With Maps to the Stars opening in theaters and on VOD this past weekend, I took a deep dive into the expansive catalog of films from the prolific Baron of Blood, David Cronenberg. This was no easy task; Cronenberg’s filmography is full of characters and themes that represent the darkest of humanity. Even with his recent turn away from body horror and towards shocking dramas, Cronenberg continues to thrill and challenge audiences with his unique vision. The following is a chronological list of my seven favorite David Cronenberg moments, with scenes embedded where available:
The Brood (1979)
Cronenberg’s birth as “a director of significant note” started with his breakout 1979 film, The Brood. The film established him as an artist interested in social commentary represented through horribly visceral body horror and otherworldly distortions of reality. He would repeat these themes and ideas throughout his films, up to (and, really, through) his modern reinvention in A History of Violence.
These ideas were never as fresh as when they first appeared, particularly during The Brood’s climactic final sequence. Psychotherapist Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) is studying his narcissistic patient, Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar), who he discovers has the strange ability to autogenetically birth murderous, sexless, miniature humanoids. These dwarf creatures are the physical manifestations of her internal rage and, upon their birth, attack those around her.
The most unforgettable scene in a movie packed full of grotesque sequences is Nola’s final birthing scene. An external womb extends from her abdomen, complete with several extra nipples, ripe for the birthing. Nola parts her draped white dress to reveal the womb, as if she were an angel spreading her wings, which she soon begins to tear at. The womb bursts to reveal the newest monster baby and Nola begins to lick the afterbirth off the creature. The scene is nauseating, nightmare-inducing, and a precursor of the ultraviolent grotesqueries that Cronenberg would reveal in later years.
Scanners might not feature tremendous performances or the most compelling narrative, but it gets to its appeal right away: exploding heads. Scanners are otherwise-normal people with the ability to “scan” those around them, mentally connecting the two nervous systems through telepathy. However, when one scanner “scans” another, things start going haywire; hence the head explosions.
When the villainous Darryl Revok infiltrates a ConSec conference and volunteers to be scanned by their telepath, things go awry. The two begin the process and, for a few moments, it’s unclear what’s happening — until the ConSec scanner’s head explodes in a shower of blood and bone. His shallow breathing, sweaty brow, and the deep undulating tones of the soundtrack make this exercise almost unbearable. Revok is unflinching in his deep stare while the ConSec scanner’s head twitches back and forth.
The explosion of the man’s head is a wonderful, blink-and-you-miss-it special effect pulled off without any indication that a quick switch between the actor and gelatin head was made. Forget that the table and floor are bloodless after his death; Scanners peaks early with this incredible sequence.
Max Renn (James Woods) has a problem and it’s pretty serious. You see, Max has a malignant brain tumor caused by viewing a television program called Videodrome. Not bad enough? Well, what if I told you that the brain tumor also causes Max to experience disturbing hallucinations where his… yonic chest opens up to swallow VHS tapes?
Cronenberg’s Videodrome is not only visually daring, but features questions about technology and media programming that are still relevant over thirty years later. Its most alluring scenes, like those in other Cronenberg films, feature the appearances of his surreal imagination. When Max’s lover arrives on his television screen and begins to seduce him to join her in orgasmic ecstasy inside said screen, Videodrome dives into the realm of fantasy headfirst. Max’s television set begins to bubble and move as if it were alive, sprouting veins and ballooning out towards him. Caught in the television’s spell, Max slowly begins to insert his head into the beckoning image of his lover’s lips. Watching television too closely has always been bad for your eyes, but this is a whole different story.
The Dead Zone (1983)
Cronenberg’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone is less a satisfying story, more a film that feels like it desperately wants to be a television show. That said, about halfway through, the script takes a wild detour into the serialized cop-drama genre when Christopher Walken’s Johnny uses his psychic powers to help solve a series of murders. What makes the brief tangent so exciting is how Cronenberg visualizes Johnny’s psychic visions. Johnny is visually inserted into the crimes as they happen, forcing him to relive the horrible murders with no means of stopping them. Cronenberg’s camera slowly creeps around the scene and startlingly reveals Johnny, as if he appeared out of nowhere.
When the villain is discovered, Johnny and the detectives chase him to his house, where a brutal gunfight breaks out while the killer commits suicide in an incredibly disturbing fashion. Of all of The Dead Zone’s numerous disparate plotlines, Johnny’s investigation of a serial killer stands taller than the rest.
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