October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best horror films by the Baron of Blood himself, David Cronenberg, is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Whenever that contentious phrase “Canadian Content” wriggles into my mind, it’s swiftly followed by David Cronenberg’s take on the matter. Namely, that Canadian Film is any film made by a Canadian. This is good news if you’re not especially enamored with the idea of pastoral, documentary Can-Con. And it’s terrible news if you’re a hand-wringing, sex-phobic member of parliament in the 1970s-1980s. In one of the great uno reverse cards in Canadian history, the government’s attempts to foster a palatable, respectable film industry paved the way for one of the most transgressive names in horror. You simply love to see it.
While the Baron of Blood is capable of much more than his ghoulish moniker suggests, there’s no denying that the genre wouldn’t be the same without Cronenberg’s morbid disregard for the sanctity of the human body. Beginning his career in Toronto’s underground scene, Cronenberg has dedicated his career to peeling back the metaphorical layers of our repulsive, complicated, and ever-shifting relationship with our own flesh. Cartesian Dualism is rarely this groovy.
Below you’ll find our definitive ranking of Cronenberg’s horror output to date. If you’re wondering why Dead Ringers isn’t number one, that’s because this is a democracy. Given tyrannical rule, I would have amended that grievous error. In any case, long live the new flesh, my friends. And strap in for this list of the top ten horror films directed by David Cronenberg, as ranked by Rob Hunter, Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Jacob Trussell, and yours truly.
10. Crimes of the Future (2022)
After a twenty-year sabbatical, Cronenberg returned to sci-fi horror. Sharing a name (and little else) with the director’s 1970 experimental film, Crimes of the Future follows Saul (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux), two performance artists who conduct live surgeries that exploit Saul’s “accelerated evolution syndrome,” which causes him to constantly grow new organs. Commingling the sexual and the surgical in ways only Cronenberg can, Crimes of the Future is coolly self-conscious and achingly tender, which caught many body horror fetishists off-guard. But listen, Cronenberg, when it comes to downbeat corporeal apocalypses, I’m all ears, man. Featuring an especially slimy performance from Kristen Stewart (a modern-day Robert A. Silverman) and more than enough desolate euro-thriller vibes to set the mood, Crimes of the Future is a textbook instance of an aging master reflecting on their life’s work. (Meg Shields)
9. eXistenZ (1999)
I said it last year when we ranked horror games we don’t want to play, and I’ll repeat it this year: why don’t Cronenberg-heads talk up eXisenZ more? This movie rules and their failure to constantly talk it up is a slap in the face to their god! In this future world, video game consoles are out and game pods that are surgically attached to your spine are in. Two video game giants compete to dominate the market while a group known as the Realists tries to take down them both. Cronenberg takes us on a twisty, goopy journey where it’s never quite clear if we are playing a video game or in the real world. Is this a documentary? Maybe! (Chris Coffel)
8. Rabid (1977)
Leave it to Cronenberg to introduce the phrase “vampiric armpit phallus” into the public lexicon. Rabid is, admittedly, one of the Baron of Blood’s more thematically disorganized (and uncharacteristically sex-negative) ventures. But even when he’s throwing psycho-sexual spaghetti at the wall Cronenberg still handily crafts one of the bleakest outbreak parables out there. After all, despite her arguable stunt casting, Marilyn Chambers is a profoundly compelling Frankenstein’s monster; a beneficiary of experimental skin grafts that turn an unwilling young woman into a deadly predator. With Rabid, Cronenberg flexes his keen talent for capturing epidemiological panic; that (unfortunately well-known) sense that our institutions are incapable of containing, let alone soothing, the fear and chaos of a viral outbreak. It’s the pits. (Meg Shields)
7. Shivers (1975)
As far as commercial film debuts go, there are fewer door kicks more resounding than Shivers: a film about parasitic worms that turn the residents of an isolated Montreal high-rise into sex-crazed maniacs. Reeking of experimental brass while hinting at the self-assured master to come, Shivers is the most fun you can have watching French Canadians free themselves from social mores thanks to genetically engineered, sexually transmitted penis worms. Shivers lays the psychosexual groundwork for much of Cronenberg’s body horror oeuvre. But given that this is his only film to feature Barbara Steele as a chaotic bisexual, it holds a special place in our hearts. Or is that the worm talking? (Meg Shields)
6. Scanners (1981)
A brain-bursting amalgam of Cronenberg’s interests, Scanners follows Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a vagrant whose apparent schizophrenia is revealed to be untrained psychic abilities, which certain scientists believe to be the next stage in human evolution. Recruited by the military, Vale is tasked with locating another so-called “scanner”: Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) who is as powerful as he is totally insane. Originally pitched to Roger Corman of all people, Cronenberg repeatedly refers to Scanners as the most difficult film he’s ever made.
