The Cinema of David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg has been influential director in body horror genre for creating sci-fi and horror films questions our expectations of the future, the impact of science (or scientific input), scientism, advance technology, and media on society, people’s everyday behaviors, and their relationship with them. For instance, In Crash (1996)David Cronenberg boggled his audience’s mind and impressed critics alike by presenting J. G. Ballard’s sexual thrill of the car accident. His interest in our mind for fury and the strength of the film components to boggle his audience’s mind has led to some of the more severe images that one cannot easily forget. Luis Buñuel once said that “Sometimes, watching a movie is a bit like being raped.” [1] and although brutal, this is a fascinating quotation that still haunts me, everyday. It really reflects the cinema of David Cronenberg in my opinion. In other words, Cronenberg’s cinematic universe digs our psychology, and inner thoughts because it plays with the fear of losing control, to feel transmuted and even penetrated. It reflects subversion of the private internal space of the flesh and mind. In order to succeed it, Cronenberg creates his narratives and fictional universes (such as ExistenZ) by subverting the concepts that we take for granted in life. He presents horror genre almost as an art of psychoanalysis. A psychoanalysis of our perceptions and our thoughts and by juxtaposing the fantastic with the banal he creates an extrapolation of our world, a universe that work in an oneiric logic, even if in the molds of a nightmare.

The body is the center of Cronenberg’s work, but it is his allegorical approach of the body him from other body horror directors. It is in the way he plays with the rhythm of his narrative, provoking the constant sensation of the vivid present moment, both dynamic and still. The way his films are preoccupied with the exacerbation of the human anatomy, the anomalies. The curiosity evoked by Cronenberg lies in our ambiguous relation to our own sanitized society. At the end of the day, we experience the world through the lens of our dishonest morality and our social conventions and as Cronenberg incorporates ugliness as a fundamental aspect of films, he manages to remind us our own hypocrisies. In a way, our impenetrable, immaculate flesh becomes a symbol of our boundaries, and by choosing to submerge in the perspective of the inhuman or monstrous, Cronenberg inevitably questions the human condition itself, both physically and psychologically. The deformity, the extraordinary is thus a indicator of our own weaknesses, and own evilness. One even may claim that it is the body horror that produces a kind of moral or philosophical horror.

Cronenberg also makes films that reflect zeitgeist because in the late 60s, 70s and early 80s, different practices of genetic engineering, parasitic outbreaks or pandemics, deformity because of scientific experiments come to light as new societal anxieties. “Body horror” as sub-genre of horror reflects this kind of phobias in an intense and seductive way. For instance, Cronenberg made Shivers in 1975, about a parasitic epidemic in a high-rise apartment building that makes its victims oversexed in order to circulate parasites (Crimes of the Future explores similar themes, too). Exploring a similar pandemic [2], he followed up with Rabid in 1977. After receiving a genetically engineered skin graft, a motorcycle accident survivor has a different mouthlike hole from where she sucks the blood of people, turning them into brainless hosts that continue to the spread of the disease. In other words, his films play on fears and paranoia of the society. Released the same day as Ridley Scott’s Alien, Cronenberg’s The Brood similarly focused on abnormal pregnancy. In it, a psychologist’s patient gives birth to murderous, mutant children by horrific means. As another example, In Cronenberg’s Videodrome, from 1983, watching explicit TV programming induces bizarre hallucinations and brainwashes it’s viewers into becoming violent themselves [3], reflecting another fear of our modern society. Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly can be seen as a close analogy to HIV infection. After a freak teleportation accident, inventor Seth Brundle becomes genetically with a fly, and begins his slow transformation into a hybrid creature. Brundle becomes obsessed with the power his mutation has given him, much like a drug user, and similarly looks to share his addiction. [4] His search leads to a night of sexual promiscuity, after with the detrimental effects of his transformation become apparent. We, as audience, are constantly immersed in a Kafkaesque atmosphere in the borders of The Fly. The film asks an important question: “At what point do we lose who we are?” In other words, his science fiction questions the authority of science, and examines the borders of it as well. It makes Cronenberg and his cinema special for us. But we shall remember that shocking and grossing the audience out is easy, a surgery video can do that. Then, we should understand that he questions the aspects of our life with shocking and grossing elements of body horror. This is what makes him interesting and fascinating.

Some people believe that humanity has a bright future. From a political perspective, David Cronenberg himself doubt that it has any future at all in the long run. Our command of the most destructive powers of science and technology virtually guarantees that sooner or later they will destroy all human life. He is on a pessimist side. Indeed, the Cold War was survived, notwithstanding the apocalyptic nuclear arsenals that it brought into being on both sides. But that survival was a matter of extraordinary good luck, as the utter disaster of nuclear war was averted only by a hair’s breadth on many occasions, most of them related to technical failures, but some related to the insane brinksmanship of leaders on both sides. And although the Cold War has ended, the horrible threat intrinsic in the existence of operational nuclear or non-nuclear weapons remains. Scanners (1981) can be seen as an example. The story follows an apparent homeless man named Cameron who wonders into a crowded area to sit down, but cannot focus on his life due to all the loud conversations going on around him. After hearing one lady in particular talk very insultingly about Cameron he subconsciously gives her a seizure. This alerts an organization that takes and attempts to “help” Scanners. Cameron is captured and taken to the facility where he is studied by Dr. Ruth. When a terrorist Scanner named Revok, attacks the organization out in the open, Cameron is employed and sent after Revok to foil his plans for world domination. In this film, Cronenberg both focuses on mad scientist concept and possibility of being used by governments or corporations as a weapon.

In short, his films are unforgettable, not only because of the intense, bizarre and vivid presentation of body horror examples, but for David Cronenberg’s desire to question our status quo, the doctrines we follow so blindly in our modern society, our relation with technology and science, or with our bodies, our fluids. The horror evoked by Cronenberg perhaps transcends our common sense of horror itself. He explores familiar territories with a provocative approach on cinema. He surpasses the meaning of the moving images and instead, articulates between the boundaries of our perceptions and the cinematic experience. The imposing disintegration of the body is also the fragmentation of our subjectivity in the face of our perception. He even affects popular culture. In Rick and Morty which is a phenomenal adult TV show, Rick, one of the main characters, says “Boy, Morty, I really Cronenberged the world up, didn’t I? We got a whole planet of Cronenbergs walkin’ around down there, Morty” after he disrupts the structure of human biology.

  • [1] Luis Buñuel. My Last Breath (London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1985), 69.
  • [2] William Beard. The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 49.
  • [3] Ibid., 121.
  • [4] Ibid., 211.


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