‘An Artist is Meant to be Extreme’: David Cronenberg’s Creative Manifesto

Something for Halloween, originally published in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Gothic (2012) edited by W. Hughes, D. Punter & A. Smith…

David Cronenberg is a Canadian auteur filmmaker who made his name with intelligent, innovative and graphic horror films. His work explores human fears and desires not commonly expressed in cinema, such as disease, aging, mental illness, and sexual fetishism. Cronenberg approaches the human condition through the unconscious and physical processes of the thinking animal, with an extreme existentialism that celebrates the body (in all its disgusting glory) while admitting the horror of the individual consciousness trapped within ever decaying flesh. These themes are present in Cronenberg’s early genre work, and he continues to explore them through the adaptation of postmodern literature.

Cronenberg was born in Toronto in 1943. He majored in biochemistry at the University of Toronto, before switching to English. Cronenberg began making films at university, abandoning literary ambitions, and these juvenilia contain key themes that he would later develop. Transfer (1966) is a dialogue between a psychiatrist and patient in a Surrealist and Nouvelle Vague setting, while From the Drain (1967) is about two soldiers in a mental hospital bath. One is disconcerted by the plughole, and a vine-like tendril eventually snakes up from the drain and strangles him. From the Drain feels like Beckett, but with a money shot. Stereo (1969) is framed as an experiment by ‘Dr. Luther Stringfellow’ filmed by ‘The Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry.’ A group of volunteers are given telepathic capabilities (a device later developed in Scanners), and encouraged to explore these through sexual experimentation, the theory being that sexually bonded telepathic groups will replace the ‘obsolescent family unit.’ One subject has her identity annexed by a secondary personality, and as the telepaths become stronger the scientists lose control. Crimes of the Future (1970), also contains a mad scientist in absentia. The dermatologist Antoine Rouge has disappeared after a pandemic caused by his cosmetics wipes out all adult women. Adrian Tripod, director of the House of Skin Clinic, is searching for him. Anticipating later projects such as The Brood and Videodrome, Tripod meets a man whose body mimics childbirth by growing new organs, while the new world is carved up by the sinister corporations Metaphysical Import-Export and the Oceanic Podiatry Group. Rouge is eventually discovered reincarnated as a little girl. It sounds better than it is, but the themes of these early process pieces – absentee scientists/father figures, physical and psychological transformation, mutation, sexually transmitted disease, and things coming out of drainpipes – all recur in Cronenberg’s later work.

Moving on from the avant-garde, Cronenberg hooked up with fellow-Canadian filmmaker Ivan Reitman, whose low-budget Cannibal Girls (1970) had been distributed by American International, and Cinepix, a small Montreal film company specialising in soft-core pornography. Cronenberg, who has described his early writing as ‘possessed by Nabokov and Burroughs,’ wrote and directed ‘Orgy of the Blood Parasites’ (Shivers) for Cinepix while Reitman produced.


As parasite-infested, sex-crazed maniacs over-run an exclusive Montreal apartment block, the influence of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is conspicuous. Shivers also looks and feels like soft-core pornography, which is both a sign of its production roots and an elegant visual metaphor. The film is rough, and there is a sense of young filmmakers learning their craft, but between bad acting, experimental cinematography, and some groundbreaking special effects, there is a very high concept. While notionally researching an ‘alternative to organ transplants,’ psychopharmacologist Dr. Emil Hobbes secretly believes that ‘Man is an animal that thinks too much.’ To help the instincts along, Hobbes has developed a parasite that is ‘a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease,’ that will ‘turn the world into one beautiful, mindless orgy.’ While the hapless GP Dr. St. Luc blunders around trying to work it all out, Cronenberg treats us to a collection of sexually violent set-pieces, including an insurance broker befriending his parasites as they crawl beneath his skin, Gothic stalwart Barbara Steele penetrated by a parasite that has come up through the plughole, and children and pensioners alike perverted. The heart of the film comes when St. Luc’s lover explains a dream in which she was making love to an old and repulsive man who explains that: ‘everything is erotic, that everything is sexual … that even old flesh is erotic flesh, that disease is the love of two alien kind for each other, that even dying is an act of eroticism.’ This is Cronenberg’s manifesto, and it’s present in almost everything he writes. The closing scene, as parasite carriers drive off to infect Montreal – looking like a group of bourgeois baby-boomers going to the beach – is inspired.

