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Ranked: David Cronenberg Films from Worst to Best
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.