**Warning: the following article contains spoilers for Crimes of the Future.
David Cronenberg is a writer and director who makes you feel something. That feeling might be disgust. It might be horror. It might be shock, awe, or elation, but you can bet it won’t be indifference. Cronenberg recently released his 22nd feature film, Crimes of the Future and, just as throughout his illustrious career, it is a movie that is sure to elicit a wide range of opinions. That is what happens when you are an artist with a wholly uncompromising vision, one whose commitment to original stories and mind-bending execution is one of the most impressive in all of Hollywood history.
David Cronenberg was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1943 and grew up with an obsession for all things macabre, most notably the science fiction and horror movies of the ’50 and 60’s. This led him to make his own low-budget, independent movies throughout the 1970s, eventually forming his own unique aesthetic, giving rise, specifically, to the term “body horror”, a genre he’s credited with creating. Though prolific and consistently successful as a filmmaker, Cronenberg has only flirted with the traditional Hollywood system, most notably when he was considered to direct Return of the Jedi. Overall, Cronenberg has made a career being wholly himself, whether he is exploding heads, turning Jeff Goldblum into a fly, or turning Viggo Mortensen into a bloodthirsty killer. We ranked Cronenberg’s 10 best movies.
10. Scanners (1981)
If you know anything about 1981’s Scanners it may be one especially explosive scene in particular. This is when Cronenberg really starts to establish himself as one of the most shocking filmmakers working and, ultimately, of all time.
Scanners tells the story of a group of telepathic men on two sides of an emerging war whose sides are malleable and uncertain. It’s impressive how well Cronenberg is able to portray something as inherently unfilmable as telepathy and much of this can be attributed to his longtime composer Howard Shore – who would go on to an impressive career scoring, among other things, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
Ultimately, though, the film features far too much exposition, with characters drolly explaining the film’s many rules and parameters in a way that leaves you a bit cold. The set-up is there but it becomes difficult to care much about any of its main players, which is why it falls so low on our list.
9. Dead Ringers (1988)
Telepathy and the hidden powers of the mind are a common theme within Cronenberg’s filmography. Though few people believe in the kind of telepathic communication portrayed in a film like Scanners, there is a kind of ESP many of us accept; twin telepathy.
It makes sense, then, that Cronenberg would be interested in telling the story of Dead Ringers, a film that follows twin Gynecologists Beverly and Elliot as they descend into addiction and depravity. Though there is no telepathy in the literal sense, the way the two move about the world and their eventual downfall would suggest a kind of kinship that goes beyond that of typical siblings.
Dead Ringers is not a perfect movie and relies heavily on the excellent performance by Jeremy Irons as both twins but does have plenty to recommend. Notably, save for a few scenes here and there, this is one of Cronenberg’s tamest features, opting for psychological horror over more visceral images. For those interested, Dead Ringers is currently streaming on Cinemax.
8. Crimes Of The Future (2022)
2022’s Crimes of the Future is David Cronenberg’s 22nd feature as a director and encapsulates much of what he has been interested in throughout his lengthy career. Crimes of the Future stars frequent collaborator Viggo Mortensen as Saul Tenser, a performance artist whose act features the surgical removal of body organs for a paying audience. It’s okay, though, because Saul can simply regrow any organs he removes, as one does. This is, incidentally, where the “future” part comes in. You see, in this accelerated timeline some humans have evolved to the point where they both consistently produce and develop new organs and lose all sense of pain.
Cronenberg has always been obsessed with what we do to our bodies and, in turn, what our bodies do to us, so it makes sense he would find inspiration in such a story. “Surgery is the new sex,” says a character named Timlin played by Kristen Stewart at one point in the film, opening up the body to even more possibilities that, it being a David Cronenberg film, you can be sure are explored to their fullest potential.
7. The Dead Zone (1983)
In a way, Cronenberg and Stephen King are a match made in, well if not heaven, then perhaps hell. On one side you have movies’ premiere body horror expert, a man of unabashed vision with a focus on dredging up your deepest fears and playing them back for you on the big screen. On the other, you have the greatest horror writer of all time, a one-man nightmare factory as prolific as any artist the world has ever known. And so 1983’s The Dead Zone was born.
The Dead Zone stars Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith, a genial schoolteacher who, after suffering a horrific car accident, comes to find he possesses clairvoyant tendencies. This, as you might predict, leads Johnny to see some horrific things, though maybe not as horrific as you might expect from a man like Cronenberg. Herein lies one of the main issues of The Dead Zone.
It’s a film which flirts with horror without committing fully and lands in a kind of purgatory between psychological thriller and twisted horror fantasy. Walken is fantastic here, as are Brooke Adams and Tom Skerrit as Johnny’s love interest and the town sheriff respectively, but for this to land higher in the ranking we would have liked to see things take a gnarlier turn. This is, afterall, Cronenberg and King, let them spook us!
6. Videodrome (1983)
Say what you will about Cronenberg’s graphic blend of violence, horror, and sex but he has always been a filmmaker with an unabashed point of view. Videodrome has a lot to say about the pervasive nature of media, in this case focusing on cable television and VHS, but his depiction of a man consumed by entertainment and technology is, unfortunately, a timeless one.
