In Cronenberg's first film, the young director is already demonstrating his trademark clinical remove. Dealing with a futuristic world in which medical experiments are being conducted in human sexuality, Stereo touches on Cronenberg's recurring themes of the relationship between sex and violence, bodily distortion and the perils of scientific experimentation.
Crimes of the Future (1970)
A companion piece to Stereo, this is another experimental film. The plot revolves around a journalist, Adrian Tripod, investigating the death of nearly all the earth's women, an event which appears to be a corporate conspiracy linked to teenage prostitution. Cronenberg shot this in his hometown Toronto, and his photographic approach shows the influence of Jean-Luc Godard.
Cronenberg's first larger-budget film, Shivers (originally titled They Came From Within) uses a gory zombie storyline to present a critique of 1970s sexual and social mores. A crazed scientist devises a parasite to increase the desire for sex and violence, and then tests it on his young mistress - who is unfortunately sleeping with most of the men in the apartment building. She turns them all into zombies. Cronenberg can be seen making a cameo as the shoulder of someone stabbed by Nurse Forsythe.
Cronenberg recruited porn star Marilyn Chambers to be the lead in his second zombie outing. After a motorcycle accident, Rose (Chambers) undergoes a risky plastic surgery procedure whose nasty side effect is an insatiable bloodlust. In her hunt for fresh blood, she infects every amorous male she meets with her disease, turning them into zombies as well. When Sissy Spacek, Cronenberg's first choice for Rose, turned down the part, Cronenberg made a nod to her by including a poster of Carrie in the film.
Fast Company (1979)
In an unexpected career move, Cronenberg left behind allegorical horror to take on this more conventional drama set in the world of drag-racing. The plot is a straight-ahead tale of the nice versus the nasty on the track, but Cronenberg puts his energies into the (almost sexual) depiction of the high-powered cars. In a tragic irony, Claudia Jennings, the ex-Playboy model who played the hero's girl, died in a car crash recently after completing the film.
The Brood (1979)
Widely regarded as Cronenberg's first great film, The Brood has an emotional intensity and gravity previously unseen in his work. Recently separated from her husband, mentally ill Nola (Samantha Eggar) goes to a psychiatric retreat run by celebrity shrink Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), whose innovative methods of releasing their rage have horrific consequences. Cronenberg wrote this during an acrimonious divorce with his first wife, who Eggar's character is supposedly based on.
This was Cronenberg's first big commercial hit, and remains many fans' favorite. Almost a take on the X-Men, it's about the "Scanners," ostensibly normal humans with telepathic gifts who can zap people at will, and who are either good or evil — apart from, that is, the film's hero, Cameron (Stephen Lack), who is charged with infiltrating the evil group's ranks. The film was possibly inspired by a chapter in William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch about the telepathic "Senders."
In his follow-up to the commercial success of Scanners, Cronenberg began to explore more psychological and sexual material. A cable TV boss (James Woods) comes across Videodrome, a show in which women are tortured and killed, and becomes obsessed with it and its creators after discovering that what he is seeing are real snuff movies. The media expert in the film, Brian O'Blivion, is a character based on Marshall McLuhan, who was one of Cronenberg's college professors.
The Dead Zone (1983)
Amongst a rash of Stephen King adaptations in the 1980s, Cronenberg's intelligent and restrained addition to the subgenre stands out. After spending five years in a coma, teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) discovers he can see people's futures, which is a horrific burden rather than a blessing. This was first time in Cronenberg's career that he did not have friend Howard Shore compose the film's score, a result of studio politics.
The Fly (1986)
After The Dead Zone, Cronenberg remained in the studio system with this remake of the '50's B-movie horror classic. Brilliant scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) works on a teleportation device, but transforms into the mutant "Brundlefly" after a fly accidentally shares the transportation pod with him. Cronenberg appears in a cameo as a gynaecologist.
Dead Ringers (1988)
One of Cronenberg's most celebrated films, it was adapted from the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland. Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons) are identical twin brother gynaecologists whose close-knit relationship unravels when a woman (Genevieve Bujold) unexpectedly falls for Beverly, the shy, socially awkward one. The film was to be called Twins until Ivan Reitman, a friend and former collaborator of Cronenberg, announced he was making a film starring Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger with the same name.
Naked Lunch (1991)
The marriage of Cronenberg's cinema of psychological and physiological horror to Beat writer William S. Burroughs' seminal novel was an inspired one. Cronenberg uses just as much of Burroughs' own life as his novel in a fittingly fevered tale of insect exterminator Bill Lee (Peter Weller), who accidentally kills his wife and then escapes to Interzone, a fantastical city where he can finally fulfil his desire to write. Though there are some exterior desert scenes, Cronenberg shot the entire film on a huge soundstage in Toronto.
M. Butterfly (1993)
Almost as baffling a career move as Fast Company, Cronenberg's decision to make this lavish adaptation of David Henry Hwang's stage play was met with bemusement by critics. In China in the 1960s, a French diplomat (Jeremy Irons) falls for a female singer in the Beijing Opera (John Lone), who is, in fact, not only a man in drag but also a spy out to discover foreign political secrets. Hwang rewrote his own work for the screen, making this one of the few films Cronenberg has directed which he has not also had a hand in writing.
Unquestionably Cronenberg's most controversial and incendiary film, Crash provided tabloid journalists with fodder long before any of them had seen it. Based on J.G. Ballard's novel, it dealt with a group of people whose sexual fetish is participating in car crashes. The film won the hearts of the esteemed Cahiers du Cinema magazine, whose critics voted it as their favorite movie of 1996.
With Cronenberg at his lightest and most playful, eXistenZ has strong echoes of the director's previous films, particularly Videodrome. Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the designer of a virtual-reality video game that players plug into by using a "bio-port," finds herself on the run from anti-game campaigners inside eXistenZ, the game she created. The strange capitalization in the title is because two of the film's producers are Hungarian, and the word "isten" means "God" in Hungarian.
From a script by Patrick McGrath (adapted from his own novel), Spider is another claustrophobic, internalized literary adaptation in the vein of Naked Lunch. Ralph Fiennes plays Dennis Clegg, a mentally ill man living in a halfway house in London but occupying a headspace where he is tormented by troubled memories of his past and the fractured confusion of the present. Cronenberg unexpectedly received the script from McGrath, decided he wanted to direct it after only a few pages, and deferred his salary to ensure it got made.
The History of Violence (2005)
Cronenberg's cinematic re-imagining of John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel was his most lauded film since Crash. A small-town restaurant owner, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), becomes an instant hero and media sensation when he kills two men about to murder one of his waitresses. The incident, however, raises questions about exactly who Stall really is, and the storyline allows Cronenberg to examine the nature of violence. Cronenberg ended up radically cutting the pivotal scene of Stall's heroics as he was worried it glorified rather than examined violence.