Movies

Ranked: David Cronenberg Films from Worst to Best

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On the eve of A Dangerous Method, we reassess the director of The Fly, Videodrome, and A History of Violence.

by Stephen Deusner

It's fitting that David Cronenberg's new movie, A Dangerous Method, involves Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and some old-school S&M. The Canadian director has been plumbing our collective unconscious for nearly forty years, finding new ways to depict our deepest fears onscreen. His sixteen features (along with his early student films) contain some of the oddest and most original imagery ever committed to film, yet even at their most extreme, they're more than mere spectacle. As we get ready to lie down on the psychiatrist's couch and talk about our dreams, we're ranking Cronenberg's feature films from worst to best.

16. eXistenZ (1999)

For his first original script in sixteen years, Cronenberg wove a layered tale of revolutionaries invading a virtual-reality game. With the characters in the movie playing different characters in the game, how do we know who the game masters are and who the assassins are? Is anything we're watching even real outside the game? And why does a good cast mostly act so confused? Jennifer Jason Leigh gets it more than anybody else, although we're never sure exactly what "it" is. Those fleshy gaming consoles — based on neurons rather than microchips — are intriguing, but Cronenberg explored eXistenZ's ideas better in previous films.

15. Fast Company (1979)

Only in Cronenberg's filmography would a movie as normal as Fast Company be considered the weirdo outlier. It's a drag-racing movie, downplaying the grotesque in favor of the mechanical. Showing an eye for landscape and local color, Cronenberg captures the complex engines, goggled drivers, and the ragged glory of Canada's decrepit racetracks. Those crisp visuals, however, can't elevate the b-movie storyline or the stiff script. Fast Company is, ironically, way too slow.

14. Naked Lunch (1991)

This isn't a straight adaptation of William S. Burroughs' notorious novel, because how the hell would you even begin to do that? Instead, it's a loose chronicle of the book's creation. Cronenberg sets the action in Burroughs' strange world, with Peter Weller playing a supremely narcotized version of the author. The actor's extreme understatement may be the movie's best special effect, but the rest of the film is muted and strangely matter-of-fact, despite the insects with talking anuses and the gloopy amphibian-looking Mugwumps. Ultimately, Naked Lunch looks more like a late-period Terry Gilliam fluke than a Cronenberg film.

13. Spider (2002)

Working from Patrick McGrath's 1990 novel, Cronenberg shoots London's East End beautifully, as a landscape both modern and primitive. But even that ominous setting can't save the story, which somehow makes too much and not enough of the character's instability. Ralph Fiennes mumbles and twitches his way through this tale of a man traumatized by guilt. His performance, though well observed and certainly committed, is so stylized that it barely registers emotionally.

12. Scanners (1981)

Cronenberg's breakout film is justifiably famous for its exploding-head scene. Unfortunately, the film's ratio of scenes with exploding heads to scenes without exploding heads is low. Of course, you could say that about any film, but it's especially egregious given Scanners' muddled story. Cronenberg was notoriously stressed and over budget while filming, to the point where he was writing the script as he was filming it. Unfortunately, the strain shows. A strong lead might have held the story together, but Canadian character actor Stephen Lack doesn't have the gravity or charisma to make it work.

11. Dead Ringers (1988)

Dead Ringers might be Cronenberg's craziest experiment, with Jeremy Irons playing twin fertility doctors addicted to prescription pills and their own company. The actor manages to instill both of his characters with distinct traits and personalities, and the director shoots him ingeniously, so you always know which one you're looking at. But even as it plumbs the mutative effects of addiction and obsession, Dead Ringers can be a bit too clinical.

10. Rage/Rabid (1977)

As a vampire film, this is about as far from Twilight as you can possibly get. Marilyn Chambers, emerging from Behind the Green Door, stars as a woman who develops a vagina in her armpit from which extends a prong that drains her victims' blood. She says barely a word throughout the movie, yet her naturalistic physical performance conveys both a bloodlust and a confusion over what her body has become. That central contradiction makes the film surprisingly resonant and its final scene especially tragic. As Rabid mutates into a contagion narrative, Cronenberg unravels an allegory about VD that might have been more powerful had it not immediately followed the similar Shivers.

9. The Dead Zone (1983)

Cronenberg isn't often considered an actor's director, his facility with his leads reaches its peak in this Stephen King adaptation. Playing a man who wakes from a five-year coma to find himself cursed with second sight, Christopher Walken is so alert to his character's conflicts that his plight seems all the more heartbreaking. Watch his tentative scenes with Brooke Adams, as Walken struggles to gauge his emotions and simply try to enjoy a happy moment. King's story is hammy and inconsistent, with an ending that's abrupt and out of character, but the performance Cronenberg got out of Walken almost makes you forget it.

