More often than not, the subject of a horror film will tap into some outlandish, otherworldly, or supernatural elements, eschewing the fears of the real world for the more heightened terror of fantasy. There are the rare occasions (and rare filmmakers) who are resolutely planted in the world of real-life horror, frightening stories that may not have happened, but certainly could. Director David Cronenberg is the reigning king of this type of film.
A devout atheist and student of psychoanalysis, David Cronenberg’s interests and style are not of the kind expected from an average horror film director. An avid interest in human evolution, the shifts in perception of science and society, and an unflinching eye in the face of vivid and clinical brutality. Cronenberg has spent almost his entire career exploring existentialism in one form or another.
His early films, such as “Rabid” and “They Came from Within,” earned him the title The King of Venereal Horror. His focus on science-based diseases and monsters helped in large part to form the modern-day horror subgenre called Body Horror. His films continued to explore disease and psychology in increasingly fascinating and bizarre ways, from the living video transmissions of “Videodrome” to the drug-addled fantasies of William S. Burroughs in “Naked Lunch.”
One of the few directors in the horror genre to not only find mainstream success but also garner much critical acclaim, Cronenberg partnered with actor Viggo Mortensen for a series of dark dramas. From “A History of Violence” to “Eastern Promises” to the Sigmund Freud study “A Dangerous Method,” Cronenberg and Mortensen have crafted a solid subgenre of dark psychological films with an eye towards unrelenting violence and mature discussions of human sexuality.
Today’s mini-marathon chronicles some of the lesser-known (but still fascinating) work from the celebrated, cerebral director.
A truly terrifying vision of the dissolution of a utopian future community, “They Came from Within” is a tense thriller about residents of a high-rise who become victims of a disease that brings out sex and violence in the afflicted. Clearly influenced by J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (Cronenberg later worked with Ballard’s material when he adapted his novel into the film “Crash”), the film combines fears of future technology with existential dread about the ravages of disease. A great cast of actors (including Italian horror star Barbara Steele) brings this disturbing vision to life.
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Written by Cronenberg in the wake of an unpleasant divorce, “The Brood” taps into issues of marital and parental control, the horror of the subconscious, and the questionability of easy psychiatric answers. Following a custody dispute between an ex-husband and wife, people in the couple’s social circle begin dying due to the appearance of small, violent creatures. An excellent score by longtime collaborator Howard Shore (who would come to worldwide prominence with his scoring of the “Lord of the Rings” films) gives the incredible premise a sense of palpable discomfort.
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Somehow, Canadians seem to be able to get inside a crazy person’s head better than anyone else. Along with Lodge Kerrigan’s excellent films “Clean, Shaven” and “Keane,” Cronenberg’s “Spider” has successfully found a way to visually present the disorder inside a disturbed mind (while carefully balancing a level of reasonable sympathy for the troubled protagonists). Were he not already a big star before the release of this film, the stunning central performance of Ralph Fiennes would have launched his career. This multiple-award nominated film was the bridge from Cronenberg’s previous (horror) past and the more real-world dark drama that has been his modern career.
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