

But while we’re pretty big fans of all three of those films, perhaps he sensed the definite undercurrent of dismay at that assessment last time. His two films since then — “Cosmopolis” and “Maps to the Stars” — may not signal any sort of a return to the clinical yet visceral unease of his early works, but nor are they in any real sense mainstream. Furthermore, they manage to be non-mainstream in very different ways: “Cosmopolis” is smooth and impenetrable and gun-metal gray; the star-studded ‘Maps’ is splashy, messy, grotesque and even (a first for the filmmaker) kind of self-consciously tacky. Perhaps the obvious thing for him to have done after that would have been to take on a prestige TV show. However, Cronenberg dodged the bullet of season 2 of “True Detective,” and for all that he’s an outspoken, often acerbic commentator on the industry and has in the past mooted sequels to “Eastern Promises” and “The Fly” and spoken at length about unmade what-ifs, his next project is really anyone’s guess. Not just in terms of title and provenance, but type: it could really be anything, in any genre, and how many 72 year-old directors can we say that about? Cronenberg continues to surprise, and to divide, and to zag just when we think he’ll predictably zig, and huge fans that we are, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

With the brilliant “The Broodnewly minted as the fifth (and almost certainly not final) Cronenberg title to be added to the Criterion Collection (after “Videodrome,” “Naked Lunch,” “Scanners” and “Dead Ringers“) here’s our assessment of Cronenberg’s ever-evolving, ever-mutating career.

“Stereo” (1969)
As with many film debuts from auteurs of long standing “Stereo” is probably of interest mainly to completists, and to fans anxious the trace the origin story behind one of the most original and idiosyncratic cinematic imaginations of our time. And on that level, it’s kind of heartening, because “Stereo,” while brimming with the same weird concerns and themes that mark some of the earliest and best of Cronenberg’s work, is no masterpiece — it’s clearly the work of a young man (Cronenberg was 26) learning filmmaking by doing. It’s a kind of short-movie concept stretched out to just-about-feature length (Cronenberg had two shorts under his belt before starting on it, and ‘Stereo’ is only 65 minutes long), the film is delivered as an educational/promotional video sponsored by a large plastics conglomerate and it shows the ever-cerebral filmmaker at his most emotionally removed. A black-and-white oddity, it centers on a nameless man (Ronald Mlodzik, a frequent early Cronenberg collaborator) who is brought to a compound to take part in a series of experiments wherein sexual activity is used to bolster telepathic abilities within polymorphous groups designed to replace the “outmoded” family unit model. Undone by a generally detached air, and by lengthy, choking narration (a factor of shooting without sync sound due to the noise of the camera), ‘Stereo’ (and arguably his next feature too) is most valuable today as a document of Cronenberg the student, the filmmaker-in-gestation, searching for, but not yet finding that perfect balance between kink, thought experiment and actual entertainment. [C]

“Crimes of the Future” (1970)
From the very same thematic and formal stable as “Stereo,” the 70-min “Crimes of the Feature” also stars Ronald Mlodzik and was also shot silently, with narration and various sound effects added after the fact. This time, however we get a dose of color, in the film stock if not necessarily in the script, a more overtly satirical tone and Mlodzik’s character gets a name (and how!): Adrian Tripod. Tripod is the director of a dermatological clinic sleazily named The House of Skin, but this clinic exists in an apocalyptic dystopia in which deadly cosmetics have killed off all sexually mature women. The remaining men try to adjust to this new reality in predictably Cronenbergian ways: sometimes they’re benign, as with those who get their fingernails painted as a dainty feminine embellishment; sometimes they’re grotesquely invasive, as with the man who parodies childbirth by growing extra modified organs in his body and having them removed. And sometimes, they’re disturbingly perverse as with the group of pedophiles holding a five-year-old girl hostage who try to encourage Tripod, searching for his old mentor, to mate with her.  Oh, and these men also produce a weird foam that must be siphoned from their bodies, because there’s not enough freaky shit going on elsewhere. Honestly, in this and all other descriptions, “Crimes of the Future” sounds a whole lot more fascinating than it actually is: it’s a more interesting film to read/write about than to watch, which just goes to show how Cronenberg at this early stage was still closer to a kind of literary, idea-based storytelling, and had not yet mastered the filmmaking side of the equation. Ideas-wise, it’s a heady trip, but sitting through “Crimes of the Future” even with its slim running time, is a slog. [C]

