Like Tobe Hooper and George Romero, David Cronenberg sprang into public consciousness with a series of low-budget horror films that shocked and surprised audiences for their sheer audacity and intelligence. Unlike the former two filmmakers, Cronenberg has been able to avoid being pigeonholed into a single restrictive genre category. His works, which consistently explore the same themes, have the mark of a true auteur in the strictest sense of the word. Cronenberg's films have the unnerving ability to delve into society's collective unconscious and dredge up all of the perverse, suppressed desires of modern life. His world features grotesque deformities, hallucinatory couplings, and carnality unhinged from its corporeal moorings.
Born on March 15, 1943, in Toronto, Canada, Cronenberg was the son of a freelance journalist and a piano teacher. He was raised in a nurturing middle class family and wrote constantly as a child, showing a strong interest in science, particularly in botany and lepidopterology (the study of moths). In 1963, he entered the University of Toronto as an Honors Science student, though he quickly grew disenchanted and within a year switched to the Honors English Language and Literature program. During this time, Cronenberg was profoundly impressed by Winter Kept Us Warm (1966) by classmate David Secter. Though previously not especially interested in film, this student work piqued his interest, and soon he was hanging out at film camera rental houses where he taught himself the ins and outs of filmmaking. He made two no-budget 16mm films (Transfer and From the Drain), and -- inspired by the underground film scene in New York -- he founded the Toronto Film Co-op with Iain Ewing and Ivan Reitman. After a year traveling in Europe, Cronenberg returned to Canada and graduated at the top of his class in 1967.
After making the avant-garde sci-fi flick Stereo (1969), Cronenberg became one of the first recipients of CFDC (Canadian Film Development Corporation) funding for his follow-up, Crimes of the Future (also 1969), a dark, surreal experimental exploration of sexuality. After these two films, Cronenberg realized that working in a strictly experimental venue was ultimately a dead end -- he wanted to broaden his audience.
With Reitman as the producer, Cronenberg made his feature debut with the low-budget horror flick Shivers (1975). Recalling Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Shivers gleefully presents the audience with phallus-like parasites that turn an apartment full of well-to-do professionals into a throng of sex-mad maniacs. Shivers sharply divided critics. Cronenberg made two more films with direct or indirect funding from the CFDC -- Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979). Both of these films, along with Shivers, form a rough trilogy of sorts about physical evolutions of the body bringing civilization to its knees. In Rabid, featuring Ivory Pure model-turned-porn star Marilyn Chambers as Typhoid Mary, a virulent strain of rabies that reduces victims to foaming murderous animals devastates the city of Montreal. In The Brood, a mother manifests her angers as bloodthirsty, hideously misshapen children.
Cronenberg's breakthrough film was his 1981 box office hit Scanners. Featuring an overtly sci-fi story line, a sinister performance by Michael Ironside, and an infamous exploding head scene, the film established Cronenberg's name beyond the exploitation house and drive-in audiences. Two years later, Cronenberg followed this up with his masterful Videodrome. Told in a Burroughs-esque fractured stream of consciousness, the film concerns Renn, a sleazy cable TV operator, who discovers that the mysterious snuff cable he happened upon gives the viewers brain tumors. Humans and media hardware merge in unexpected, strangely sexual ways: video tapes throb like organs, and a tape is slotted into a vagina like gash in a human abdomen. Though Videodrome's awe of video may seem dated, the film's basic questioning of technology seems perhaps more relevant today than it did when it first premiered. After mining his own personal nightmare, Cronenberg opted for comparatively lighter fare and directed The Dead Zone (1983), adapted from a Stephan King novel. Though this was the first and thus far only script that he did not have a hand in writing, the film's emphasis on off-kilter psychologies and disease bears Cronenberg's unmistakable stamp.