Not that you’d ever know it; Scanners’ thematic surety and iconic set pieces don’t exactly scream “filmed in haste to secure government subsidies.” Among its many miraculous boons, Scanners features a score by Howard Shore and some unbelievably goopy special effects work courtesy of the legendary Dick Smith and Lucasfilm’s Chris Walas. As anyone who’s seen the film will attest, Scanners is much more than its most shocking, explosive moment, which is why it endures to this day. (Meg Shields)
5. Dead Ringers (1988)
Featuring Jeremy Irons in a dual role that should have earned him an Oscar, Dead Ringers follows Beverly and Elliot Mantle, identical twin gynecologists who share everything. And we do mean everything. Unfortunately, the twins’ habit of treating patients like sexual hand-me-downs backfires when Beverly, the more sensitive of the two, falls in love. What follows is a genetic folie à deux as the twins’ codependency calcifies into something more metaphysically compromising. While Dead Ringers is one of Cronenberg’s less goopy body horror forays, the film’s horrifying, dreamlike portrait of separation anxiety is easily one of the director’s more challenging and emotionally rewarding theses. (Meg Shields)
4. The Dead Zone (1983)
Within the body of work Cronenberg produced early in his career, The Dead Zone feels like a bit of an outlier. An adaptation of a Stephen King book, the film tells the tale of Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) who, after a car accident, falls into a coma for five years. Upon awakening, he discovers he now has the ability to see into people’s lives — their past, present, and future — simply by touching them.
From moment one, Johnny seems to inherently understand the purpose of his prophetic visions, and it turns him into a sort of mild-mannered superhero, using his powers to eventually save the world from an immoral senator, deliciously played by Martin Sheen. What this film shows of Cronenberg’s talent at this stage of his career is that he did not need to rely on the overt body horror aesthetics to tell a compelling story. Rather he shows how his underlying interests can manifest in situations audiences could find a touch more plausible, and in turn better wrap their heads around, like how the mind can dramatically change in response to bodily trauma. (Jacob Trussell)
3. Videodrome (1983)
Videodrome is Cronenberg’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. As in, you watch it when you’re young. And you’re not exactly sure what the hell it’s all about. But you know it’s gross and repulsive in the best counterculture way possible. You watch it in your twenties, and it becomes a little heavier… meatier. You start to recognize the ideas Cronenberg is pushing. A decade later, Videodrome‘s fears are your fears. The vicious effects are still impressive, but the oblivion it exposes feels more real than when you were a kid. Your relationship with oblivion is no longer abstract. It’s your very near future. The media is the message, and it’s hateful, scary, and all-consuming. None of us will get out of it alive. (Brad Gullickson)
2. The Brood (1979)
Don’t tell anyone, but I haven’t loved a Cronenberg film since the ’80s. I’m happy he’s happy. But his work over the past three decades has mostly left me cold. Which is perhaps ironic to say seeing as his earlier films are the ones most frequently labeled as cold and clinical. But that doesn’t stop them from being incredibly effective chillers. (See what I did there? I’m not sorry.) My favorite of his 70s films is undeniably The Brood, a story born from Cronenberg’s own acrimonious divorce, that follows one man’s efforts to protect his daughter from his ex-wife’s madness… while also investigating a series of murders committed by the creepiest, most Crayola-loving kiddies in cinema history. There are some legitimately scary sequences here built on tensions and terror, and the finale ups the ante with some wonderfully disturbing visuals and practical effects work. Anyway, don’t get divorced. (Rob Hunter)
1. The Fly (1986)
Look, not all of the 1980s B-movie horror remakes were created equally. And, of the bunch, only one of them won an Academy Award. Make of that what you will. The Fly tells the tragic tale of Dr. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), whose experimental teleportation device creates carnal chaos when the wide-eyed scientist accidentally splices himself with a common house fly.
Fittingly, The Fly is the perfect amalgam of visceral shlock and a genuinely heartfelt character drama. It turns out there’s space under one roof for both jaw-sloughing and existential poetry. It is a hard-learned fact that everyone we know and love will putrefy and rot before our very eyes. It’s one of life’s great, unescapable horrors: that age and sickness will mutate our loved ones’ bodies and minds into something (or someone) we don’t entirely recognize. This is, arguably, one of the primary arteries of Cronenberg’s body horror legacy: that there is metaphor in mutilation; truth in tissue, and philosophy in the flesh. (Meg Shields)
Towel off and make sure that all your limbs (even the extra ones) are all intact. When you catch your breath, consider sneaking a peek at more 31 Days of Horror Lists!