The young David Cronenberg was avidly interested in both science and literature. From his first, low-budget short films, "Transfer" and "From the Drain," through his experimental featurettes Stereo and Crimes of the Future and into his early works - Shivers, Rabid, Fast Company, The Brood and Scanners - he demonstrates a keen interest in doctors and scientists who initiate experiments-gone-wrong.
The films' protagonists are not these doctors and scientists, however, but their victims: subjects who must come to terms with an increasing lack of control over their own bodies and impulses.
Through these characters, Cronenberg asks important questions about who we are and how we see ourselves. Cutting-edge scientific research promises new, liberating ways of being and acting, but also confines and destroys. The early films are characterized by gore and viscera: this is the chaos wrought by these doctors and scientists, many of them archetypal father figures. The films end tragically, in mayhem or, at best, ambiguity.
Shivers was David Cronenberg's first full-length feature film, partially funded by the CFMDC and produced by Ivan Reitman and Montreal's Cinepix. It takes place in a chic Montreal condominium, where a research scientist, Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein), injects a parasite into his young mistress, who, under the parasite's aphrodisiacal influence, spreads it throughout the building. The condo's resident doctor, Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), his nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) and Hobbes's assistant, Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver), fight against the parasite's spread but eventually become infected.
Shivers sets the tone for Cronenberg's filmography, continuing his interest in epidemiology and parodying the sexual revolution, problematically acting as a HIV/AIDS allegory before the fact.
Shivers elicited controversy in Canada, with journalist Robert Fulford, writing as "Marshall Delaney" in Saturday Night magazine, calling it "perverse", "disgusting" and "repulsive" - a waste of taxpayers' money. Debate reached the House of Commons, but ultimately the film grossed approximately $5 million internationally, covering its costs two times over and making it the most successful film the CFMDC had ever funded.
As Cronenberg established himself as a director of international repute in the 1980s, the characters in his films found a new sense of individualism. Beginning with Max Renn in Videodrome, and continuing through the 1990s in films such as M. Butterfly, Crash and eXistenZ, Cronenberg's cinema remains concerned with renegade experiments involving science, technology, drugs, art and sex.
But his protagonists take on the responsibility of these experiments themselves. The results may be as failed as those in the earlier films, but questions of identity are explored with vigor, not fear or repulsion. From Seth Brundle in The Fly to the twins in Dead Ringers to Bill Lee in Naked Lunch, there is no longer a distinction between experimenter and subject. The two merge in a series of bold existential trials. Power of choice, however dangerous or ultimately futile, belongs to Cronenberg's protagonists.
After two films made in the Hollywood system, Dead Ringers - which opened the Toronto International Film Festival in 1988 - saw Cronenberg returning to more idiosyncratic material. The film is co-written with Norman Snider, and loosely based on the real-life story of twin doctors Steven and Cyril Marcus, who were found dead in their Upper East Side apartment from a barbiturate overdose.
Jeremy Irons plays Dead Ringers' twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle, the former confident and physical, the latter reserved and cerebral. Once the mantle brothers fall in love with actress Claire (Genevieve Bujold), their compartmentalized, symbiotic relationship unravels, with increasingly disturbing results.
Dead Ringers is Cronenberg's most intimate exploration of the theme of doubling or twinning, and key to his interest in parallel worlds - with the twins, in their mounting addiction, creating a decadent space away from reality. Dead Ringers marks Cronenberg's first collaboration with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, with whom he would work on subsequent films.
Winner of a Special Jury Prize for audacity at the Cannes Film Festival, Crash is the most controversial film of Cronenberg's career, and was central to the debate around screen violence and censorship in the late-1990s.
It is in many respects a companion piece to Naked Lunch - a literary adaptation of the work of one of Cronenberg's influences, this time J.G. Ballard. James Spader plays Ballard, a movie producer who gets into a car accident and, through interaction with the surviving wife of the driver who's been killed, is introduced to a cult that fetishizes car crashes, especially those of celebrities. A string of kinky sexual scenarios ensues, leading to a startling climax.
Previous Cronenberg works resonate in Crash: the motorcycle accident in Rabid; Fast Company's drag racing; the coma - inducing car crash in The Dead Zone. Fetishism and paranoia - integral Ballardian and, in turn, Cronenbergian, themes - are prevalent. But Crash is also a reversal for Cronenberg. Unlike films such as The Fly, Crash portrays changes to the body as erotic - creating sexuality rather than destroying it.
The most recent stage in Cronenberg's cinema sees the director turning outward. Family, friends and society are key concerns. The eponymous character in Spider, with whom Cronenberg intimately relates, is affected by past trauma in his attempt to make sense of the world he currently inhabits.
In A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, superheroic protagonists preserve the order of family and society by accessing their own dark, antisocial pasts.
In A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis, Cronenberg forces the founders of psychoanalysis and a hermetic capitalist, respectively, to contend with what is outside their worlds of theory and money.
In this period, we also see Cronenberg revealing his own anxiousness about artistic identity and mortality in the evocative shorts "Camera" and "At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World."