Eventually, Cronenberg agreed to remake the 1958 horror classic The Fly (1986). Both a wild gore-fest and a brilliant metaphor for aging, Cronenberg's Fly is a more harrowing and emotionally powerful work than the original. The film also recalled the intensity and intimacy of his early horror works such as The Brood. Consisting of only three main characters and basically one setting, the film obsessively depicts the lead character's slow and gruesome mutation, complete with dropped-off body parts, into a human-fly hybrid. The film proved to a terrific critical and financial success. With his directing reputation cemented, Cronenberg edged away from horror/sci-fi genres and made the chilling character study Dead Ringers (1988). Based on a National Enquirer headline about the real-life case of the Marcus brothers, a pair of fratricidal identical twin gynecologists, the film clinically portrays the duo as their identities slowly disintegrate and merge.
Cronenberg followed up Dead Ringers with the decidedly less commercial Naked Lunch (1991). Less an adaptation of William S. Burroughs' classic underground novel than a dizzying meditation on the act of writing, the film features some of Cronenberg's most striking images articulating some of his most familiar themes. Talking cockroaches morph into typewriter-like organisms, women suddenly split open and become men, and typewriters possess flesh-like qualities and evolve into undefined sexual organs. His next work, M. Butterfly (1993), is a restrained account of the bizarre true life case of Rene Gallimard, a French embassy worker who never realized that his long-time Chinese lover was in fact a man.
Cronenberg followed M. Butterfly with Crash (1996), his most controversial work to date, based on the profoundly disturbing underground classic by J. D. Ballard. Banned for a time in Britain and rated NC-17 in the U.S., the film is a hypnotic, harrowing journey through a landscape of aberrant sexuality, sterile modernist architecture, emotional blankness, and smashed automobiles. Just as in Ballard's work, Cronenberg takes the familiar cliches of romance and seduction and supplants them with something alien and surreal. James Ballard, the protagonist, engages in an adulterous affair not after a chance meeting, but after a car wreck. The same character penetrates the wound in a severely injured woman's leg instead of using more traditional orifices. Daring and frightening, Crash won a Special Jury Prize at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.
For his 1999 film eXistenZ, he wrote his first original script since Videodrome. Inspired by the fugitive life of author Salman Rushdie, whom Cronenberg interviewed for a magazine, the film concerns a game's designer on the run from a band of Luddite terrorists. Cronenberg brilliantly reverses all Blade Runner-like cliches of the coming cyberpunk future by setting the film in a rustic mountain forest where old fish canneries serve as biotech factories.
Fans who were left thirsting for more following the innovative cyberpunk exploits of eXistenZ faced an extended dry spell in the following three years, left with little more than an introspective and fascinating six-minute short entitled Camera that proved a study in celluliods relationship with ageing and death. Though his involvement with the planned sequel to Basic Instinct may not quite have been the film fans had hoped for, plans quickly fell through and Cronenberg began to express interest in author Patrick McGrath's book Spider. A haunting study in mental decay, the material seemed ideally suited to Cronenberg's dark outlook, and it wasn't long before McGrath was adapting his novel into a screenplay for the eager director. Recieving generally high marks from critics upon its limited stateside release in early 2003, the film nevertheless proved a hard sell due to its brooding and deliberate pacing.
In the years that followed, Cronenberg moved into genres he hadn't yet charted - with tremendous critical and commercial success across the board. This exploration began in 2005 with A History of Violence - a tough crime thriller with Viggo Mortensen as a man living an unassuming life in Central Indiana, whose dark criminal past explosively catches up with him. Two years later, Cronenberg and Mortensen reunited for the arthouse hit Eastern Promises (2007), with Mortensen as a Russian mafia kingpin living and operating in London; it received glowing reviews and earned considerable box office. Then, in 2011, Cronenberg emerged with a picture in yet another genre: historical drama. His A Dangerous Method co-starred Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley in the tale of psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein and her complex relationships with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. In 2012 he adapted Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis, casting Robert Pattinson as a wealthy young New Yorker having a very hard time getting across town.