The controversial Shivers stuck Cronenberg’s work with the rather reductive critical label of ‘body horror.’ He followed up with Rabid in 1977, picking up where Shivers ended, and casting the hard-core actress Marilyn Chambers as an accident victim whose experimental skin graft results in mutation, turning her into a postmodern vampire with a tumour-like, blood-sucking and retractable phallus. Again, there is an absentee scientist (Dr. Keloid, plastic surgeon), a sinister institution (the Keloid Clinic), and a scientific explanation (morphogenics). Like Typhoid Mary, Rose infects Montreal with a virulent form of rabies, leading to Romero-esque zombification (although Rabid pre-dates Dawn of the Dead by two years), AIDS allegories, and martial law. The film concludes with a death camp image of soldiers in biohazard suits tossing Rose’s corpse into a garbage truck.

The road movie Fast Company followed, although petrolhead Cronenberg was now a horror brand, his name prefixing the title credits of his next film, The Brood (1979). Reitman, meanwhile, moved to comedy and then Hollywood, producing and directing Ghostbusters in 1984. The Brood is a disturbing film about divorce and child abuse that the director has wryly described as my version of Kramer vs. Kramer’ (McCarty: 1984, 73). At the Raglan Clinic, a variation of Primal Therapy called ‘Psychoplasmics’ leads patient’s to manifest their rage as physical symptoms. The estranged wife of the hero is manifesting her rage through homicidal, parthenogenetic children that murder her parents and abduct her daughter. The theme continues to evolve in Scanners (1981), in which an experimental pre-natal drug makes its inventor’s children telepathic.

After considering an adaptation of Frankenstein, Cronenberg continued the science fiction-based exploration of identity present within Scanners in the hyper-real Videodrome (1983), a prophetic vision of a world dominated by electronic mass media. ‘Videodrome’ is an underground S&M television show, produced by the Spectacular Optical Corporation and intended to cause brain tumours. Sleazy cable executive Max Renn is made an agent of ‘The New Flesh’ (a fusion of man and technology), programmed by videotape inserted into a vaginal slot in his stomach. ‘The battle for the mind of North America,’ explains Professor Brian O’Blivion, ‘will be fought in the video arena, the Videodrome,’ where ‘television is reality and reality is less than television.’ McLuhan is an obvious influence (Rodley: 1997, 67), but Tania Modleski has convincingly argued that Renn most closely resembles Baudrillard’s concept of the ‘new schizophrenic’ (Modleski: 2000, 288). Which aspects of Renn’s (terminal) odyssey are just tumour-induced hallucinations remains unclear. Videodrome marks the end of an experimental era for Cronenberg, after the revision of the complex Canadian tax laws that supported such creative freedom. In a brief move to Hollywood (Lorimar and the Dino De Laurentiis Company), he directed The Dead Zone (1983), an adaptation of the novel by Stephen King in which a coma survivor develops the curse of second sight. Cronenberg was slated to direct the Phillip K. Dick project Total Recall, but could not agree a script with De Laurentiis (Rodley: 1997, 120 – 121). Mel Brooks then offered Cronenberg The Fly (1986), a re-working of the 1958 cult classic starring Vincent Price, based on the short story by George Langelaan. In Cronenberg’s version, the famous teleportation accident becomes a gene-splice. ‘It mated us, me and the fly,’ Seth Brundle, the lovable and doomed scientist, explains to his girlfriend Veronica, ‘I think it’s showing itself as a bizarre form of cancer.’ Cronenberg has described The Fly as ‘a metaphor for aging’ and ‘a compression of any love affair that goes to the end of one of the lover’s lives’ (Rodley: 1997, 120 – 125). Brundle falls apart – ‘Every time I look in the mirror, there’s someone different, someone hideous’ – and ultimately chooses assisted suicide by shotgun, leaving Veronica pregnant. The allegories are universal, and The Fly remains both touching and deeply disturbing.

