Fresh off its celebrated Cannes premiere last month, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future is now in theaters. Cronenberg’s career goes back more than 50 years – in fact, he made a short, low-budget film called Crimes of the Future back in 1970. (This new film is not a remake of the previous one.) His first few features were made in his native Toronto before he began working with Hollywood studios in the 1980s.
The filmmaker is almost synonymous with the body horror sub-genre, but his filmography is much more varied than that. Cronenberg has also made films outside of the horror genre. But whether he’s working in sci-fi, horror, crime, or even a period piece about world-famous psychologists, a Cronenberg film nearly always finds ways to unsettle audiences and live on in their minds. Here are some notable Cronenberg films to watch.
After making several low-budget Canadian features throughout the 1970s (including seminal body horror films like 1975’s Shivers and 1977’s Rabid), Cronenberg finally had his breakthrough in the U.S. with The Brood, which gained extra exposure from censorship fights to achieve an R-rating. The story, which Cronenberg joked was his Kramer vs. Kramer (1979’s Best Picture winner, and the most famous divorce film of the era), involved a separated couple whose fight for custody of their daughter gets enmeshed in psychological experimentation and a series of bizarre murders. But it's the climactic scene, where the origin of the titular brood is finally, fully revealed, that remains forever seared into viewers' memories.
While The Brood provided Cronenberg with his first glimpse of theatrical success outside of his native Canada, Scanners was his first full-fledged box office hit. The film’s complex story – which involves a small population of people born with extraordinary telepathic powers, a secret corporation trying to track them down, and a rogue band of dangerous killers – is undoubtedly gripping, but what truly cemented Scanners in the annals of sci-fi horror films is a scene in the film's first act when the villainous Darryl Revok (terrifyingly brought to life by the menacing Michael Ironside) uses his abilities to quite literally make an enemy’s head explode. That unforgettable visual, revered for its technical wizardry, is one of the most well-known special effects of the pre-CGI era.
A seemingly countless number of Stephen King adaptations were pumped out by Hollywood in the 1980s, ranging from all-time classics (The Shining, Stand By Me) to beloved genre films (The Running Man, Pet Sematary). But let's not sleep on David Cronenberg’s lone King adaptation, which stars Christopher Walken as a man who awakens from a coma with mysterious precognitive abilities. The Dead Zone operates in an almost episodic way, as Walken’s character uses his new gifts to help find a serial killer, save a group of children from drowning, and try to intervene in the aspirations of a severely crooked politician (memorably played by Martin Sheen – acting very differently here than he eventually would on The West Wing).
A 1958 cult classic about a scientist who accidentally fuses with a fly during a teleportation experiment was given new life in one of Hollywood's best remakes. Starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, the story here is mostly the same, but Cronenberg (as one would expect) heavily amps up the creature effects, the gratuitous gore, and the psychosexual energy. Goldblum brings a manic, desperate, and oft-shirtless carnality to the role, helping Cronenberg achieve arguably his purest expression of the body horror sub-genre. The Fly won the Oscar for Best Makeup.
Two years before he would win the Best Actor Oscar for playing a detached millionaire accused of murder in 1990’s Reversal of Fortune, Jeremy Irons first began weaponizing his particular style of icy discomfort in his dual role of identical twin gynecologists in this deranged, nightmarish vision. Dead Ringers represents an interesting first for Cronenberg, as it contains no sci-fi or supernatural elements. But the psychological horror (and, eventually, the gore) are there all the same, and it provided the first hint of just how many different ways a Cronenberg film could profoundly unsettle audiences.
Nope, not the 2004 film about Los Angeles residents from different walks of life colliding in interweaving stories about race and redemption that went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture. This Crash is one of the most notorious films of the ‘90s. An NC-17 rated drama that scandalized and titillated audiences with its story about a small subculture of Los Angeles residents who are aroused by car crashes, and the various damages – to both vehicles and human bodies – that arrive out of them. James Spader, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette, Elias Koteas, and Deborah Kara Unger star, turning in some of the most memorable and disturbing performances of their careers. Crash was named one of the ten best films of the ‘90s by the influential French publication Cahiers du Cinéma.
Cronenberg earned some of the best reviews (and best box office) of his career for directing this adaptation of a cult graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The story concerns a man living the quiet life in a small town in Indiana, until a heroic act draws unanticipated attention, and his hidden past catches up to him. Viggo Mortensen stars (fresh off of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) alongside Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt. A History of Violence received Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor.
In his second collaboration with Cronenberg, Viggo Mortensen received his first Oscar nomination for his memorable portrayal of a bodyguard and assassin for the Russian mob in London. Eastern Promises places Mortensen’s character, Nikolai, in a plot involving the baby of a young Russian woman who dies in childbirth with few clues to her identity, and the midwife (Naomi Watts) who tries to find a home for the child. Eastern Promises is perhaps best remembered for a brutal, extended fight sequence where a naked Nikolai must fend off two knife-wielding assassins in a bathhouse.
For a director whose work had always been in conversation with the most psychological aspects of human sexuality, it seemed almost inevitable that he would eventually make a film about Sigmund Freud himself. A Dangerous Method tells the story of the work both Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his sometimes colleague Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) did with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who was Jung’s patient, student, and lover, and eventually became a celebrated psychoanalyst in her own right. Despite being the most overtly psychological film of Cronenberg’s career, A Dangerous Method is uncharacteristically tame for his work, and it ushered in a new era of his filmography – which also includes 2012’s Cosmopolis and 2014’s Maps to the Stars – that features more realism, less violence, and almost no horror elements (an era that appears to be emphatically over with Crimes of the Future).