It’s been eight years since we’ve gotten a new movie from David Cronenberg, and even longer since he’s donned his most recognizable hat as a craftsman of deliciously sickening cinema. His return to body horror–a subgenre he’d helped define but, after 1999’s eXistenZlargely abandoned–with Crimes of the Future is cause to celebrate. Cronenberg’s films are visually precise and thematically dense, but most importantly, the Father of Body Horror never skimps on gore.
Of course, he would not be one of today’s most respected directors if the violence were merely provocative and devoid of thematic purpose. The auteur deconstructs the body to express ideas regarding technologically and pharmaceutically accelerated changes to the human genome, fratricide, the illusion of individual personhood, and the (sometimes literal) fusion of multiple identities.
Hon. Mention: Rabid (1977)
Decades before probing the sexual liberation of vehicular collisions in CrashCronenberg directed a film about a woman who literally sprouts new gentialia after a motorcycle accident – a phallic stinger nested in her armpit.
The moviecontains a few decent gross-outs — a scene in which the main character undergoes a skin graft is pretty hair-raising — but choices made in the editing room obscure how much of the action we’re able to see. Rabid is unlikely to satisfy those horror fans looking for something truly depraved.
10. A History Of Violence (2005)
Tom Stall’s idyllic existence in Indiana takes a turbulent turn when he kills two assailants in his diner. After making the local news, Tom and his family are stalked by suited men from Philadelphia who insist that this small-town hero is actually a former criminal with an unpaid debt. A History of Violence in some ways comments on the filmography of its director, a man who distanced himself from body horror to make adult dramas but can not seem to resist coming back to the place where it all started. This deceptively thriller itself incorporates ideas he’s been exploring since the beginning of his career.
Cronenberg takes care of his fans while nevertheless striving for absolute realism. In the film’s two grossest scenes, Tom brutalizes the literal faces of men who, by compelling him to awaken his alter ego, Joey Cusack, threaten the figurative face he’s adopted – that of an upstanding, all-American family man. In terms of frightening imagery, we have to mention Ed Harris‘scarred Carl Fogarty, whose facial injury – the result of an old run-in with Joey involving barbed wire – gives Cronenberg an excuse to indulge in the grisly makeup for which he’s known and loved.
9. Dead Ringers (1988)
A History of Violence is about two personalities comprising one man, whereas Dead Ringers is about one personality born of two men. This psychosexual thriller following twin gynecologists contains admittedly few gross-out moments, but a scene in which Beverly (Jeremy Irons) has a nightmare that he’s physically attached to his brother is sure to make you flinch.
If a hepatectomy by way of teeth does not make you squirm, though, the thought of being operated on by the medieval torture devices Bev commissions as surgical instruments for the brothers’ practice probably will. Most of the film’s horror is psychological rather than visual, but the few instances of gore do not disappoint!
8. Scanners (1981)
The director’s interest in accelerated evolution underpins this thriller about telepathsknown as “scanners”, who must choose between helping the government and joining madman Darryl Revok’s (Michael Ironside) growing army. Cronenberg’s Firestarter, Scanners is actually pretty restrained whenever a head or an artery isn’t bursting, but the movie does not rely on violence to be unsettling.
When our stomachs are not being turned by the visuals, our ears are being pierced by the sound design and Howard Shore‘s score, which emulate the numbing pressure that builds inside a scanner’s head while they’re intercepting strangers’ thoughts. And if you’re a vinyl-lover, a scene involving a van crashing through a record store is bound to disturb you! Scanners may not have many gory thrills per minute, but it contains some of the gnarliest images of Cronenberg’s “organography.”
7. eXistenZ (1999)
Before Crimes of the Future, eXistenZ was Cronenberg’s deepest venture into world-building and science fiction. His new movie’s production design clearly took inspiration from this sci-fi horror’s techno-organic gaming pods — waxy mounds of animatronic flesh and bone. Solid objects are swallowed by scarred orifices, expired food and loose teeth are repurposed into weapons, and we’re treated to more amphibious guts than we probably care to see.
Based on its gooeyness and frequency of gore, eXistenZ should be a runner-up for the title of Cronenberg’s grossest movie. However, itis likelier to leave you wishing you had some slime handy than twisting in discomfort. A lot of this lush, campy creature-feature looks like a Land of the Lost episode, albeit with sex and jet-streams of fake blood.
