Singular writer/director David Cronenberg has been a steadfast fixture of independent genre cinema since the early 1970s. The Canadian horror icon is widely considered the godfather of the “Body Horror” genre, with early classics like Scanners and The Brood inspiring film critic Philip Brophy to invent the term in the first place.
The only thing more unforgettable than the often transgressive and mind-bending thematic concepts of a Cronenberg film is the filmmaker’s signature use of “Cronenbergian” practical special effects. The visual effects across his filmography are visceral yet chilling, grotesque but oddly evocative. Very few living filmmakers have the scalpel-like handle on their own inimitable style and tone as Cronenberg does, and some of his efforts stand stall above the rest.
10 Gabrielle’s Scar — ‘Crash’ (1996)
If there are any other recurring points of obsession to be found in the Cronenberg filmography besides than his trademark “body horror”, they are the following; sex and machinery. Crash (1996) is the literal collision of those two concepts when film producer James Ballard (James Spader) entangles himself inside a faction of car-crash-obsessed sex fetishists who merge the ecstasy of intercourse with the death-defying thrill of high-speed car crashes.
The film also maintains his body horror calling card, namely in the character of Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), who carries a scar on her leg sustained in a car crash that unmistakably resembles female genitalia. Cronenberg’s photographing and staging of Gabrielle’s scars, as well as the numerous other wounds that are practically created in the film, is provocative, to say the least.
9 Invasive Parasites — ‘Shivers’ (1975)
Shivers or They Came From Within, as it was titled in the United States, was David Cronenberg’s debut feature-length film. Featuring a wriggling race of invasive parasites, the movie even managed to spook veteran genre film buffs like Martin Scorsese, who called it “shocking, subversive, surrealistic, and probably something we all deserve.”
Shivers truly is patient zero for Cronenberg’s oeuvre, and it effectively sets the stage for the entirety of his artistic career to come. Everything about the movie, from its morbid fascination with human organs to its allegorical parallels to the STD crisis to its insidious tone of naked brutality and viral violation, makes Shivers a foundational Cronenberg text.
8 Gristle Gun — ‘eXistenZ’ (1999)
eXistenZ was a movie ahead of its time. The trippy, disorienting narrative follows hot-shot game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her bewildered bodyguard Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Geller is the sole creator of a fully immersive gaming world called eXistenZ.
Players can experience infinite exciting scenarios that transpire inside a world indistinguishable from our own, provided that they have the necessary bio-port installed in the base of their spine.
There are numerous special effects highlights in eXistenZ; the game pods are quintessential Cronenberg compulsion, squishy, tactile, and humanoid. But the movie’s true showstopper is the Gristle Gun. The crunchy, sinewy gloop that drenches the Gun, and the slurping, crackling sound effects that accompany it on screen as Pikul constructs (and munches on) the Gun itself amounts to a textural and sensory overload that tempts one to vomit on the spot.
7 Mutant Gynecological Instruments — ‘Dead Ringers’ (1988)
Like all Cronenberg originals, the strange and tragic tale of brothers Elliott and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) is a story inspired by the filmmaker’s eternal preoccupation with the human body. In this case, it is identical twins’ genetic anomaly and gynecology’s medical practice. Irons, who plays both lead roles, delivers arguably the most seamless and compelling twin performance in film history.
As Beverly spirals into a lovelorn, drug-addled state of paranoid depression, he develops pernicious delusions about female patients developing mutant genitalia. The experimental gynecological instruments Beverly has commissioned due to his visions are elegant but cold and disturbing. Dead Ringers only contains one brief moment of unabashed Cronenbergian body horror, but its visual impact is deeply disquieting and strangely moving nonetheless.
6 Mugwumps — ‘Naked Lunch’ (1991)
The druggy, sexually ambivalent, woozy, and warped world of William S. Burroughs’s seminal novel Naked Lunch provided Cronenberg and his special effects team carte blanche to venture into the realm of the absurd. The race of creatures known as Mugwumps in Naked Lunch appears in two forms: a lanky species of fluid-excreting lizard men and a sex-crazed, biomechanical cross between a giant talking beetle and a Clark Nova typewriter. Both special effects truly must be seen to be believed: even then, you’re still not quite sure.
