Every subgenre of horror has its fair share of names attached to it. When people think of slashers, the names John Carpenter or Wes Craven come to mind. When thinking of zombies, George Romero springs to the forefront of the imagination. And when people think of body horror, David Cronenberg stands tall as the definitive master of the horror subgenre.
An unparalleled creative genius who entered the industry around the same time as Craven, Romero, and Carpenter, Cronenberg adopted a far more visceral kind of horror film compared to his colleagues. This kind of film – later dubbed “body horror” – proved popular among moviegoers in the late '70s well into the '80s, allowing Cronenberg to become an icon within the realm of horror.
Besides his success within the annals of horror, David Cronenberg has also managed to venture into various other cinematic genres, capturing audiences' attention with his psychological dramas, gangster epics, and historical biopics. From his most famous body horror movies up to his most recent directorial efforts, find here some of David Cronenberg's greatest films, ranked from best to worst.
The Fly David Cronenberg
The most recognized entry in Cronenberg's filmography, The Fly is the best example of a body horror film down right. Combining a taut narrative with profound special effects, Cronenberg created an effective remake of a beloved horror classic that paid homage to its predecessor yet also managed to tell a different story.
The finest film ever directed by Cronenberg – and the greatest movie to feature Jeff Goldblum – The Fly follows the brilliant yet arrogant scientist Seth Brundle as he experiments with a teleporter of his invention. After crossing his DNA with that of a common housefly, Brundle begins displaying both physical and emotional changes, his body and mind soon morphing into that of a human-fly hybrid.
Goldblum pulls off the transformation with surprising candor, who – beneath his layers of makeup and prosthetic effects – retains his faint humanistic tendencies as he morphs into the grotesque Brundlefly.
A History of Violence
Throughout his career, Cronenberg experimented with various adaptations of comic books and novels, as seen in his 2005 directorial effort, A History of Violence. Based on the John Wagner and Vincent Locke comic book, A History of Violence tells a bleak and hyper-violent psychological crime drama that piques audiences' interests as the narrative unfolds.
The first of several noteworthy collaborations between Cronenberg and his muse, Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence relies on a more hard-boiled atmosphere emblematic of the noir genre than any other movie Cronenberg had made up to that time. The change of pace marked a successful new direction for Cronenberg, who embarked on several other non-horror-based works from the mid-2000s till the end of the 2010s.
The Dead Zone
Before The Fly, The Dead Zone had the distinction of being Cronenberg's highest-grossing movie at the time, as well as one of his most popular. One of the many Stephen King adaptations of the 1980s, Cronenberg's work on the film helped The Dead Zone rise above the other middling King films of its era (Maximum Overdrive, Silver Bullet, Children of the Corn, etc.)
With a talented cast at his disposal (Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, and Martin Sheen), Cronenberg relied more on psychological suspense than outright body horror. Among the greatest films based on King's work, critics still consider it a masterful sci-fi horror film to this day, akin to a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits.
As mentioned above, Cronenberg began to branch out and explore different genres by the 2000s, leading to his various collaborations with Viggo Mortensen for the next two decades. After starring in Cronenberg's brilliant psychological thriller, A History of Violence, Mortensen signed on for Cronenberg's immediate follow-up film, Eastern Promises.
In many ways, Eastern Promises feels like a postmodern interpretation of the classic gangster film, inverting many of the genre's foremost tropes and providing a more detailed and realistic portrait of career criminals within the Russian Mafia. As seen here, these gangsters aren't some romanticized Robin Hood-type figures played by James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart. They're dangerous men motivated by greed, desire, and pure ambition. Not only is it an incredible film, but it also portrays these gangsters with documentary-like precision.
Crimes of the Future
Cronenberg's grand return to horror came with 2022's Crimes of the Future. A twisted and strange tale of body horror, it's akin to the very best Cronenberg had to offer in his early career, constructing a story that's as mentally taxing to follow as it is uncomfortable to sit through.
Mortensen's fourth film with David Cronenberg, Crimes of the Future marks the duo's first foray into the horror landscape together. As with each of their films prior, both make welcome contributions to Crimes of the Future, the film benefitting from Mortensen's dedicated performance and Cronenberg's astute knowledge of body horror. As with some of Cronenberg's earlier films, the movie poses far more questions than it solves, developing an air of mystery that grows more palpable throughout.
Dead Ringers David Cronenberg
Not to be confused with the Rachel Weisz-led Prime Video remake, the original Dead Ringers remains an excellent addition to Cronenberg's filmography. Combining Cronenberg's predilection for visceral horror with a more in-depth character study of its two central protagonists, it's as nauseating as it is introspective.
In the film, Jeremy Irons plays two lead characters, appearing as a pair of gynecologists (the arrogant Elliot and the insecure Beverly). Alternating between these two masterful performances, Irons helps each character appear with his own distinct personality, allowing Cronenberg to create a more nuanced portrait of both siblings.
While he's most well-known for his lurid depictions of body horror, Cronenberg has also made a career analyzing more specific topics, ranging from in-depth character studies to explorations of maternal figures and government conspiracies. In 1983, Cronenberg turned his attention to making his most biting satire yet, doing so with his sci-fi horror film, Videodrome.
Led by a sleazy James Woods, Videodrome traces the trends of TV viewers' interest and the disconnect between what audiences want and what network executives think they want. A scathing meditation on people's growing indifference to gratuitous violence, it's perhaps Cronenberg's best-constructed piece of satire, one that leaves viewers sick to their stomachs rather than howling out loud in laughter.