6. The Brood (1979)
A couple in the midst of a divorce confront some very physical manifestations of their rage in this gross and intimate gem from 1979. Cronenberg’s thriller about childhood trauma, resentment, and alternative therapy takes a while to unleash the goods, but once it does…holy Brundlefly!
A shot of an externally nourished placenta is one of the scariest sights the body-horror subgenre has to offer – and that’s not even the most terrifying image in the film! The Brood highly rewards those who are patient enough to engage with it.
5. Crimes Of The Future (2022)
Cronenberg’s latest blends his thematic interests and aesthetic sensibilities into a refined body-horror cocktail. Set in a decaying future when humans are acquiring inorganic characteristics and technology looks more and more biological, Crimes of the Future meditates on evolution, the sensuality of pain, and art’s intersection with propaganda.
Those who feel the director’s long-awaited return is light on gross-outs may inadvertently be proving his point about the desensitizing effect of increasingly violent media. Crimes of the Future contains numerous photorealistic scenes of invasive surgery and mutilation, not to mention people feasting on plastic like it’s comfort food. The sound mix enhances the movie’s clammy, oozy production design. If this film’s grotesquely inventive anatomical rearrangements don’t make you squirm, you’ve clearly been videodromed.
4. Eastern Promises (2007)
Another successful collaboration between Cronenberg and Viggo Mortenson, Eastern PromisesLondona London-set crime drama about the Russian mob – is the director’s grittiest film. This time around, his fascination with corporeal transformation is focused on the myriad tattoos which tell the story of a criminal’s life. The movie’s commitment to realism makes its bursts of violence all the more stomach-churning.
The famous sequence of Mortenson’s character fighting off thugs in a bathhouse is four visceral minutes of bone-crunching, body-slicing, and eye-gouging that are as terrifying as anything Cronenberg’s ever put on screen. There’s also a corpse that’s dismembered after being thawed with a hairdryer, so Eastern Promises is definitely not for the faint of heart.
3. Shivers (1975)
A parasite makes its way through a luxury apartment complex and turns residents into insatiable nymphomaniacs. Avoiding the extreme close-ups and quick cuts that would hinder Rabid a few years later, Shivers lets you truly behold the terror wreaked by this “pathogenic organ” —which really just looks like an animatronic turd.
Filmed in 1975 on a micro-budget, the movie has a rough, unfiltered quality that augments the nasty bits – and there are plenty. But Cronenberg does not solely rely on gore to unsettle his audience. There’s a shot of a strawberry crêpe that will make you steer clear of the pillowy desert for the foreseeable future.
2. Videodrome (1983)
Beloved by horror enthusiasts and Chomskyites alike, Videodrome follows a TV executive whose life is disorganized after he watches a violent broadcast. Cronenberg addresses media ethics the only way he can — with blood, guts, and sex. Close-ups of ears being pierced, skin being singed by cigarettes, and body cavities being dilated are mild compared to the finale’s pyrotechnics. A famous shot of Max Renn’s (James Woods) hand fusing with a gun is a precursor to the gooey visuals Cronenberg has fun with in eXistenZanother film in which he predicts the ascendance of VR technology.
The prosthetics and production design will leave you nostalgic for the ’80s. They just do not make ’em like Videodrome anymore. As badly as Max gets put through the wringer, though, there’s one Cronenbergian protagonist who suffers an even more revolting fate.
1. The Fly (1986)
This should come as a surprise to no one: David Cronenberg’s most disgusting movie is his remake of The Fly. From its nightmarish prosthetics to its astonishing practical VFX, The Fly is benchmark ’80s horror. You’ll never look at Jeff Goldblum the same way after seeing how his character prepares to consume food. But double-coating a glazed donut with regurgitated bile is barely five percent of how intensely grotesque this movie gets. Seth Brundle’s transformation into Brundlefly provides Cronenberg all sorts of opportunities to torment the flesh.
The director once said, “When I look at a person, I see this maelstrom of organic, chemical, and electron chaos; volatility and instability, shimmering; and the ability to change and transform and transmute. ” None of his films visually manifests this philosophy to greater or grosser effect than The Fly.
KEEP READING: David Cronenberg’s Best Films, Ranked