David Paul Cronenberg, OC, OOnt, FRSC, filmmaker (born 15 March 1943 in Toronto, ON). David Cronenberg is Canada’s most influential and internationally celebrated filmmaker. Dubbed the “Baron of Blood” and “the King of Venereal Horror,” he pioneered a commercial genre cinema in Canada with his at times controversial horror movies. His signature “body horror” films such as Shivers (1975), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1996) have challenged audiences with provocative, even prophetic explorations of the relationship between sex, technology and violence. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Chevalier of the Ordre des arts et lettres de France and a member of Canada’s Walk of Fame.He has won 10 Genie Awards and prizes at virtually every major international film festival, as well as lifetime achievement awards from the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, the Canadian Screen Awards, the Cannes Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival.
Early Years and Education
Cronenberg showed an early interest in literature and science while growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in Toronto. His father Milton, a true-crime journalist and bookstore owner, and mother Esther, a musician, raised him in an environment of intellectualism and culture. He and enrolled in science at the University of Toronto in 1963 and switched to English Literature a year later. His short stories won awards.
Cronenberg never studied film formally but became attracted to cinema when his classmate, David Secter, showed him his first feature, Winter Kept Us Warm. Cronenberg has called it the most influential film of his career. “It’s hard to reproduce the shock I felt when I saw my classmates on screen in a real movie, acting,” he told The Guardian in 2014. “It was like magic.”
The film inspired Cronenberg to make the short films Transfer (1966) and From the Drain (1967). While amateur works, they remain cult relics of an emerging film scene. In 1967, Cronenberg cofounded the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) with members of the local film scene, including Ivan Reitman (who would later produce Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid). The organization, modelled after the filmmakers’ co-op in New York, still operates today.
Cronenberg refined his filmmaking with the short films Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), which offered commentaries on scientific experiments set in a vaguely futuristic world. They were also avant-garde works in form and structure. Cronenberg then moved into the commercial mainstream. His next films combined the conventions of horror and science fiction with a wry and distinctive commentary on contemporary life.
Shivers (1975, also known by its US title, The Parasite Murders) capitalized on the recently introduced Capital Cost Allowance, which let investors deduct 100% of their contributions in the hope of stimulating commercial filmmaking (see Tax Shelter Films). A schlocky horror movie about parasites that unlock the sexual desires of people in a Montreal apartment complex, Shivers rocked Canada’s cultural community at a time when Canadian films were mostly limited to National Film Board documentaries and intimate art films. It was vilified by Canadian critics, most notably Saturday Night’s Robert Fulford, who called Shivers“an atrocity, a disgrace to everyone connected with it — including the taxpayers… If using public money to produce films like this is the only way that English Canada can have a film industry, then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry.” The film prompted a heated debate in the House of Commons about the kinds of films that should receive public funding.
Cronenberg sparked more controversy with his next film, Rabid (1977), when he cast porn star Marilyn Chambers as a young woman who feasts on the blood of Montrealers. Despite controversy, Rabid and Shivers proved that Canadian films could make money. Rabid earned $7 million on a $700,000 budget. (In 2018, it was announced that sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska would direct a remake.)
The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981)
The Brood (1979), Fast Company (1979) and Scanners (1981), turned Cronenberg into a bankable director with a cult following, especially in Europe and the United States. Scanners shocked audiences with its infamous exploding head scene and became a cult hit. It also proved a breakthrough in seeing Cronenberg recognized by the Canadian film community when it received eight Genie Award nominations, including for Best Film and Best Director. Despite growing recognition, Cronenberg still faced criticism, most notably from American film scholar Robin Wood, who contributed an essay to the anthology The Shape of Rage calling the director’s work reactionary, conservative and misogynistic.
Videodrome(1983) is a dark, disturbing tale about the pervasive (and in Cronenberg’s estimation, perverse) effects of technology. The film marked the beginning of Cronenberg’s ascension in critical circles, a process that has led to his being considered a major artist by most critics.
The film stars James Woods as a cable TV programmer who undergoes a physical mutation when images of graphic sex and violence consume him. Praised by Andy Warhol as “AClockwork Orange of the 1980s,” the film echoes Marshall McLuhan’s theories on the power of images and mass media while also foreshadowing the impact of pornography and the Internet (at one point, the main character interacts with a pornographic video by penetrating the TV screen with his head).
Videodrome “definitively alter[ed] the way Canadian movies were defined and discussed,” critic Geoff Pevere wrote for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2017. "After Videodrome, there was no going back to prairies nostalgia.” The British Film Institute’s Greg Evans wrote that “the dangerous philosophy of Videodrome is the real star here as it continuously asks provocative questions about society’s relationship with entertainment and technology.” As IndieWire wrote in 2015, “Videodrome is a near-perfect early encapsulation of many concerns that crop up time and again for the filmmaker: the body vs. the mind, illusion vs. reality, and the seductive, erotic power of technology. And as such it still works like a key that unlocks his filmography: it may be the most Cronenbergian Cronenberg film.”
Videodrome earned Cronenberg his first Genie Awardfor Best Director. His subsequent films began to explore a range of metaphysical questions involving the relationship between mind and body and ethical questions having to do with the role of technology and science in modern life.