David Cronenberg: The Return of the King (of Venereal Horror)?

David Cronenberg

He’s been called the “King of Venereal Horror” and the “Baron of Blood.”  And while his films have not always been understood upon their initial theatrical release, he has stayed his course, building an oeuvre of artistic integrity and visionary endeavors, until audiences finally realized the error of their ways.

Due to his marked departure from the explicit horror genre in more recent fare, some purists believe that Cronenberg has wandered off the ranch and betrayed his earlier successes in the horror genre.

Next month at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, all eyes will be watching for critical reaction to Cronenberg’s latest – his adaption of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis.  Is this a return to horror for Cronenberg or an intriguing new direction in his ever-expanding artistic capacity?

Cosmopolis

No matter – regardless of the reception for Cosmopolis, Cronenberg is a true visionary.

This is part one of a four-part series on the oeuvre of visionary filmmaker David Cronenberg.

For over 40 years, David Cronenberg has reigned as one of the most innovative filmmakers to explore all things dark and horrific.  Just last year, the Village Voice called Cronenberg the most audacious and challenging narrative director in the English-speaking world.

Starting with his breakout feature, 1975’s They Came from Within (or Shivers), Cronenberg has consistently explored dark, horrific themes in innovative and intriguing ways.

Cronenberg has been often cited as the originator of “body horror.”  Many of his earlier films focus on the fear of our bodies running amuck, of infections, transformations or even deviant sexual drives, beyond our control.  His horror does not come from a mad slasher or alien, but rather from within – often as a result of our own ill-considered deeds.

Barbara Steele and Susan Petrie are driven to revealing sexual urges in They Came from Within

In his most outstanding films, Cronenberg intriguingly merges the physical and the psychological in disturbing, sometimes beautiful, ways.  The images are shocking, even repulsive, but through Cronenberg’s lens, there is a certain logic to the whole thing.  It’s almost like watching a show on the horrors of the brutalities of the wild, and finally realizing that the images depicted are not tied to emotion, but to the stark realities of survival and a cold truthful assessment of our being.

And what images Cronenberg has created!

Who can forget the squirmy, parasitic creatures of the aforementioned Shivers, or their violation of beautiful horror legend, Barbara Steele?  What about the infectious phallus protruding from porn star Marilyn Burns’ arm in Rabid (1977)?

Or the grotesque images of “psychoplasmics” treatments and the horrific climax of Samantha Egger and her “newborns” in The Brood (1979)?

But these images cannot compare to the audacious memories of that exploding head from Scanners (1981).

These images are powerful in their own right, but Cronenberg is not interested in exploiting these images unto themselves.  As a true visionary, he is after something much deeper.

The lesser filmmaker would be content to center his or her film around that exploding head from Scanners (and in fact, all iterations of that glorious visual concept were repeated in the subsequent, and quite dreary, non-Cronenberg sequels).

In Cronenberg’s film, that exploding head is early in the film, not the climax.  To be sure, Cronenberg uses the exploding head scene to shock us, but his film’s climax and resolution ultimately involves something much less overtly graphic, and much more disturbing.

The real underlying horror in Scanners is the broader concept of control over each other – literally and figuratively.

Cronenberg’s horror is much more complex than a gross-out scene – it is multi-layered with possibilities.  The true talent of Cronenberg is his ability to intrigue us during his films and well beyond the screening room.

Next time, we’ll consider the significant turning points in Cronenberg’s career that placed him within his early “mainstream” period (of course, that’s a relative term for any Cronenberg film).

We’ll examine Videodrome, one of Cronenberg’s most completely rendered visions, as well as the subsequent films of this period, which finally brought him broader commercial acclaim – The Dead Zone and The Fly.

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