[Welcome to our ongoing Halloween series taking a look at the most influential horror directors from around the globe.]
Horror fans get a bad rap, often painted with a broad and unflattering brush. True, we obsess over stories and images that would give most people nightmares, but there is no questioning the unflinching loyalty of this genre’s fanbase. There are a handful of names that will arise with reliable frequency when the discussion turns to the greatest and most influential of horror filmmakers. The thing about uttering the words David Cronenberg in that discussion, apart from being wholly apt, is that it will be accompanied by a tinge of sadness.
David Cronenberg created some of the most innovative and memorable horror titles ever, but despite the fact that he is very much still a resident of this plane of existence, his dalliance in our beloved genre is itself a memory. Seemingly concerned about being saddled with criticisms of being artistically one-note, Cronenberg stopped directing horror films in the late 1990s. And yet fans remained loyal, and now not only is he revered, but indeed droves of admirers pine for his return to the bloody area that made him a legend.
So how did he earn that legend?
The chief defining characteristic of Cronenberg’s career is body horror. This imprecise label refers to Cronenberg’s attraction to horrific subject matter centering on painful, twisted transformations, mutations and corruptions of the human body; assaults on that whole “intact” carbon-based structure to which we’ve become so accustomed. People in his films would develop orifices in less than desirable places (Rabid), their rage would manifest as feral children birthed from tumors (The Brood), their heads would simply explode (Scanners), or they would lose themselves in visceral virtual-reality video games that ported directly into their bodies (eXistenZ). Cronenberg’s signature was therefore scrawled upon flesh.
His fixation on body horror served a more substantial function than merely nauseating the audience. By narrowing the scope of the terror to the human body, he made it extremely difficult for viewers to distance themselves from the disquieting images on the screen. It is a visceral discomfort that perfectly epitomizes the reason we watch horror films in the first place. It reminds us of the frailty of our physical form and the idea of decomposition, which subconsciously speaks to our fear of death. Countless directors since Cronenberg have tried to recapture his brilliant, gut-wrenching style. Film scholars, both accredited and amateur alike, have even taken to using the term “Cronenbergian” or “Cronenberg-esque” when describing contemporary films heavy in visceral aesthetics.
The Art of Gore
Given Cronenberg’s reliance on body horror, and taking into account the unsightly afflictions of his ill-fated characters, it would be easy for someone unfamiliar with his work to erroneously assume he was a weaver of B-movie exploitation. But there really is artistry in his gruesomeness. Loving care and spellbinding creative energy are at the sticky core of every macabre Cronenberg setpiece. When Louis Del Grande’s head bursts near the beginning of Scanners, that practical effect, the overflowing cranial piñata, is so beautifully constructed that even in frame-by-frame, slow-motion analysis, the seams are nearly invisible. The innumerable effects in Videodrome, particularly the biologically enhanced television set, are like a wicked undulating modern art exhibit. If you take the time to set aside content and zero in on craft, Cronenberg’s use of gore is positively gorgeous.
It’s not simply a matter of the gore’s construction, its application is demanding of praise as well. By more or less turning his characters inside out, Cronenberg speaks to the common threads of the human condition. He is cutting us open to demonstrate how we are all the same on the inside. That homogeny established, he is then free to examine collective social concerns such as media obsession, motherhood and disease. In fact, in the latter category, Cronenberg’s ghastly imagery offered insightful new perspective. He himself often stated that his films should be seen from the disease’s point of view.
There is at least one other all-too-natural human connection that drives Cronenberg as a storyteller. It’s safe to say Cronenberg had a strange fascination with human sexuality. It’s a theme that underscores both his horror and non-horror outings alike; A Dangerous Method and Crash two sterling non-genre examples. This fascination actually bled into his filmmaking logistics. For 1977’s Rabid, he made the bold choice of casting porn star Marilyn Chambers as his lead. Given some of the genital iconography used in the film, this decision proved quite fitting.
Pursuant to his proclivities toward the concepts like transformation and disintegration of the natural order, Cronenberg saw sex as the overlap in his thematic Venn diagram. Sex was examined through filters running the gamut from corporeal alteration to intense vulnerability to out and out chaotic ruin. One of his early films, Shivers, goes so far as to sexualize the zombie trope in a creative gesture that speaks to the ravenous need for human contact… and forever calls into question the term safe sex.
Remakin’ It Great
It’s a dirty word among horrorphiles, but remakes are nevertheless a constant of the genre. One of the enormous, Ostrich-sized feathers in Cronenberg’s cap is that he boasts one of horror’s absolute best remakes. He took Kurt Neumann’s 1958 film The Fly and gave it an entirely new face while leaving its underlying genetic material undisturbed. While trying to perfect his teleportation device, scientist Seth Brundle accidentally has his DNA spliced with that of a housefly; an event that finds him slowly and nightmarishly transforming into a human/fly hybrid.
Once again, the effects work is astounding, and the film has plenty of broad, crowd-pleasing elements. However it’s the subtext that elevates Cronenberg’s The Fly to something more than just a remake. Brundle’s desire for acclaim, his refusal to be hindered by human limitations, is the pride that often goes before the fall in mad-scientist cinema. His reach exceeds his grasp and he destroys himself in gloriously disgusting detail trying to maximize the potential of his own genius. Cronenberg is the craftsman, and Brundle is his ICKarus.
More: The Most Influential Horror Filmmakers: Alfred Hitchcock