READ MORE: Listen: 70-Minute David Cronenberg Talk About ‘History Of Violence,’ His Unmade Formula One Racing Movie & More

“Shivers” (1975)
It’s really only our completist impulses that have us including “Stereo” and “Crimes of the Future,” both barely more than student movies, and not declaring “Shivers,” which Cronenberg turned in after a few years working in Canadian TV, his actual debut. Produced in an unlikely but robust early partnership with Ivan Reitman (a friend of Cronenberg’s who would also produce “Rabid” before launching his own comedy directing career), if you do regard ‘Shivers’ as Cronenberg’s first proper, full-length commercial feature, it makes for a cleaner “genius” narrative: it is certainly the director’s first great film. A summation of his evident desire to have us confront the darkest impulses of our imagination, “Shivers” is a psychologically and physically violent film, that combines a degree of social critique with the splatter sensibility of a gorehound and the exploitation vibe of a flesh hound, as its original titles, “Orgy of the Blood Parasites” or “The Parasite Murders” or “They Came from Within” suggest. In style, it marks a quantum leap forward from his student days, even though it still lumbers and creaks and some of the performances are less than polished—there’s a singular vision at work here that is so uncommon, unsettling and uncanny that even the sense of amateurishness in some areas is easily overlooked. Reportedly based on a single image—a spider emerging from a sleeping woman’s mouth—that Cronenberg dreamt up, the film’s bonkers plot involves engorged parasites that are simultaneously an aphrodisiac and an STI menacing  the middle class residents of Starliner Towers. It caused a minor scandal upon its initial release in Canada, of the “ban this sick filth” variety, as it was funded by taxpayers’ money, but the decades since have proven that investment more than worth a few ruffled feathers, and it’s a film that, cronky performances and creaky dialogue notwithstanding, still holds up today. [A-]

“Rabid” (1977)
A bit of a climbdown from early high watermark “Shivers,” the fourth film from Cronenberg is notable 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 a melange of the micro/macro apocalypse of “Scanners,” the weird sexual politics of “Videodrome” and the genre and makeup/gore of “The Fly.” An oblique but unmistakable take on the vampire and zombie genres (a year before Romero would return to zombies with “Dawn of the Dead”)  it follows a woman (porn star Marilyn Chambers, serviceable in a role Cronenberg originally hoped to give to a then-unknown Sissy Spacek) who survives a motorcycle crash and then receives life-saving skin grafts at a seemingly idyllic plastic surgery clinic. But while the operation is deemed a success and the skin grafts are accepted, she develops a phallic stinger in a vulva-like fold under her armpit, that bites into and drinks the blood of her victims, and turns them into rabid zombies whose bites spread the disease further. Soon an epidemic ensues. Perhaps because it’s a kind of take on existing horror tropes of zombiedom, cannibalism, and vampirism “Rabid” doesn’t feel quite as shockingly original as “Shivers” and while it has an element of social satire in its subversive take on the plastic surgery industry and the and the lazy, quick-fix society that spawned it, it doesn’t feel quite as sharp-eyed in its critique. Still, this is a textbook, if minor, early Cronenberg, and in its way a pointed entree into the Cronenverse in which body modification, and the idea of physical improvement, perfectability or adjustment to meet a perverse and overtly sexualized impulse is a widely accepted norm. A cautionary tale marked with psychosexual imagery and a satisfyingly tragic and totally earned downer ending, “Rabid,” twisted as it is, feels a little bit like Cronenberg-lite to those of us who expect his horrors to have real ontological weight, but it’s still a diverting slice of late-70s video nasty . [B]

