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The Cronenberg Thesis: A Canadian Master

Jessica Dickens

david Cronenberg makes horror films that consist of no monsters or magic; instead they tell the tale of how people cope with extreme circumstances.


It is almost always the protagonist in his films that has had some kind of gift or curse inflicted upon them. What is scary about Cronenberg movies is that though we not identify with the situation, we identify with the reaction.

Going into this article, I was hardly an expert on his works. In fact the only Cronenberg movie I could remember seeing was 'eXistenZ', a film whose mixed reviews has not labeled it a classic of his filmography. However, 'eXistenZ' blew my mind; the anti-reality, the sexual tension and the great performances by Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ian Holm and Don McKellar.

I left the theatre in a heated discussion with my friend, who completely despised the film. Though it may not be his best, 'eXistenZ' contains a solid outline for all of Cronenberg's films.

There must always be lust; this is a golden rule. You have to feel the want between the two people, whether it be Law and Leigh, Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in 'The Fly', Stephen Lack and Jennifer O'Neill in 'Scanners' or Jeremy Irons, Jeremy Irons and Genevieve Bujold in 'Dead Ringers'. Although his films do contain the so-called 'weird sex' that Canadian cinema is known for, it doesn't come off as unnatural which is where so many Canadian films go wrong. He actually makes us understand why Rosanna Arquette is humping that car in 'Crash', he makes us feel what she is feeling.

The strangest technology is the human body. Cronenberg's films all contain some bizarre biological creation that is understood in the film's realities.

His use of this given makes the films even more frightening and bizarre (I had thought that the gamepod in 'eXistenZ' was one of the more disturbing uses of this technique I had ever seen, eXistenZ and then I saw the eerie 'appendages' in both 'The Brood' and 'Dead Ringers', as well as the almost phallic internal weapon belonging to Marilyn Chambers in 'Rabid'). The pinnacle of this obsession is unquestionably 'Naked Lunch', a film not for the weak of stomach: the oozing fluids, the alien typewriters, Roy Scheider; Cronenberg is having the time of his life, experimenting as only he can with the drug-induced fantasies of the paranoia-driven world created by the protagonist. This does not, however, mean that Cronenberg is not interested in non-biological technology. Just check out Arquette's leg braces, Irons' gynecological tools, or James Spader's post-accident set-up in 'Crash'.

However, he uses the metals of these creations more as a juxtaposition of the organic creations and makes them appear all the more grotesque.

Sex can be more disturbing than death or disfiguration. Cronenberg is beginning to master this theme more convincingly with each film. In his latest effort 'Spider', he utilizes Ralph Fiennes' fantasies about his mother to play into the beautiful betrayal of his mind. She is the embodiment of every woman he encounters and that drives the audience to sympathize with him, not an easy thing to do in such a film. 'Crash' is Cronenberg's most committed foray into The Brood fetishism; Spader, Holly Hunter and the criminally underused by Hollywood: Elias Koteas ('Exotica', 'Ararat') and Deborah Kara Unger ('The Game'). This film radiates sex and the appetite that its characters have for one another; from the locations of their exploits to the complex undergarments of all the women. Defining scene: Koteas, Spader and Unger are driving past a fresh crash and they hop out of their car. As the men investigate and photograph, Unger seats herself next to a woman who was involved in the accident and is in shock, the desperate aching that Unger portrays in this moment explains the purpose of these people more than any words could. You see her almost transport herself inside the victim to know how it feels, the excruciating pain of it. This is the most important moment of the film and it could not be more compelling or more convincingly played.

Don't be afraid to use Canada in your films. Although his films usually star American actors, they are almost always set in Montreal or Toronto and his supporting cast is usually chalk full of Canadians. Though he doesn't play favorites with his casts, it is hard not to notice the presence of Nicholas Campbell ('Da Vinci's Inquest') in 'The Brood', 'The Dead Zone' and 'Naked Lunch'. His roles are small, but they are integral to the stories and made me appreciate Campbell much more than 'Inquest' ever could. The ensemble of Canadian talent used in 'eXistenZ' almost rivals Atom Egoyan: Sarah Polley ('Road to Avonlea', 'The Sweet Hereafter'), McKellar ('Last Night'), Callum Keith Rennie ('Due South') and Holm ('The Sweet Hereafter'), who is actually British but has the credentials that he almost seems Canadian now. Cronenberg knows how to utilize the homegrown talent. He usually has at least one recognizable Canadian actor in all his films.

After having watched all these Cronenberg films, it is difficult to believe that he has done his best work yet. However, if he cannot deliver, hopefully 'Crash' will define his work more than the commercially successful efforts that lack substance. 'Spider' is a clear departure from the blood and guts he is legendary for, but it lacks the story-telling elements to make it a more interesting film. The performances are excellent in true Cronenberg fashion, but the supposed surprise ending is no real shock. I am still waiting for a film that can weave the great elements of all his films into one masterpiece.

Top 5 Cronenberg Films

  1. Crash
  2. The Brood
  3. eXistenZ
  4. The Dead Zone
  5. Naked Lunch

Jessica Dickens is a film school graduate currently living in Vancouver.

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