Search the CFE
Home > Canadian Film Encyclopedia > Search the CFE

David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg1943, Toronto

David Cronenberg is Canada’s most celebrated, internationally renowned and controversial auteur. Based in Toronto, his career as a writer and director spans 30 years from his independent experimental features and schlock films of the late 1960s and 1970s (Stereo, 1969; Crimes of the Future, 1970; Shivers, 1975; Rabid, 1976; The Brood, 1979) through his infamous forays into the science fiction and horror genres in the 1980s (Videodrome, 1983; The Fly, 1986; Dead Ringers, 1988) to his art-house adaptations of influential novels (Naked Lunch, 1991; Crash, 1996; Spider, 2002).

As Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film suggests, Cronenberg has been “lauded as a late 20th-century taboo-bashing genius by some and loathed as a puritanical body-fearing reactionary by others.” In any case, David Cronenberg is an accomplished visionary; he has been recognized with many awards, including France’s prestigious Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres in 1990, a Special Jury Prize for audacity at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival for Crash, numerous Genies and a 1999 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement in film.

Cronenberg was born in Toronto and raised in a progressive, middle-class Jewish family where he was exposed to science, arts and culture and many ideas from an early age. He enrolled at the University of Toronto to study science, but he was “spiritually disenchanted” with the program, so he turned to the burgeoning alternative art scene.

While earning a B.A. in literature, he became involved in avant-garde cinema circles. He helped establish a film co-op and started making his own 16mm shorts, including Transfer (1966) and From the Drain (1967). These student films, while amateurish and comparatively austere, established some of the idiosyncratic trademarks of his later work for which Cronenberg would become duly famous: the play with science fiction and horror genres through the recurring figure of the misguided scientist and his fragile masculinity; corporate greed and corruption; technology’s interface with the body; concern with aberrant mental and physical states; sexual paranoia; melancholia; and the stylistic embrace of modernism, surrealism, brutalism — and the grotesque — to render his unique vision. After making his first “more ambitious” works, the feature length Stereo and Crimes of the Future, he travelled to France (on a Canada Council grant) where he spent his time directing small television fillers and developing his craft.

In 1975, Cronenberg’s career was launched with Shivers, which is about the release of a sexual parasite into a quiet suburban apartment complex. A raging public debate ensued over his status as genius or degenerate. In Film Comment, Martin Scorcese embraced the film as “genuinely shocking, subversive, surrealistic and probably something we all deserve”; critic Marshall Delaney (Robert Fulford) dismissed it in Saturday Night as “an atrocity, a disgrace to everyone connected with it — including the taxpayers.” Increasingly notorious in Canadian film circles for his rejection of the Canadian realist tradition, Cronenberg went on to growing financial success and critical acclaim. Scanners (1981) did very well at the box office and Videodrome became a cult classic, cementing his reputation as a pioneer in the hybrid horror/sci-fi genre.

Courted by mainstream Hollywood producers such as Dino de Laurentis, Cronenberg began to get opportunities to work with bigger budgets and bigger stars: Christopher Walken on The Dead Zone (1983), Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis on The Fly and Jeremy Irons on Dead Ringers. Moreover, these projects ushered in a new phase in Cronenberg’s development as an artist in which he opted not to write original screenplays but adapt existing sources to his peculiar vision. M. Butterfly (1992), Naked Lunch, Crash and Spider carry on this pattern (the exceptions are eXistenZ, 1999, and the short film Camera, 2000).

While Naked Lunch and Crash have enjoyed critical acclaim, and much has been written about Cronenberg and his oeuvre in both the popular press and academic circles, Dead Ringers is generally regarded as his masterpiece. As William Beard suggests in The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, it is the director’s “most mature film,” taking up “all the most important themes of Cronenberg’s projects.”

David Cronenberg has built his reputation as a seriously transgressive artist who routinely provokes the anxieties underlying middle-class values and what Take One’s Essential Guide calls “the middle-brow arbiters of good taste” with his challenging cinema of existential tragedy. Nonetheless, he is also the epitome of the polite and thoughtful Canadian and a consummate professional. He is truly an actor’s director — many foremost stars have gone out of their way to work with him. (Cronenberg often takes on cameo roles in his own or other people’s films to experience what it’s like on the other side of the camera.) And he continues to be held in high regard as a role model and mentor for many of the Canadian new wave directors, filmmakers such as Atom Egoyan and Don McKellar.

By Christine Ramsay

Film and video work includes

Transfer, 1966 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
From the Drain, 1967 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor; producer)
Stereo, 1969 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor; producer)
Crimes of the Future, 1970 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor; producer)
Jim Ritchie Sculptor, 1971 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Letter From Michelangelo, 1971 (director; writer; producer)
Tourettes, 1971 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Don Valley, 1972 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Fort York, 1972 (director; writer; producer; TV)
In the Dirt, 1972 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Lakeshore, 1972 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Scarborough Bluffs, 1972 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Secret Weapons, 1972 (director; TV)
Winter Garden, 1972 (director; writer; producer; TV)
The Lie Chair, 1975 (director; TV)
Shivers, 1975 (director)
The Victim, 1975 (director; TV)
The Italian Machine, 1976 (director; writer; TV)
Rabid, 1976 (director)
The Brood, 1979 (director; writer)
Fast Company, 1979 (director)
Scanners, 1981 (director; writer)
The Dead Zone, 1983 (director)
Videodrome, 1983 (director; writer)
Into the Night, 1984 (actor)
David Cronenberg: Long Live the New Flesh, 1986 (actor)
The Fly, 1986 (director; co-writer with Charles Edward Pogue; actor)
Dead Ringers, 1988 (director; co-writer with Norman Snider; producer)
Friday the 13th series, 1988 (director; TV)
Hydro, 1988 (director; TV commercial)
Bistro, 1989 (director; TV commercial)
Nightbreed, 1990 (actor)
Transformations, 1990 (director; TV commercial)
Naked Lunch, 1991 (director; writer)
Scales of Justice series, 1991 (director; TV, Regina vs Horvath episode)
Blue, 1992 (actor)
M. Butterfly, 1992 (director)
Naked Making Lunch, 1992 (actor)
Scales of Justice series, 1992 (director; TV, Regina vs Logan episode)
Henry & Verlin, 1994 (actor)
Trial by Jury, 1994 (actor)
Blood and Donuts, 1995 (actor)
To Die For, 1995 (actor)
Crash, 1996 (director; writer; producer)
Extreme Measures, 1996 (actor)
Moonshine Highway, 1996 (actor; TV)
The Stupids, 1996 (actor)
The Grace of God, 1997 (actor)
Last Night, 1998 (actor)
eXistenZ, 1999 (director; writer; producer)
Resurrection, 1999 (actor)
American Nightmare, 2000 (actor)
Camera from Preludes series, 2000 (director; writer)
Jason X, 2001 (actor)
The Judge, 2001 (actor; TV)
By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Jason X, 2002 (actor)
Spider, 2002 (director; co-writer with Patrick McGrath; producer)
A History of Violence, 2005 (director; co-producer with Chris Bender, J.C. Spink)

Note: Updated to April 2005.

Contact Site map News Releases eNews Privacy