“Fast Company” (1979)
On the surface,  “Fast Company” a colorful action-drama about professional drag racers, seems like an anomaly in the Cronenberg canon, and certainly when it arrived in 1979 it was unlike anything the director has attempted to date. But especially with the benefit of hindsight, it has its place as an important marker for a complete picture of Cronenberg — his first work in non-exploitation, gross-out mode, it’s also his first film with a few notable collaborators, including  cinematographer Mark Irwin and production designer Carol Spier. But of most interest to the Cronenberg student, it’s the first exploration of Cronenberg’s fascination with cars and car culture — a preoccupation bordering on the fetishistic that found frequent expression later on in his career, most astonishingly with his adaptation of JG Ballard‘s “Crash.” But if here, however, there’s little of that kind of overt psychosexual perversity on display, instead you feel the director’s fascination with the material in his almost documentary-like approach: the flashiness of the vehicles, the roar of engines and the tremble of the cockpit — it certainly borders on obsessive. On the commentary track, Cronenberg describes the film as a “tone piece,” playings up its archetypal western imagery which suggests how anomalous it is amid the horrors and slahser-indebted sci-fi thrillers that were mre his stock in trade back then. But “Fast Company” may be most atypical for being sort of disposable — a fun and breezy ride (featuring some excellent race sequences, some of which are real and some of which are cunningly restaged and shot) and filled with slightly winky B-movie actors, including John Saxon and even a Playboy Playmate of the Year (Claudia Jennings, who died tragically in a car accident a few months after filming the movie). It’s pretty banal, but in the anything-but-banal catalogue of Cronenberg films, that gives it its own weird, sincere charm. [B+]

“The Brood” (1979)
Any fears (or hopes, if you are the sort of cinemagoer that we are not) that Cronenberg might continue in the petrolhead vein of “Fast Company” were swiftly quashed with his very next feature. “The Brood,” as its status as the fifth Cronenberg title to get the Criterion seal of approval might imply, is terrific, and it derives at least some of its considerable power from what we can read as an intensely personal connection to the material. It’s an occasionally truly revolting allegory for everything from the dangers of psychobabble, to the horrors of divorce to the monstrousness of motherhood, which all makes more sense when you realize it was made during a prolonged and painful child custody battle following Cronenberg’s divorce from his first wife. Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed) is a pioneering psychiatrist/quack whose “psychoplasmosis” technique provides patients with catharsis but also induces inexplicable physical transformations and manifestations. His primary client is Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) who is going through an acrimonious divorce from her husband Frank (Art Hindle) whom she is fighting for custody of their young daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds). So far, so “Kramer vs Kramer,” but then along comes the band of murderous navel-less dwarf creatures — a batch of demons literally born from Nola’s otherwise un-sublimated rage. Combining intellectual, metaphorical and visceral shocks, and building to one of the most unforgettable and queasiest finales in horror cinema, “The Brood” stands out even within the outré Cronenberg oeuvre, as a Grand Guignol high point. [A-]

READ MORE: Watch: Explore David Cronenberg’s Dangerous Method With 7-Minute Look At His Films

“Scanners” (1981)
It’s a mark of the mind-staining gross-out excesses of “The Brood” that “Scanners,” even with its iconic exploding heads can feel like a nice fireside chat if you watch these two contiguous titles back to back. Far less a horror than a thriller, perhaps even the kind of paranoid conspiracy b-movie thriller that might today be called a “schlockbuster,” “Scanners” follows an underground society of telepaths (all born to women who took the same experimental drug during pregnancy) who after years as social outcasts are being organized into an army of sorts by one of their own, the villainous Darryl Revok (a film- and career-defining performance from Michael Ironside, definitely the film’s MVP). But perhaps because Cronenberg seems less frightened and more fascinated by this twisted take on evolution, and fails to provide us with anyone in this bleak, impersonally corporate and dehumized world worth actually caring for, “Scanners” stops some way short of the throught-provoking cleverness of his best titles. Instead, we’re treated to a series of good prosthetic scenes, visual freakouts and noteworthy moments rather than anything more coherent or overall satisfying. It’s an often intense experience, but one with curiously little sustain — it has almost been overshadowed by its own absurdly famous and enjoyable cranium-busting scene — and as many of Cronenberg’s virtues and preoccupations as it displays, it also suffers from an extreme case of his main Achilles heel, in the complete absence of characters in whose fate we can actually get at all invested. [B-]

