In my mind, Cronenberg’s cinema is divided into three distinct phases, and each of them seem to deal with three different facets of human nature – the first, the early horror of films (1975-1986), deal with the body, the second phase (1988-2002), perhaps more subtle in their approach, deal with the mind, and the third phase (2005-present), feel more like traditional character studies, dealing with, if anything in particular, the soul, and the way it is corrupted.
Here, I’ll present some of the themes that tie together the early films, considering what it is they’re trying to present, and what it is that ties them all together.
Perhaps the most notable, physically and thematically, in the early Cronenberg films, is the idea of a metamorphosis, one thing (a typical human, in the case of the Cronenberg films), transforming into something that is many things, although human is never one of them.
There’s a less physical example in Shivers (1975), wherein a parasite causes people to become hypersexual, and contagious, essentially they become walking venereal diseases. This is simply the tip of the iceberg for Cronenberg and metamorphosis, with much more visceral and horrific examples cropping up in his 80’s movies, particularly Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986), wherein the leads of the films transform into creatures that become less and less human as the film goes on, particularly with Jeff Goldblum in the latter of the two films.
Jeff Goldblum in The Fly – before and after his metamorphosis.
In the fantastic documentary, An American Nightmare (2000), Cronenberg says that his characters are trying to “derail biology, and biology is of course destiny.” That’s what these characters are trying to do, they’re trying to break free from the constraints of a traditional life by breaking free from, I suppose a prison of normal human biology.
Now, while this isn’t a successful metamorphosis by any means (both Videodrome and The Fly end with the deaths of the lead characters), this theme of transcending, or at least attempting to transcend, basic humanity, is a running theme in early Cronenberg, and perhaps the one that is most explicitly linked to Cronenberg’s continued study of the human body, pushing it to, and indeed beyond, it’s limits.
Sexuality is a running theme throughout all of Cronenberg’s work, although in the early films it seems to be at its most explicit, and perhaps deviant. In Videodrome for instance, there’s a bizarre sequence that involves James Woods whipping a television.
Sexuality in early Cronenberg is almost always linked to the aforementioned metamorphosis of Cronenberg’s characters. Of course the obvious example is in Shivers, wherein the sexuality of the characters is directly linked to their metamorphosis.
But of course, there are elements where, instead of linking to the metamorphosis, it’s linked to the changes in the characters brought on by the metamorphosis – such as the strange sadomasochism that comes out of Max Renn (James Woods) in Videodrome.
These acts of deviant sexuality are often, much like the metamorphoses also present in the films, is focused on the explicit idea of transcending normality (while it doesn’t fit into the timeline of his early films, perhaps Cronenberg’s 19960 J. G. Ballard adaptation Crash fits into the early category for how it uses sexuality to examine characters). Perhaps not trying to derail destiny or biology or anything as extreme as that, Cronenberg’s early sexuality is instead an examination of the consequence of these changes.
When you’re given a nickname like ‘The Baron of Blood,’ there’s got to be good reason for it, and in the case of David Cronenberg, there certainly is. His earliest films are remembered most vividly for their scenes of unconventional and visceral violence, from the iconic head-explosion scene in Scanners (1981) to the outcome of Max Renn’s hand transforming into a gun in Videodrome, unconventional bloodshed is perhaps the most oft-recognised of all of the tropes in Cronenberg’s early films.
Again, since this is body horror we’re talking about, it is of course, explicitly linked to the body, which is of course Cronenberg’s playground for his early films. And his body-related violence does, is exactly what all of his other tinkering with the human form and sexuality does – it is transgressive, it attacks convention with reckless abandon, transcending even the norms of horror film violence, with Cronenberg’s earliest films pre-dating both Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
Now, while Cronenberg doesn’t explicitly begin to focus on the working and bending of the mind until a later period in his filmmaking, the mind, scientific curiosity and intellectualism are a cornerstone of his early films, and these theme ties back to perhaps the main purpose of early Cronenberg films – transcending normality and reality.
The most explicit example of this is Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) in The Dead Zone (1983), who literally transcends typical constraints of the mind by seeing into the future. And of course, while The Dead Zone is the first, and only, of Cronenberg’s early films to explicitly focus on the mind, his other early films still use it as a building block of its other, more visceral and physical themes. In The Fly for instance, it is the scientific curiosity of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) that leads to his metamorphosis, and the unconventional psychotherapy in The Brood (1979) leads again to a physical and visceral explosion.
All in all, the early Cronenberg films are clearly the most visceral, and those that are most explicitly horror films. In using explicit violence and deviant sexuality, Cronenberg is attempting to, as he says “derail biology”, and, by extension, destiny. These films focus on the body, but not in the traditional sense, instead, he focuses on pushing the body to, and beyond it’s natural limits. Cronenberg places human biology under a microscope and pulls it to pieces, giving birth to, in the words of Videodrome’s Max Renn – the “new flesh.”