15 July 2024

Simply thinking about the films of director David Cronenberg causes us to break out in hives, makes our glands grow to gargantuan proportions, and brings on a whole range of terrible flu-like symptoms.

For this fascinating auteur has made a colorful career out of works that involve various bodily functions gone horribly haywire.

David Paul Cronenberg was born in Toronto Canada on March 15, 1943. The son of a musician and a writer, Cronenberg attended the University of Toronto where he majored in literature.

His early films - such as Stereo (1969) concerning ESP, and his short film Crimes of the Future (1970), about a plague that causes people to ooze fluid from their noses and eyes - are two examples of his early, experimental style.

He teamed up with producer Ivan Reitman for his first noteworthy horror, They Came From Within in 1975. Also known either as The Parasite Murders or Shivers, this nascent Cronenberg effort concerns a scientist who creates parasites as part of his experiments with medical transplants.

But it turns out the parasites have an unintended side effect: they cause an uncontrollable sex drive in their host. As the parasites cause rampant promiscuity, a venereal disease of epidemic proportions begins to sweep throughout Montreal!

Funded by the taxpayer-subsidized Telefilm Canada, They Came From Within created quite a critical backlash upon release, due to its outrageous premise, violence, and overt sexual themes.

Speaking of sex, his next feature was Rabid (1977), which starred popular porn star Marilyn Chambers. (Cronenberg originally wanted Sissy Spacek for the lead role). Also produced by Reitman, this one revolves around a young woman (Chambers) who undergoes a form of experimental plastic surgery after she has a terrible motorcycle accident. "Experimental," indeed.

As a result of the procedure, she develops a bizarre penis-like growth under her armpit, combined with an insatiable desire to use this new phallic 'stinger' to feed on the blood of any nearby human. Once she's fed on her helpless victims, they're turned into rabid zombies who spread a viral plague across the city! Not exactly something you'd want to watch while you're eating.

Even better is the completely original The Brood, which Cronenberg rolled out in 1979. Starring Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed, The Brood boasted a tighter storyline to date than either Rabid or They Came From Within, as well as a more effective mood of dank atmosphere and spine-tingling chills.

Reed plays a psychotherapist who develops a method of externalizing the inner rage of his patients, a technique called "psychoplasmics." Supposedly a process by which his subjects can vent their deepest angst, Reed encourages them to release all their negative emotions. But a nasty side effect of "psychoplasmics" is that the patients end up undergoing terrifying biological changes.

Indeed, one of Reed's patients (Eggar) is so uptight, she gestates - and gives birth to - a group of deformed children, dwarf-like little beasts who murder the people "mother" gets angry with. As her anger grows, so too does her brood! A fascinating take on modern psychiatry (punctuated by his telltale obsession with biological permutations) makes The Brood one of Cronenberg's best genre efforts, bar none.

His next several horror films were also compelling.

Scanners (1981) was about a sub-race of telepaths with intense thought-reading and telekinetic powers (think De Palma's The Fury, with a subversive vengeance), while the mindbending Videodrome (1983) was about a TV station which transmits subliminal, violent and psychosexual signals that result in brain damage and physical transformations.

His biggest commercial hit came with The Fly in 1986. A remake of the 1958 Vincent Price classic, The Fly enabled Cronenberg to move into the mainstream, successfully combining different genre elements, including horror, science-fiction (and even a believable love story).

Possessing a humanity that was missing from some of his earlier work, The Fly came to life due in part to the wonderful team of Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis which proved unforgettable. Just as remarkable, however, is the fact that Cronenberg broke the ice of major blockbuster success without compromising many of his core artistic themes, including gory transformations, an (un)healthy fascination with biological changes - and the physical deterioration of the flesh.

The Brood 1979
Dead Ringers 1988
The Dead Zone 1983
The Fly 1986
Rabid 1977
Scanners 1981
Shivers 1975
Videodrome 1983
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