“Videodrome” (1983)
Marking the end of the opening chapter of Cronenberg’s many-phased career in vehement, astounding style, “Videodrome” is a near-perfect early encapsulation of many concerns that crop up time and again for the filmmaker: the body vs. the mind, illusion vs. reality, and the seductive, erotic power of technology. And as such it still works like a key that unlocks his filmography: it may be the most Cronenbergian Cronenberg film. It also perhaps marks the first time the director struck a convincing balance between the body-horror genre he was working within, and the sublimely chilly cerebrality of his tone: even as guns graft, claw-like onto bone (prefiguring the less successful “eXistenZ“), and our protagonist grapples with his disintegrating reality, and Debbie Harry writhes in pleasure at a self-inflicted cigarette burn, the film remains cool to the touch, emotionally. This intellectual remove could make proceedings less visceral, and yet that tightrope is walked with characteristic intelligence (like or loathe his films, there is no doubt Cronenberg is crazy smart). Prescient to the point of clairvoyance, yet entirely of its period too (Betamax!) the story of sleaze merchant Max’s (James Woods) descent into techo-induced madness and mind control somehow manages to reward even more in light of the work that would come later. Dated, current and futuristic all at once, “Videodrome” was then, is now and will always be, terrific. Long live the new flesh, indeed. [A]

“The Dead Zone” (1983)
1983 might just be a kind of annus mirabilis for Cronenberg, as in that year two early examples of the twin poles of Cronenberg’s abilities and interests were both released. After the beautiful disturbing oddity of “Videodrome” came his first jaunt into the relatively safe, but foreign (for him) world of the big-budget Hollywood thriller. An adaptation of Stephen King‘s short, lithe novel, “The Dead Zone” stars a tremendous Christopher Walken in an atypically sympathetic role (atypical both for him and for Cronenberg whose leads are more often unlikeably detached or all-out demonic). Walken is Johnny Smith, a small-town teacher who, emerges from a coma after an accident to discover he has unwelcome new-found psychic abilities, which allow him to glimpse a person’s future just by touching them. Jeffrey Boam‘s screenplay condenses the already tight novel cleverly while still fonding space for atmosphere (an interlude where Smith assists a cop, played by Tom Skerritt, is particularly haunting). And Martin Sheen, too, adds a dash of charm and menace as a political candidate who will turn power-mad tyrant if left unchecked (the famously liberal Sheen, many years before his “West Wing” debut, portrays him not unlike then-president Reagan). The stakes may be high, but the movie’s headier themes (it directly asks under what circumstances a political assassination might be justified, as well as wondering if killing to avert a crime can ever be moral) for perhaps the only time in Cronenberg’s career, are overshadowed by the tug of the film’s emotional currents. The love of his Smith’s life (Brooke Adams) has moved on and is now married with a child, and Walken portrays her loss as just as haunting as the images of death and doom that spring unbidden to his mind’s eye. Of Cronenberg’s not-particularly Cronenbergian films, “The Dead Zone” is among the best, and most underrated. [A-]

“The Fly” (1986)
Like a good cover song, a good remake is one that’s distinctively different from its predecessor(s) — it might share DNA but it’s got its own fingerprints and is the child of its own generation. Like John Carpenter‘s “The Thing,” which came out four years prior to Cronenberg’s brilliant re-envisioning, “The Fly” was cutting-edge in effects and prosthetics (Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis won the Oscar for the makeup), but most importantly it took the bare bones of an older story and grafted the flesh of the director’s own unique sensibility onto them. In so doing, Cronenberg turned in the most successful and influential hybrid of his career, somehow smuggling so much of his own chilly, controlled intelligence into a tightly scripted romantic drama that plays out, with almost classical austerity as a three-act tragedy. Containing perhaps Jeff Goldblum’s greatest and most affecting performance, he brings his lanky, oddball energy to obsessive scientist Seth Brundle in all his psychological and physical manifestations: from sweet gauche genius geek to power-mad asshole and finally grotesque, psychotic freak. There are layers of subtext that are appropriate for the age (the specter of AIDS panic haunts the fringes of the film’s degenerating body-horror) and Geena Davis‘ love interest gets to be so much more than the love interest, emerging as its most resilient hero, as well as the star of its ickiest scene (which may be a dream sequence, but it’s still fantastically gross) while also getting to deliver its most iconic line (all together now): “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” [A]

