Internationally renowned Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg turns 70 on March 15. The Toronto-based director behind such films as "Videodrome," "The Fly," "Eastern Promises," and "Cosmopolis" is generally recognized as one of the most enigmatic and boundary-pushing filmmakers currently working, and is often called the father of the body horror genre. Cronenberg's films -- even his most mainstream movies -- are often preoccupied with concepts of disease, deterioration, physical transformation, and reality versus illusion. Never the most commercially successful filmmaker, Cronenberg's movies may not top the box office, but they're sure to always leave you thinking about it afterwards.
Here's a look back at some of the many highlights from Cronenberg's long and varied career.
The recognizable hallmarks of the body horror genre were evident early in Cronenberg’s career. The 1977 zombie movie “Rabid” follows Rose, a woman who undergoes experimental plastic surgery after being seriously injured in a motorcycle crash. Rose survives, but soon grows an “appendage” in her armpit that feeds on the blood of other people – transforming them into zombies in the process. Although actress Sissy Spacek (“Carrie”) was Cronenberg’s first choice, 1970s adult movie star Marilyn Chambers ended up in the lead role. Chambers was picked by producer Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”) because it was believed her porn fame would make the movie easier to market.
In 1979’s “The Brood,” Cronenberg tackled the still-touchy subject of divorce in a way that only he could: with murderous mutant children! “Kramer vs. Kramer” this was not. The film follows Frank (Art Hindle), the estranged husband of Nola (Samantha Eggar), a mentally disturbed woman who has been institutionalized and is under the care of experimental psychotherapist Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). After Nola’s mother is found brutally murdered, Frank begins to question Dr. Raglan’s unorthodox treatments and uncovers the horrifying results of his wife’s therapy. Cronenberg, who was going through a very difficult divorce and custody battle while making the film, has said that “The Brood” was “as close to autobiography that I've ever come."
Cronenberg’s 1981 sci-fi horror film “Scanners” is perhaps best known for its shocking opening scene in which a man has his head violently blown apart by telekinetic psycho Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside). Talk about starting a movie with a bang! The titular scanners are rare people gifted with extraordinary mental abilities like telepathy and telekinesis. Scanners like Revok are being rounded up by a weapons and security systems manufacturer looking to exploit to exploit these telepaths for their own ends. “Scanners” was at least partly inspired by author William S. Burrough’s 1959 novel “Naked Lunch” – which featured a faction of evil telepaths called “Senders” intent on world domination. Cronenberg would later adapt “Naked Lunch” for the 1991 film of the same name.
While the Canadian director’s earlier work attracted a lot of attention due to its violent and disturbing content, it was Cronenberg’s infamous 1983 film “Videodrome” that really put him on the international map. The film is a surreal and stomach-churning examination of the effects of sex and violence in the media -- specifically television -- on the viewer. Max Renn (James Woods) is a seedy TV channel owner always on the lookout for provocative new programming. After coming across a mysterious broadcast called Videodrome -- a sick but seemingly fictional television show in which anonymous victims are tortured and killed -- Renn thinks he’s discovered the “future of television.” Renn soon learns that the show is not staged and quickly begins losing touch with reality. “Videodrome” was heavily influenced by the theories of Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan – put through Cronenberg’s pus-spewing, viscera-covered wringer, naturally. Unsurprisingly, McCluhan was one of Cronenberg’s professors at the University of Toronto in the early 1970s. The director even based the character of Professor Brian O’Blivion on the famed academic.
A remake of the classic 1958 horror movie of the same name, “The Fly” is probably one of Cronenberg’s more accessible films. Jeff Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, a brilliant scientist who develops a working teleporter and offers science journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) the big scoop on his invention. When Brundle accidentally has his DNA crossed with a common house fly after an experiment gone awry, he slowly begins to transform into half-human, half-insect creature. The film was produced by legendary comic actor/director Mel Brooks, who originally distanced himself from the project so that people wouldn’t think the movie was a comedy.
After few mainstream endeavours in the 1980s like “The Fly” and “The Dead Zone,” Cronenberg returned in full force to the weird and wild with his loose adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ novel “Naked Lunch.” Perhaps his strangest movie ever (and that’s really saying something when you’re talking about David Cronenberg), the film took the already bizarre subject matter and made it even more mind-bending. Blending Burroughs’s drug-induced writings with elements from the author’s real life, the film follows Bill Lee (“Robocop” star Peter Weller), an exterminator who becomes addicted to bug spray and soon becomes embroiled in an insect conspiracy to take over an exotic port town called Interzone. Weird, right? You have no idea. The movie was originally going to be filmed in Morocco (the first Cronenberg movie to be shot outside of his native Toronto), but a combination of generous tax incentives from the Ontario government and disruptions caused by the first Gulf War ended up keeping the movie in Canada.
Not to be confused with the Oscar winning 2004 movie of the same name, Cronenberg’s 1996 film “Crash” is amongst the director’s more controversial works. Based on novelist J. G. Ballard's 1973 novel of the same name, “Crash” follows a group of people with a very particular and peculiar fetish: they’re turned on by car crashes. The film, which won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, divided critics (with some heaping praise on it, while others calling for it to be banned) and was given an NC-17 rating in the United States because of its graphic sex and vehicular violence. You may never look at a car the same way after watching this movie.
“A History of Violence”
The first of many successful collaborations between “Lord of the Rings” star Viggo Mortensen and Cronenberg, “A History of Violence” follows Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a small-town family man with a big secret. After violently foiling a robbery at his diner, Stall’s heroics attract the attention of the media – and some very dangerous people claiming to be from his past. While “A History of Violence” is light on Cronenberg’s trademark body horror, the film does involve many of the themes commonly found in the director’s work – mistaken identity, amnesia, an uncertain reality, etc. “A History of Violence” was the last major Hollywood film to be released on VHS – a somewhat appropriate distinction given Cronenberg’s earlier work, which both thrived on and glorified the lo-fi format.
Cronenberg quite hilariously attracted the attention of an unlikely segment -- that is, Twi-hards -- when he cast "Twilight Saga" star Robert Pattinson in this 2012 adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel "Cosmopolis." RPattz played Eric Packer, a young billionaire on a limo-bound cross-town odyssey to get a haircut. It may sound like a mundane premise (and, yes, the film is a little slow at times), but Packer packs a lot into his self-destructive journey, including a prostate exam, a hip-hop funeral, and lunch with his wife, as well as run ins with rat-chucking protesters, a pie-throwing prankster, and a crazed assassin determined to kill him. Sounds like a return to form for the director! Impressively, Cronenberg wrote the script in just six days.
Since emerging as one of Canada’s foremost filmmaking talents in the early 1980s, Cronenberg’s career has constantly undulated between the weird and disturbing (like “Dead Ringers,” “Naked Lunch,” and “Existenz”) and more palatable, somewhat mainstream fare (like “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method”). He's very hard to pin down, though. Every time Cronenberg makes one of those so-called “normal” movies, the seasoned director seems to turn around and create something marvelously eccentric and curiously bizarre.
Whether Cronenberg will begin to mellow in his old age or continue on this irregular (but always interesting) path is anyone’s guess. Either way, happy birthday, Dave!