8. Eastern Promises (2007)

The 2000s have seen Cronenberg veer away from body horror towards what some have argued to be an aggressive Oscar campaign. Yet Eastern Promises doesn't soften its story of human trafficking and cultural collision for an awards-show audience. Viggo Mortensen occupies the screen like a prosthetic effect from a previous film. He's imposing in his conversations with Naomi Watts and brutal in the film's famous fight scene, when he faces off against two Chechen hitmen while completely naked. It's one of Cronenberg's most inventive and visceral setpieces, and he makes you feel every punch, stab, slice, and thumb in the eyeball.

7. Shivers/They Came From Within (1975)

Shivers opens like a '50s creature feature, with a wormlike parasite turning people into zombies. Rape zombies, actually. As one character explains, it's "a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease." Though Cronenberg explored some of these ideas more fully in later films, rarely did they have the power of Shivers' final scene, in which the last uninfected human is attacked in an outrageous orgy. Cronenberg shoots it like he knows the predicament will both horrify and entice his audience. (Amazingly, Shivers is out of print on DVD. Get to work on that, Criterion.)

6. M. Butterfly (1993)

In the early 1990s, M. Butterfly seemed like an anomaly from the man who directed Videodrome: a quiet love story based on David Henry Hwang's Tony-winning play, full of sweeping vistas and a carefully staged courtroom scene. But Cronenberg examines Chinese culture with the same rigorous eye for detail and contradiction that he brought to North American racing subculture, and he locates some of his favorite themes in the source material: the fluidity of sexuality, the mutability of the body, and the collision of cultures that proves as potentially violent as the collision of bodies or cars. The film is heady, but Jeremy Irons and John Lone invest their scenes with an appropriately operatic sense of tragedy.

5. The Brood (1979)

The late 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of motherhood horror, as Rosemary's BabyThe Omen, and even Alien all plumbed the terrors of pregnancy and motherhood. It's, ahem, fertile territory for Cronenberg, who's always been fascinated by the transformative effects procreation can have on the body. There's a big reveal involving Samantha Eggar that will have even the most hardened viewer recoiling, but the real stars are the brood of deformed kids who terrorize Toronto — tiny maniacs in matching snowsuits. The classroom murder scene is spectacularly creepy, and the presence of real children, whose whimpering doesn't sound like acting, only makes it all the more unsettling.

4. Crash (1996)

Probably Cronenberg's most notorious film, Crash was banned in several countries and criticized for its coldly voyeuristic sex scenes. Certainly it can be glacial at times, both in tempo and tone; you could drive a car through some of the pauses in dialogue. But Cronenberg locates so much significance in the parallels between sex and car crashes that the movie never comes across as mere spectacle. Each offers an escape from the physical body — in other words, different forms of death. James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger act dead already, even while fucking, but Holly Hunter plies her mischievous smirk and Elias Koteas steals the movie with a fearlessly omnisexual performance. And Cronenberg shoots stylishly and confidently, using still photography as a means of evoking the tactile qualities of human bodies and sleek automobiles, both twisted into barely recognizable shapes.

3. The Fly (1986)

Cronenberg's remake of the 1958 Vincent Price flick foregoes the original's campiness for a more real-world tale of synthesis and mutation. The story is familiar: possibly mad scientist Jeff Goldblum accidentally combines his DNA with that of a housefly, which naturally complicates his relationship with Geena Davis. Often touted as an AIDS allegory, The Fly plays more like a story of addiction and consequence — how the highs make you feel invincible while they destroy your body. There are some ingeniously gruesome effects, but what truly puts the movie across is the bittersweet chemistry between Goldblum and Davis, who have never been better.

2. A History of Violence (2005)

William Hurt really should be in every movie. He's only onscreen for about ten minutes at the end of Cronenberg's adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel, but his grotesquely over-the-top performance takes A History of Violence to a new level. He's the polar opposite of Viggo Mortensen, who gives a studied, reserved performance as a family man with some dark secrets. These two actors represent the two moral extremes in this thoughtful, restrained, even moving film. There are some obvious Cronenberg flourishes, including a violent staircase sex scene and a frontyard stand-off that's as suspenseful as the Eastern Promises fight scene, but it's the quieter last shot that stays in the mind.

1. Videodrome (1983)

Cronenberg is a master of translating complex ideas into startling, often disturbing visuals. In that sense, Videodrome remains his best and most adventurous film, a noir mystery complete with a shadowy conspiracy, a femme fatale, a hard-luck protagonist, ominous clues, and a television set made of flesh. There's a morbid humor in Cronenberg's odd images, and James Woods observes them with a bemused smirk; he's the most capable stand-in for both the director and the director's audience. Videodrome not only contains some of Cronenberg's most indelible images, but it makes the best and most imaginative use of them, audaciously rewriting decades of film theory into its darkly entertaining — even soulful — story of old fears and new flesh.