“Dead Ringers” (1988)
Inspired by the stranger-than-fiction (unless that fiction is Cronenberg’s) story of real-life twin gynaecologists, this disturbing film tempers the director’s long-running body horror fascination with some of the more psychological and philosophical conundrums of the human experience. Protagonists Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons), identical twins so close they are almost one person, share literally everything and take to impersonating each other as it suits them, which leads to decidedly unethical situations both in their medical practice and their personal lives. Though one is slightly more sensitive and recalcitrant than the other, they both, like many Cronenberg “heroes,” lack basic emotional intelligence, something which, coupled with their chosen field of gynecology, allows them to take hideous advantage of women at their most vulnerable. It’s not until a woman (Genevieve Bujold) comes between them (graphically symbolized in a vivid dream of said woman attempting to chew through the fleshy umbilical cord that binds the twins in their symbiotic existence) that things start to fall apart. Mostly taking a break from gross-out prosthetics and gore “Dead Ringers” was Cronenberg at his most visually restrained, served well by the aristocratic Irons, whose masterful double performance, enabled by motion control camerawork, allows the audience to tell the identical twins apart, most of the time, by mannerisms alone. And yet there are moments of completely visceral unease woven in (God those nightmarish gynaecological instruments) and amid the cold-to-the-touch photography resulting from the director’s first collaboration with future longtime cohort, cinematographer Peter Suchitzky, the jangling uncanniness of ‘Dead Ringers’ lingers long after the credits roll. [A-]

READ MORE: David Cronenberg Says Stanley Kubrick Didn’t Understand Horror And That ‘The Shining’ Is Not “A Great Film”

“Naked Lunch” (1991)
Unusually, for a filmmaker embarking on such an endeavor, Cronenberg himself more or less agreed with those who suggested that “Naked Lunch,” by William S Burroughs, a writer to whom Cronenberg had long felt a kinship, was “unfilmable.” Or rather, a direct interpretation “would cost $400 million to make and be banned in every country in the world.” Which is why his adaptation is not really an adaptation at all, it’s more a palimpsest, providing several parallel, occasionally overlapping narratives that weave together fictionalized events from Burroughs’ own life with the storylines from his most famous book. It ultimately, somewhat surprisingly, becomes a meditation on the creative process, albeit one with more talking typewriter bugs with assholes for mouths than most other such. Grotesque, demented and dark, “Naked Lunch” is also mordantly funny, mining a vein of hallucinatory satire exaggerated to the point of absurdity, and showing Cronenberg’s always present but often deep-buried sense of humor more overtly than most of his mid-period titles.  Protagonist Bill Lee (the Burroughs surrogate, played by Peter Weller) is an exterminator who gets high on bug powder, to which his wife (Judy Davis) is also addicted. Together Davis and Weller both deliver droll performances, until the notorious true-life William Tell scene is replayed and Bill is plunged into the oneiric world of the Interzone, and a series of disjointed, sci-fi-noir adventures ensue. Clark Nova, the aforementioned typewriter bug provides a kind of ongoing foul minded commentary addressing Lee’s latent homosexuality and the folly of creativity among other issues,and the collaboration between the late Ornette Coleman and Howard Shore yields an eccentric pulp score. Perhaps inevitably, the film fails to knit together into anything coherent, or any real kind of manifesto, but the scope of its ambition is staggering and the mastery of tone remarkable considering that tone is the trickiest part of this hubristic, caustic, altered-state extended delusion.  [B]

“M. Butterfly” (1993)
The straight-up period handsomeness of  “A Dangerous Method” seemed to zoom in out of leftfield for those glancingly acquainted with Cronenberg’s name and output, but we’d wager that’s because they simply forgot about, or had never seen “M. Butterfly,” to which it bears some similarities. In 1960s China, a French diplomat (played by Jeremy Irons) falls in love with an opera singer and the film unfolds essentially as a straightforward romantic drama. Considered within the Cronenberg canon, and as the follow-up to “Naked Lunch” it is perhaps one of the strangest films he’s ever made, because it’s so relatively “normal.” Of course, there are sexually transgressive overtones, that arise from a particular plot twist, but aside from that in theme and form, it’s largely unweird, and oddly for a Cronenberg film, also largely devoid of allegorical or satirical elements too. Perhaps because of this specificity, time hasn’t been kind to “M.Butterfly” which was also kind of reviled on release, with certain elements just not quite working out (John Lone’s opera singer is not hugely convincing pre-reveal) and the political subtext remaining stodgily undercooked. This a picture that’s oddly hard to take seriously, despite or perhaps because of the director’s evident desire to make a straight-up, strait-laced melodrama. While the picture attempts to convey a desperate passion that throws caution to the wind and disastrously defies social norms and good judgment alike (Irons’ character ultimately loses everything because of his indiscretions), it remains maybe the most curious failure of his career: a “tasteful” one.  [C-]

