Weirdest David Cronenberg films

David Cronenberg‘s new film Maps to the Stars is in theaters and on VOD, and every time a new film arrives from the director I end up going back through his years of prior work to find new connections and ideas. It takes a while, sometimes, to really find where one of his films sits in the grand scheme of things. (I’m still trying to sort out Cosmopolis, frankly.) This time, I kept focusing on the weirdness of Cronenberg, which is what everyone focuses on in his films at some point. But this was more about the unusual connection between his subjective visions of reality and our own experience rather than eye-popping visuals. This isn’t an overview of David Cronenberg’s full career, but just to set out an organizing principle, what follows are 11 of the Weirdest David Cronenberg films, as they relate to our own lives.

Note, there aren’t big glaring spoilers for any of the films here, but I’m assuming you’ve seen The Fly, and there are definitely some hints about the endings of a few other films on this list.

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11. Maps to the Stars (2014)

The Los Angeles residents we meet in Maps to the Stars, a film which is mordantly satirical and far less tied to reality than it first appears, are entirely broken. The “best” people in the film are tainted by a tacit acceptance of horrible behavior from the film’s worst examples of humanity. And those worst examples perform a whole range of unsavory actions, many of them in the service of personal ambition. And while there are some more extreme examples, nothing is quite as bizarrely disgusting as the singing and dancing response one character has to the death of a young boy. It’s the most extreme and specific vision of schadenfreude I’ve seen in a while, and an overtly garish way to show how dramatically opposing impulses can collide.

We’ll come back around to the idea of the effectiveness of Cronenberg’s outre concepts being directly linked to their place in reality, but his most recent film, which also happens to be one in which a disconnect from reality is only gradually revealed, is a great place to start.

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10. Rabid (1977)

A motorcycle accident leads to experimental skin graft surgery, which leads to an unusual growth in a young woman’s armpit that feeds on human blood, with the victims of her embrace turning into rabid flesh-hungry monsters of their own. The events of Rabid are definitely bizarre, but the film is so early in the development of Cronenberg’s ability to build whole societies that it rarely transcends odd to become powerful, and the limitations of lead Marilyn Chambers keep it campy and occasionally forced. In the realms of the weird, however, there’s nothing quite like an anus-like opening in a woman’s armpit that conceals a barbed and bloodthirsty tentacle. What really sticks with me at this moment, however, is that reflections of the film, from Marilyn Chambers’ style to the overall structure, are impossible to miss in Under the Skin. (Whether intentional or not on the part of Under the Skin‘s creator Jonathan Glazer.)

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9. Shivers (1975, aka They Came From Within)

Cronenberg’s first commercial feature is in some ways a simple monster movie — parasites infect a host, then create uncontrollable sexual urges in that host, which facilitate further transmission — but it is a monster movie that flips any morality or conceptual “return to normality” right on its head. Embracing the sexually ambiguous ’70s, the most vivid weirdness of Shivers is an “all-in” pool party in which people roil and couple in the water like frenzied fish. But the deepest weirdness is the calm acceptance with which the film views its final outcome. Right from the beginning there’s something we’ll come back to often: the ability to stay calm while depicting a “normal” human order being destroyed.

(Shivers was released in the summer of 1975, right around the same time J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise arrived. Oddly, High-Rise features some conspicuously similar features, such as an apartment block setting inhabited by citizens who are ultimately divided into two groups. We’ll see Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of High-Rise later this year.)

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8. Scanners (1981)

At the height of the Canadian tax-shelter financing days, Scanners funneled funds into a pulpy sci-fi tinged nightmare of evolution. This story of a clash between violently alienated telekinetics, the scientists who create them and the businessmen who would control them is a ruthlessly condensed take on Brian De Palma’s Fury; or you could call it almost an alternate take on the X-Men. The weirdest part of the whole thing isn’t the exploding head seen early in the film, nor even the outsized and biological sculptures such as the one that allows an artist to literally retreat into his own head. No, it’s the non-performance from Stephen Lack, whose total lack of presence turns out to be just right, thematically at least, for the role of a man whose head is so full of voices that he is shut off from any semblance of humanity.

I’ve rationalized Lack’s performance in that way for years, and after the recent Criterion Blu-ray release of the film, Lack said the performance was a conscious choice that was in part rooted in the fact that Cronenberg was basically writing the movie on the fly. Lack often didn’t know precisely how his character had ended up in the current scene, because previous scenes hadn’t been written yet. So he neutralized the whole performance. (So he says.) One way or the other, it’s a chilling and off-putting establishment of a conscious distance from any emotional response to life.

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