No matter how abstract or fantastical the special effect is, Cronenberg always infuses raw tangible humanity, and a definite sense of human physiology, into the design of his creatures. The Mugwump’s strikingly grounded presence on screen is indicative of philosophy.
5 Sark Autopsy Module — ‘Crimes of the Future’ (2022)
Crimes of the Future is a veritable carnival of Cronenberg. Though the original screenplay for Crimes was completed more than twenty years ago, Cronenberg’s latest film often feels like the director making a conscious return to the core themes and visual motifs that his style has become synonymous with. One remarkable example of classic Cronenbergian image-making is the Sark Autopsy Module. Performance artists Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux) use this fleshy, bony, surgical sarcophagus to convert Tenser’s “accelerated evolution syndrome” into high-stakes, high art.
The tone that certain characters invoke when describing the Sark’s autopsy module, admiring the subtlety and brilliance of its intricate design, is intensely fetishistic and distinctly Cronenbergian in its unabashed mixture of sensuality and grotesquery. The movie contains several other shocking and provocative examples of a biomechanical oddity, all of which are worthy of praise, but the Sark serves the most crucial plot function, and its eerie design will stick with you long after the movie ends.
4 The Broodlings — ‘The Brood’ (1979)
If Shivers was Cronenberg boldly announcing his style, then The Brood was the young filmmaker doubling down on everything that made his debut film so unnerving. In the aftermath of a tumultuous divorce, Cronenberg harnessed all the anger he had felt and channeled it into The Brood, according to an interview of his with Serge Grünberg.
The notion of a family unit cratering, and the violent emotional fallout that comes as a result of things like divorce and child custody battles, is inextricably infused into the movie’s ghastly display of definitional Cronenbergian body horror. The Brood plumbs the depths of emotional agony and paints an uncompromising portrait of a dying family. The movie’s creature effect is The Broodlings, a mindless, murderous, parthenogenetic offspring of emotionally disturbed mother Nora (Samantha Eggar), who undergoes an experimental psychoplasmic therapy program.
3 The Breathing TV Screen — ‘Videodrome’ (1983)
Videodrome is a headfirst tumble down the rabbit hole of sadomasochism, technological transcendence, and the lustful allure of the illicit. Max Ren (James Woods) is the president of a local Toronto TV station who finds out about a show called Videodrome — a pitiless snuff program in which real people are tortured and murdered on air. Max becomes convinced that the show is the vanguard of modern entertainment and slowly loses his grip on reality.
The line between man and machine blurs for Max Ren in Videodrome. The iconic image from the movie of Max sticking his head deep into his TV screen as Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry) beckons to him from inside the glowing box is an entirely practical and timeless special effect. It’s a visually stunning, darkly seductive moment that changed the course of modern horror history forever.
2 Exploding Heads — ‘Scanners’ (1981)
Scanners was a breakthrough for Cronenberg, albeit it wasn’t an overwhelming critical success. It subsequently gained more attention based on the combination of a dedicated cult following and a word-of-mouth reputation as the “exploding head movie.” Though the movie is much more than just that, the head explosions in Scanners remain some of the greatest, most boundary-pushing feats of practical special effects in Cronenberg’s catalog and among the most abiding images in sci-fi/horror history.
The concept of Scanners, or people born with the psychic ability to inhabit and manipulate the nervous systems of others, is an enduring concept in pop culture to this day. As a graphic image, the exploding head is Cronenberg to its core; the movie is still “mind-blowing” as it was in 1981, and the visceral impact of its imagery has not dimmed over the decades.
1 Brundlefly — ‘The Fly’ (1986)
On paper, a remake of a 1950s horror film, in which a scientist becomes genetically fused with a fly during an experiment gone wrong, doesn’t sound like much, but Cronenberg and company elevate the material to genuinely operatic proportions. It works on levels of metaphor concerning the nature of disease, the danger of unchecked hubris, and the frailty of the human condition.
The central metaphors of The Fly, disease, and degradation, are literalized in the nauseating metamorphosis that Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) experiences as he slowly transforms into the hybrid being that is, Brundlefly. With special effects gurus like Chris Walas at the helm, The Fly achieves what is the most robust and certainly the most revolting array of unmistakably Cronenbergian special effects ever put to screen. Be it tears, vomit, or most likely both, watching The Fly still elicits a physical response from first-time viewers.
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