“Crash” (1996)
Was ever a novelist more perfectly paired with a director than JG Ballard with David Cronenberg? It’s hard to imagine anyone else could have approached the author’s demented 1973 story of car crash fetishism and creepy celebrity worship, and actually taken it further, turning it into a chilling portrayal of premillenial angst as manifested in an eroticized technophilia. But Cronenberg’s instinct for this material is innate, and he makes out of this ‘only from Ballard’ story an unmistakably Cronenberg film. Reviled and banned in some territories on release, with its graphic depictions of violence and sex, in particular the bit where… how to put this delicately… where James Spader fucks Rosanna Arquette‘s leg wound, “Crash” is certainly not for everyone (and we can’t but smile at the thought of some great-aunt renting the DVD when they wanted the trite Best Picture winner of the same name — it has to have happened, right?). But for fans of both Cronenberg and Ballard, and really anyone with an adult interest in what our ever-increasing obsession with technology might be doing to our relationships and to our psyches (to our souls, perhaps), it is vital, riveting filmmaking. Holly Hunter and Elias Koteas, especially, give great turns and Spader is perfect as another of Cronenberg’s cold, creepy protagonists (see Woods, Irons, Weller, and more latterly, Mortensen). But this is a film of ideas, some ugly, some profound, all disquieting, and the film pulsates with such perverse intelligence that those ideas don’t so much stay with you, as chase you out of the theater, across the parking lot… and into your car, which may or may not seem quite the same machine it was a couple of hours before. [A]

“eXistenZ” (1999)
It’s easy to dismiss this effort from Cronenberg as too lightweight to make much of an impression on us now, and too easily lost in the rush of apparently similar fin de siecle technophobic genre pictures to really score points back when it was released. But “eXistenZ”  though undeniably flawed, is a delirious, prophetic romp, that has aged remarkably well, all things considered, accurately and mischievously foreshadowing the age of atomization wrought by the internet. It’s also run through with a disarmingly self-reflexive streak: one of the characters even bellows “Death to realism!” before flambéing a videogame console. Willem Dafoe is asked “Don’t you ever go to the fucking movies?” before having his throat blasted out with a cattle-gun. And Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a welcome lead performance as game designer Allegra Geller who must enter her own game, eXistenZ, to prevent its “meta-flesh” from becoming contaminated. On hand is a hammy and simpering against-type Jude Law (itself a courageous choice of role for so pretty an actor) playing a greenhorn marketing trainee with a phobia of having his body “penetrated surgically,” but it’s hardly a character study, or even anything we’re supposed to take particularly seriously (perhaps its closest recent analogy is in fact “Maps to the Stars” in that regard). This is a film as much built around fastidious minutely detailed production design as recognisable human behavior or particularly cutting social insights. But even that is not really a criticism when the design is this fascinating, from the bone-grafted guns to the in-jokey references, that cannibalize Cronenberg’s own back catalogue (particularly “Videodrome,” though for a new and even more vacuous generation addicted to their entertainments) and even include a nod to Philip K Dick in the fast food joint from which the characters eat being named “Perky Pat’s” in honor of one of Dick’s short stories. Not his most resonant or provocative work, still “eXistenZ” is surprisingly well worth a revisit. [B/B+]

“Spider” (2002)
Few enough of us summon “eXistenZ” top of mind when thinking about Cronenberg, but we’d wager even few think of “Spider,” the second of two peri-millennium pictures from the director that missed with both audiences and critics. But 13 years after release, a little like its immediate predecessor, “Spider” feels like it’s served its time in that forgotten gray area, and deserves a reevaluation — one it can stand up to on account of being, actually, really good. Starring a committed-as-ever Ralph Fiennes as a man recently released from a mental institution who glides through life without speaking, haunted by the past, it’s been described as a detective film where the investigator, perpetrator and victim are all inside the head of the same person, which feels like an accurate and compelling summation to us. Cronenberg, with frequent collaborators composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, creates an atmosphere rich with dread and psychological unease, and unusually for such a coolly cerebral director, it really feels like he gets his hands a little dirty here, muddying up the boundaries between reality and fantasy, past and present (Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne appear as Fiennes’ parents), in a manner reminiscent of “Naked Lunch” but without the sly smile. Instead, there’s a wide streak of melancholy in “Spider” again unusual from such a rigorously unsentimental filmmaker, which adds layers to what eventually becomes one of the director’s most disturbingly real-world chillers. While it doesn’t sit altogether comfortably in any of the categories Cronenberg spans, it deserves to be looked at as mire than the director idling between big films, his engine barely ticking over. As a transitional film between the body horror concerns of “eXistenZ,” and the dawning of the next highly accessible, Viggo Mortensen-led chapter in Cronenberg’s many-splendored career, it’s perhaps the underrated title of his that’s most ripe for rediscovery. [B+]