Videodrome stars James Woods and renowned musician Debbie Harry, both of whom do an excellent job here. Much of this movie takes on a kind of distorted dream logic, allowing Cronenberg’s longtime collaborator and ace special effects man Rick Baker to take center stage. This is a film whose images will stick with you far longer than its story, for better or worse, but they are, without a doubt, some of the most indelible images you will see in any movie.
5. Crash (1996)
There is no shortage of sex within Cronenberg’s filmography. It is, perhaps, second only to bodily horror and violence in the list of things he is most interested in as a filmmaker. Crash, starring James Spader and Holly Hunter serves to combine these two obsessions to an increasingly shocking degree. Adapted from the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, Crash is the story of sexual gratification and a kind of fetishism not explored even in the strangest corners of the internet.
You see, the characters in Crash have plenty of traditional sex but are only truly aroused by automobile accidents and the ensuing carnage. Pornography, to the characters here, is bent metal, tire marks on the highway and mangled bodies being stretchered to an ambulance. If that seems almost painfully strange, that’s kind of the point. Cronenberg is a director that consistently ostracizes his audience but Crash remains perhaps his most controversial. The downside of this kind of provocation is that Crash, like a lot of Cronenberg movies, seems so focused on the premise that the plot kind of fails to materialize. That’s okay here for the most part though, as the elevator pitch for this is so disturbingly interesting that it kind of doesn’t matter. That’s not to say this movie is fun or rewatchable, but like its titular action one kind of can’t look away, even if they’re not proud of it.
4. Eastern Promises (2007)
As the new millennium arrived, Cronenberg began to move away, for a bit, from his roots as a horror and science fiction director. What resulted was the one-two punch of A History Of Violence — which we’ll get to later — and Eastern Promises, a film which carries us deep into the underworld of Russian gangster and mafia men living in London.
Viggo Mortensen stars alongside Naomi Watts, the latter playing a helpless woman who gets in way over her head with the likes of Mortensen’s particularly violent mafia strong man. There are twists aplenty, which we won’t spoil here, but just know you are not likely to predict where this one is going. Eastern Promises was roundly praised upon its release, particularly citing Mortensen’s performance, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
3. The Brood (1979)
So many of David Cronenberg’s films are about the relationship between the mind and the flesh, the unknowable machinations of the soul and the almost frighteningly tactile physicality of the body. The Brood sees Cronenberg explore a situation in which the former has more power than the latter, to decidedly deadly ends.
The Brood is, at its heart, a story of the crumbling marriage between Frank (Art Hindle) and Nola (Samantha Eggar) and how that marriage ultimately affects their young, entirely innocent daughter. That this situation closely mirrored Cronenberg’s own nasty custody battle is a fact hard to extricate from the film itself. Of course, it being a David Cronenberg film, The Brood is not exactly tethered to reality. Divorce and its very real consequences may be the driving force of the narrative but so is experimental therapy and deformed, deadly spawn. Overall, The Brood is an excellent introduction into Cronenberg’s world of fractured reality and, luckily, can be streamed right now on HBO Max.
2. A History of Violence (2005)
The world of A History of Violence is almost preternaturally idyllic until, of course, it isn’t. Once again starring Viggo Mortensen — this time alongside an impressive ensemble which includes Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt — A History of Violence opens on the perfect American family, with Mortensen’s Tom Stall as the steadfast father. There’s apple pie, baseball, cheerleader uniforms, and the mom-and-pop diner on Main Street, USA.
Of course, this being a Cronenberg movie, you can’t help but shake the feeling of something creeping beneath it all. This comes to a head when two hapless criminals try to rob Tom’s diner, only for Tom to turn into his version of John Wick, stopping them in their tracks. “There’s no such thing as monsters,” says Tom to his daughter early on in the film, only to be roundly proved wrong throughout. To give away just how wrong, and the specific monsters that arrive throughout the movie, would be to spoil A History of Violence, a movie that deserves to remain a mystery upon first viewing. Let’s just say that while this one might be tame in regards to the supernatural elements you might expect from Cronenberg, there is plenty to be unpacked about the horrors of human nature.
1. The Fly (1986)
The Fly is perhaps the most well-known Cronenberg movie. Or, at the very least, the most Cronenberg of any Cronenberg movie. The term “creature feature” was first introduced in the early ‘60s, used by television stations as a way to categorize classic horror movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, films like Dracula, Frankenstein, and countless other cult monster movies. These programs created a whole generation of kids raised on these types of movies, ready to embrace schlocky horror meant to scare them out of their pants.
The Fly is the culmination of every one of those movies, and perhaps, the greatest creature feature ever made. The Fly stars Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, two very charming actors who — despite the absurdity of the plot — show some genuine chemistry. Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, a scientist who is working on a teleportation machine he assures Davis’ Veronica will change the very nature of existence. As it turns out, it does, but only for Brundle who — after a mishap — has his DNA blended with a fly, slowly turning him from human to some kind of human-fly hybrid. It’s not a movie for everyone but it’s hard to deny just how well this story is executed and, even after over two decades have passed, just how shocking the final-third of the film remains.