David Cronenberg is a Canadian film director whose work features horror and science-fiction narratives in which characters find themselves transformed by some viral, technological, or pharmaceutical agent. Such “mutations” are frequently caused by conspiratorial corporations and produce paranoid psychological states and violent outcomes. Cronenberg’s unnerving films have explored the ways in which biological horror and pleasure intermix by portraying transformations that are both sexually charged and pathological.
Born in Toronto, Canada, on 15 March 1943, Cronenberg has had a career mostly spent in Canada. While attending the University of Toronto as an English student, Cronenberg made two short films, Transfer (1966) and From the Drain (1967). He also began two short features, Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), in which his distinctive sensibility began to emerge.
The subjects that were explored in these films, such as medical and psychological experimentation, sexual ambiguity and metamorphosis, violence and torture, would recur and find development in all his later work. The auteurist nature of Cronenberg’s work—in which he tended to fill the roles of writer, director, cinematographer, and editor—was also already evident.
In 1975, Cronenberg’s first feature film, The Parasite Murders (a.k.a., They Came from Within, Shivers), was released. Shivers (as it is now generally known) tells the story of a doctor who produces a parasite that transforms its hosts into sexobsessed psychotics. The film is set in a secluded apartment complex that becomes the setting for the eventual epidemic. Like Cronenberg’s Rabid (1976), the outbreak of a virus and the ensuing community-wide panic drive the plot of the film.
While this reiterates the familiar social paranoia that informed historical events such as the witchhunts of Salem or even the McCarthy period, these plots focus more particularly upon the personal transformation of individuals into some new stage of being, or what is referred to in Videodrome as the “New Flesh.” These scenarios are often represented with ambivalence, in which characters both welcome and abhor the venereal transformations wreaked upon their bodies.
The recurring subject of what Cronenberg has called “creative cancers” (Rodley, 80) has been reinterpreted and remade throughout his films, particularly because this “takeover” of his characters’ identities is never simply the result of an external agent (though this is often the catalyst) but a result of their bodies turning against themselves.
Scanners (1981) tells the story of Cameron Vale, a homeless man with telepathic and telekinetic psychic powers. He is recruited by a recently attacked corporation with its own Scanner program to infiltrate a Scanner conspiracy with plans for global conquest. The scanners are a product of a mass-marketed pharmaceutical (“ephemerol”) developed by the scientist who recruited Vale, and the conspiracy they are fighting is producing a new generation of “Scanner soldiers.”
The play of conspiracy and counterconspiracy in Scanners, which recurs throughout Cronenberg’s films, presents an ethically uncertain universe in which no side is entirely good or evil, and where characters are usually implicated in, if not responsible for, their own destruction.
Recognized by most critics as Cronenberg’s masterpiece, Videodrome (1983) introduces us to Max Renn, a cable television executive who discovers an obscure cable transmission of sadomasochistic films. In his quest to purchase the snufflike offerings of the Videodrome channel, Renn falls victim to the subliminal content embedded in the films, losing his ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. Eventually, he discovers that he has been the unsuspecting guinea pig in a right-wing plot to take over a sexually depraved North America through these transmissions.
As with many of Cronenberg’s films, Videodrome uses an unreliable protagonist whose perspective becomes progressively more delusional. Without the aid of an omniscient perspective, the audience is left to navigate between the paranoid vision of the protagonist and the supposed “reality” of the conspiracy that affects it.
The Borgesian reality-games of Videodrome repeat themselves in eXistenZ (1999), which uses the future of virtual reality gaming as its premise for a world of shifting realities. Both films espouse similar theories regarding the media and the manner in which it has become a part of the human nervous system, affecting and transforming reality.
Cronenberg’s direction of The Dead Zone (1983), based on the novel by Stephen King, is the most explicitly “political” of his conspiracy narratives as well as one of the few successful adaptations of Stephen King’s work. Based on material other than his own, The Dead Zone was not immediately identifiable as a Cronenberg film since it is particularly unmarked by his usual filmic obsessions. It is in some ways a “classic” conspiracy tale, dealing with a psychic character who becomes an assassin in order to prevent the election of a presidential candidate he believes will one day start a nuclear war.
The strong influence of William S. Burroughs on Cronenberg’s films—apparent in their shared fascination with conspiracy, biological mutation, and parasitism—led to his direction of Naked Lunch (1991). Though the film did not attempt to present the reputedly unfilmable novel by Burroughs, it based itself in the mythology of Burroughs’s work and the biographic details of his life, amalgamating the worlds of New York junkies, pest controllers, and Beat writers, with that of American expatriates and conspiratorial plots in Tangier.
While Cronenberg has authored the screenplays for most of his films, his interest in the work of underground writers led to his direction of a film version of J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1996), for which he won the Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Because the majority of Cronenberg’s films are characterized by visceral depictions of the body and rely on gruesome special effects, critical appreciation of Cronenberg’s work as something more than exploitation cinema took some time.
Though Cronenberg’s work has never become a part of the mainstream, the early criticism of his films as exploitation has developed into a recognition of the director as someone intimately concerned with telling stories about the human body, disease, and transformation.