“A History Of Violence” (2005)
Considered, if not a “return to form” for Cronenberg, then the discovery of an entirely new form, “A History of Violence” is his first teaming with Viggo Mortenson, who plays Tom Stall, a small town family man with a hidden past. The film, notably shorn of all otherworldly, surreal or schlock-horror elements, nonetheless simmers with tension, erupting into violence in the second half, but haunted by its possibility all the way through. Family man Tom, married to Edie (Maria Bello) gains unwanted status as town hero when he successfully defends his diner from thieves, whom he kills with chilling ease. The repercussions of this event raise old ghosts from the grave of the past, (Ed Harris and an Oscar-nominated William Hurt are terrific in revelatory supporting roles as Tom’s nemesis and brother, respectively — the film really reestablished both actors). Josh Olson’s screenplay, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner really plays up the B-movie, gritty pulp aspect but this is Mortensen’s show: suggesting so much going on beneath a frozen surface, he makes even silences feel thunderous. Before this, Cronenberg was most famous for his science-fiction/horror flicks, but here he, like his protagonist, turns away from the excesses of his past, channeling his interests instead into a taut, yet resolutely real-world story. As a psychological, sometimes melodramatic investigation of the effect on violence on its victims, its perpetrators and those who, despite trying to run from it, find it their natural state, it is a fantastically controlled and compelling performance piece. And the  anticlimactic ending does divide us slightly, with half us feeling unfulfilled and the other half sighing “that’s the point, doofus”  even that is a minor quibble. ‘History’ ushered in a new phase for Cronenberg, but it arrived fully formed. [A-]

READ MORE: David Cronenberg Calls ‘The Dark Knight’ Movies “Boring,” Says Christopher Nolan’s Best Film Is ‘Memento

“Eastern Promises” (2007)
After tentatively stepping into mainstream territory with “A History of Violence,” Cronenberg consolidated that move with the again-almost-straightforward crime thriller “Eastern Promises,” but what’s perhaps surprising is how successful the film is on its own terms. While some of the director’s trademark concerns are in evidence (bodies, and their mutilation, still fascinate, be it through tattoos, the stubbing of a cigarette on a tongue, the dispassionate dissection of a corpse or the roiling, writhing, inordinately fleshy, naked fight in the steam room), here they are relegated to character background or incidental action; they don’t inform the main thrust of the plot. Instead we get an engrossing, well-researched, low-key mafia movie, only here the city is London and the Mafia is Russian. And in Naomi Watts‘ midwife, dogged in her mission to solve the mystery of a young girl who died in her care, we are given possibly the first Cronenberg protagonist since “The Dead Zone”‘s Christopher Walken who we are actively encouraged to like. But it’s Mortensen who steals the show (though Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel both give him a run for his money). His Nikolai is a mass of contradictions and moral conundrums, marshaled into a conflicted but frighteningly disciplined killer: it’s a character we’re happy we’re going to see more of, if the mooted sequel happens. Yes, there were those who lamented the evolution of the Cronenberg movie from the cerebral schlock of yesteryear to the brainy accessibility characterized by “Eastern Promises,” based on a terrific, crackling script by Steven Knight, but while it might be classical in form, there’s a steely, sinewy tensile strength to his films from this period that by rights deserves to be seen as as much a Cronenberg hallmark as viscera and VHS tapes. [A-]