A Dangerous Method
For as many genres as Cronenberg has covered over the years, the director has steered clear of more redundant Hollywood sorts like the biographical drama. Yet in 2011, Cronenberg discovered a topic fit for his sensibilities, focusing on the unique relationship between three leading minds in psychology: Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).
Looking back at his career and creative interests, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Cronenberg made an ideal director in bringing Jung, Freud, and Spielrein's stories onto film. Far from being a conventional or dry biopic, Cronenberg loads the film with his own inventive artistic signatures, going hand-in-hand with the underlying psychoanalytic themes discussed at length in the film.
A dramatic successor to Videodrome, Crash reexamines many of the same issues brought up in Cronenberg's earlier sci-fi horror film. In both films, Cronenberg delves into individuals' increasing love of violence as a source of entertainment and stimulation – the latter explored in greater depth with Crash.
As with most of Cronenberg's films, Crash arrived to critical praise and consistent controversy, soon developing into a cult classic among the larger cinematic community. Criticisms regarding its subject matter aside, Cronenberg focuses on the contrasting ideas between extreme violence and human desire, an off-kilter combination that interests some individuals in unexplainable ways.
One of Cronenberg's first career successes came with 1979's cult favorite, The Brood. Like most of Cronenberg's earlier films, the movie hides a layered psychological story beneath the exterior of a horror film, infusing thematic discussion with visceral horror.
After developing the body horror genre over the course of his early career, David Cronenberg used the knowledge he'd acquired of the genre to a greater degree. Far from just an entertaining horror movie, Cronenberg used The Brood‘s horror to make some profound statements about parenthood. It may be a little rough around the edges in some places, but it illustrated the untenable and intelligent talent of Cronenberg, demonstrating his ability to balance genre with some weighty themes.
How does one go about explaining the indescribable Naked Lunch? A thoughtful and well-made adaptation of William S. Burroughs' famed novel of the same name, it's as impenetrable and strange a film as its source material. Far from being a frustrating film to watch, though, Cronenberg manages to infuse enough horror, comedy, and surrealism to keep viewers engaged.
Rather than doing the impossible and offering a straight adaptation of Burroughs' book, Cronenberg frames his version of Naked Lunch as a loose prequel to the events of the novel, detailing Burroughs' surrogate – the insecticide-addicted exterminator Billy Lee (Peter Weller) – as he attempts writing a novel. Encountering massive talking bugs, spy circles, and deranged surgeons, Weller's Lee passes into the heart of the surreal Interzone, a journey that gives us one of Cronenberg's most unforgettable films.
With The Brood, Cronenberg began his inevitable rise to stardom, each of his succeeding films helping him achieve growing prominence among larger audience demographics. In the wake of The Brood, Cronenberg set out to create his follow-up film, a fascinating sci-fi horror film known as Scanners.
With shades of Carrie, The Fury, and Three Days of the Condor, Scanners details an underground ring of psychic soldiers known as “Scanners” caught up in a secretive war between a paramilitary corporation and a group of violent freedom fighters. While the film's lead actor, Stephen Lack, doesn't have the charisma to carry the entire film, Scanners' impressive practical effects, and Michael Ironside's performance make this film an altogether enjoyable psychic spy thriller.
Cronenberg's final entry in the science fiction or horror genre before his 2022 work on Crimes of the Future, one couldn't ask for a better farewell letter to the genre Cronenberg had spent the past two decades working within than 1999's eXistenZ. Keeping in line with Cronenberg's other films, eXistenZ combines a first-rate horror story with an in-depth analysis of virtual reality and video games in general.
An exemplary companion piece to The Matrix (released around the same time in the spring of 1999), audiences tend to forget eXistenZ compared to many of Cronenberg's earlier or later films. However, it bears all the telltale signs of Cronenberg's artistry, the director meditating upon consistent need for escape and stimulation.
Cronenberg has returned to literature time and time again over the course of his career, adapting idiosyncratic works from comic book writers and novelists that hold prestigious places in the literary community. In 2012, David Cronenberg chose to develop a film around the celebrated writer Don DeLillo's 2009 satirical novel, Cosmopolis.
On paper, DeLillo's already unique text made for an excellent pairing with Cronenberg's direction, the filmmaking preserving all of DeLillo's signature quirks as a postmodern novelist (the sharp critique of consumerism and capitalism, the odd characters, the spiraling chaos of New York). With Robert Pattinson giving a subtle yet affecting performance as the Wall Street yuppie Eric Packer, Cronenberg adds yet another stylish adaptation to his filmography.
Another lesser-known film from David Cronenberg's creative output, Spider also marked the last film to bear Cronenberg's creative fingerprints, drawing the first act of his genre-based career to a close. Though it fails to command the same level of attention as most of Cronenberg's films, Spider nevertheless makes for a suspenseful psychological thriller, made all the better by Ralph Fiennes' immaculate performance.
Overcoming personal trauma and his own worsening mental health, Fiennes' Spider navigates the rigors of schizophrenia, tracing his life back to a traumatic episode in his childhood. It may not have the same grand, overarching story or rich character exploration as Crash, Dead Ringers, or The Fly, but Spider's Kafkaesque narrative will earn plenty of appreciation from Cronenberg's more dedicated fans.