The Fly was a major commercial success, reaching a wide audience and gaining an Academy Award for special effects. Instead of conventionally capitalising on this success with a move to the Hollywood mainstream, Cronenberg returned to Canada to make Dead Ringers (1988), a sparse and elegant Cartesian tragedy based on the novel Twins (1974) by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland. This move towards serious literary adaptation continued in the form of the bold, flawed and sometimes brilliant film version of The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs in 1991. Rather than attempting a straight adaptation, Cronenberg transposes the essence of Burrough’s prose, process and philosophy into a pseudo-biographical meditation on creativity, addiction and sexuality. Most of all The Naked Lunch is a film about what it means to be an artist. The film is transitional, blending the slimy special effects of The Fly, and the ambivalent unreality of Videodrome, with the original text. The Naked Lunch is a preface to Cronenberg’s more realised literary adaptations: David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly (1993), J.G. Ballad’s Crash (1996), Patrick McGrath’s Spider (2002), and A History of Violence (2005), a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, and more recently Cosmopolis (2012), an adaption of the novel by Don DeLillo. His choice of authors reflects his opinion that ‘an artist is meant to be extreme’ (Rodley: 1997, 43). Cronenberg’s other films are eXistenZ (1999), a virtual reality allegory of the human condition that returns to issues explored in Videodrome and The Naked Lunch, and the Russian Mafia thriller Eastern Promises (2007), which again addresses the nature of individual identity and works as a companion piece to A History of Violence. This was followed by A Dangerous Method, a film about the relationship between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein; Cosmopolis; the short film The Nest (2013), a return to source in which a doctor interviews a woman convinced that a nest of insects is growing in her breast; and the satirical drama Maps to the Stars (2014). His first novel, Consumed, a dark, post-modern piece in the tradition of Burroughs and Ballad was also published in 2014.

Cronenberg Consumed

Cronenberg has said that his original purpose was to ‘show the unshowable’ and ‘to speak the unspeakable’ (Rodley: 1997, 43). Although the horror genre was a vehicle through which this vision could be initially realised, the ‘body horror’ label is erroneous. Cronenberg’s films are not violent to shock, but because the process of life is violent – his more recent (non-genre) work therefore continues to force us to look. Although his early films can be historically aligned with the American New Wave in horror, Cronenberg’s art makes him look more like Hitchcock, Truffaut, or Kurosawa. As John Carpenter, the director of the seminal Halloween (1978) has observed: ‘Cronenberg is better than the rest of us combined’ (Rodley: 1997, xvii).


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Billson, Anne. (1996). ‘David Cronenberg.’ In Kim Newman (ed.), The BFI Companion to Horror. London: Cassell Academic, pages 82 – 83.

Browning, Mark. (2008). David Cronenberg: Author or Filmmaker? (Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Cronenberg, David. (2014). Consumed. New York: Scribner.

Grant, Michael (ed). (2000). The Modern Fantastic: The Films of David Cronenberg. London: Greenwood Press.

Handling, Piers. (1983). The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg. Toronto: General Publishing Group.

Kauffman, Linda S. (1998). Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture. Berkley: University of California Press.

McCarty, John. (1984). Splatter Movies. London: Columbus.

Modleski, Tania. (2000). ‘The Terror of Pleasure.’ In Ken Gelder (ed.), The Horror Reader. London: Routledge, pages 285 – 293.

Morris, Peter. (1994). David Cronenberg: A Delicate Balance. Toronto: ECW Press.

Newman, Kim. (1988). Nightmare Movies: Critical History of the Horror Film. London: Bloomsbury.

Rodley, Chris (ed). (1997). Cronenberg on Cronenberg. London: Faber and Faber. Sinclair, Iain. (1999). Crash: David Cronenberg’s Post-mortem on J.G. Ballad’s ‘Trajectory of Fate.’ London: BFI.

Wood, Robin, and Lipp, Richard (eds). (1979). The American Nightmare. Toronto: Festival of Festivals.

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