“A Dangerous Method” (2011)
David Cronenberg is not just an auteur — he’s a dynamic storyteller, something can shine through even when he’s tacking films that do not at first blush appear to be within his auteurist wheelhouse. In “A Dangerous Method,” he employs all of that flair, twisting and tweaking the structure of this curious psychodrama in ways no other director would approach. Depicting the professional tensions between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and Jung’s flirtation with student/patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), he juxtaposes the straight-laced nervousness of Jung, the cigar-chewing (natch) boldness of Freud and the bedroom dysfunction of the genuinely tortured Spielrein. But he’s also having a wry laugh at the proceedings, depicting Freud as a psychological bully who treats everyone as his test subjects, and Jung as the whimsical genius who starts to credit his own mind-powers almost as a reflexive response to Freud’s subtle bullying. “A Dangerous Method” divided Cronenberg fans who couldn’t grasp where it settled on the spectrum between starchy, talky period film and kinky Cronenbergian sexual melodrama. But once again, he is exploring the horrors of the body (Jung is almost repulsed by his own longings) in a way both subtle and perversely overt. Whether that synthesis spices up a conventional, talky period drama, or simply renders the film less successful as a period drama, is an ongoing debate, as is Knightley’s physical, gurning performance. It’s a hard film to adore, but an impossible one to dismiss: perhaps appreciating its strengths from an appropriately analytical remove is the only right answer. [B]

“Cosmopolis” (2012)
After the comparatively mainstream one-two punch of “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises,” “Cosmopolis” both is and isn’t a return to the Canadian body horror auteur’s more transgressive roots. To be sure, this opaque, occasionally frustrating adaptation of Don DeLillo’s steel-edged novel is anything but mainstream, featuring proctology exams conducted in limousines, resentful protesters brandishing dead rats in city streets and, in the final stretch of the film, some truly gruesome Cronenbergian violence. And yet, while the director has always employed a sort of clinical remove from his characters, his view of this movie’s central protagonist – Eric Packer, played with a minimal affectations and a disarming, ghostly pallor by Robert Pattinson in what many consider to be his first respectable role – is practically anemic, even lifeless at points. Packer spends the film’s runtime crawling across a vaguely apocalyptic New York City in a limo on his way to a haircut, and the character fits in snugly with the archetypical Cronenberg antihero. He’s morose, cynical, enthralled by sex, death and technology. Pattinson commits to his character’s non-identity admirably, although the hermetically congealed alternate universe in which “Cosmopolis” unfolds is ultimately more distancing than compelling. It isn’t until the film’s haunting third act, which features a mesmerizing scene set in Packer’s favorite childhood barbershop and the murderous advances of a disgruntled blue-collar nut named Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti, grizzled and shouting quite a bit) that “Cosmopolis” hints at the great, daring satire that it might have been. DeLillo die-hards may dig it, and fans of Cronenberg’s should give it a go just for curiosity’s sake, but sadly, “Cosmopolis” is a far cry from the director’s great, early work. [C]

“Maps to the Stars” (2014)
Tinseltown has never seemed more rancid then in “Maps to the Stars”, a fiendish, mostly brilliant and thoroughly off-putting Hollywood ghost story.  Cronenberg’s career making movies is going on four decades now, touching on everything from low-budget body horror to operatic period pieces, beat generation adaptations and straight-up crime films, and his signature brand of chilling alien deadness remains one of the most singularly disorienting cinematic experiences one can be exposed to. He remains typically fascinated with the human body as a horror show but this time around, he’s more taken with the literal possibilities of incest and the metaphysical aspects of death and love. “Maps” opens on a young, boyish-looking woman (Mia Wasikowska) on a Greyhound bus headed for Hollywood, California. She wears a hooded sweater that reads “Bad Babysitter” and has horrible burn marks on her neck and long, svelte black gloves covering her arms. Who is she? Without giving too much away, she’s involved in an Ouroboric tangle between some truly hideous, fucked-up people, all of whom we will come to know entirely too well. Julianne Moore lends her proclivity for scenery-chewing to the marvellous, hideously lived-in role of Havana Segrand, a pathetic has-been starlet whose bouts of prescription pill abuse and deviant sex are fueled by her unerring desire to embody the spirit of her mother by starring in the film that made her famous (Havana’s mother was burned in a fire, not a coincidence). Also in the mix are Benji Weiss (Ethan Bird), a vile, hateful child actor and the star of the “Bad Babysitter” franchise, a dim-bulb chauffeur with misguided authorial aspirations (Robert Pattinson) and a self-help guru named Stafford (John Cusack) who privately stews in concealed resentment and rage before disguising it as New Age doublespeak. This is an art film with the soul of a midnight movie, as mordantly funny and brazenly disturbing as Cronenberg was in his prime. [B+]

What’s your take on the many phases of Cronenberg’s career? Let us know in the comments.  — Jessica Kiang, Nicholas Laskin, the Playlist Staff.

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