In the Zone: The Films of David Cronenberg

Jonathan Romney unlocks the secret behind David Cronenberg's talent for making everything wonderfully strange.

In David Cronenberg's new film, Eastern Promises, the heroine's mother-a middle-aged, middle-class Englishwoman-shudders at the realization that her family has unwittingly become entangled with a murderous gang of Russian mobsters. "This isn't our world," she protests helplessly. "We are ordinary people."

Watching Cronenberg's films, we might justifiably react in the same way: his stories evoke worlds that are manifestly unlike ours, confronting us with horrors and extremities that, as "ordinary people," we might prefer not to contemplate. Yet it doesn't take much reflection to realize, with alarm, that Cronenberg's imagination ruthlessly corrodes the dividing line between the ordinary and the alien, the familiar and the nightmarish, "our world" and its underside.

In his four-decade career as a director of feature films, David Cronenberg has systematically confounded notions of the proper, the canonic, and the "healthy" in filmmaking. These days a regular, highly respected fixture on film festival red carpets, the Toronto-born director remains a provocateur, long after starting out in the guise of a "disreputable" film scene interloper. His early features, such as Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981) were violent, lurid, seemingly nihilistic genre exercises, working within (and using to their own advantage) the financial and generic limitations of low-budget exploitation cinema. Set in stylized, futuristic versions of Cronenberg's Canada, these were stories of parasites and mutations that caused society to implode in orgiastic blood lusts (Shivers, Rabid); of homicidal creatures spawned from human rage (The Brood); of warring telepathic sects (Scanners). These brutal narratives used disturbing, even sensationalistic tactics to make their effect: extravagantly ghoulish special effects, most famously the exploding head in Scanners, and in Rabid, the casting of then-notorious porn star Marilyn Chambers in a role that turned the routine titillation of sex cinema violently inside out.

These early films established Cronenberg's thematic obsessions, as well as his style; despite the subject matter, their execution was detached and restrained, often deliberately oppressive. Cronenberg's surpassing fascination was with the "other"-with unruly psychic and physical forces attacking the human body and destroying social cohesion. Yet it was not the invading "other" that was so threatening in these stories, but the familiar. In Shivers, for example, the parasitic creature invading an apartment complex was not as purely terrifying as the actions of the residents, awakened by it to their own extremes of rage and erotomania.

These early films display a dispassionate, altogether scientific interest in extremes, in the outer limits of what comprises the human. These undeniably lurid, excessive films were not just out to scare or disgust, but themselves comprised a sort of philosophical research. "I'd like to make a philosophical cinema," Cronenberg remarked in one interview, "but I'm looking for metaphors and imagery that will express some of these things."

Cronenberg also established himself early on as a fabulist, his radically anti-realist narratives delineating their own self-contained universe. It is a universe ruled not by received concepts of good and evil, law and crime, authority and anarchy, but by scandalous pulsions and obsessions, and often by occult forces, conspiracies, and crypto-scientific shadow institutions. These films suggest that the thirst for knowledge is accompanied by a drive to destruction and chaos, yet Cronenberg suggests that this Promethean drive is one we can't afford to repress. "I don't think there's anything man wasn't meant to know," he has commented.

Following his early apocalyptic visions, Cronenberg headed towards a more intimate though no less confrontational engagement with the drives and desires of the individual. Videodrome (1983) follows to its extreme a scenario of what might happen if, as censors and moral guardians endlessly warn, the moving image could "infect" the viewer, like a parasite infecting its host. Max Renn (James Woods) not only finds his desires perversely affected by a taboo TV station specializing in nightmare sex and violence, but finds his body mutating accordingly, his chest opening up to reveal a vaginal slot for fleshy videocassettes. This grisly-yet in a bizarre way, utopian-merging of flesh and technology persists in Cronenberg's films, right up to eXistenZ (1999), in which characters jack into the video game of the title via sockets at the base of their spines. Crash (1996), based on J.G. Ballard's novel, similarly imagines an erotic meshing of human and machine bodies, with fragile flesh aspiring to the seeming durability-and ultimately, spectacular destructibility-of automobiles.

In some ways Cronenberg's most approachable vision of the mutated body is 1986's The Fly, which takes the sci-fi premise of the 1958 B-movie and reworks it into an unexpectedly poignant essay on mortality and our horror at our own vital functions. The film endorses science's drive to knowledge at any price: its hero Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), even as his body metamorphoses horribly after being genetically spliced with an insect's, insists on dispassionately following his own decay to its limits. The Fly remains a key film in the cycle that '80s critics dubbed "Body Horror": a strain of fantasy chiming with, if not necessarily stemming directly from, contemporary anxieties about AIDS and its related opportunistic diseases.

Cronenberg's fascination with psychological as well as physical states became fully apparent with 1988's Dead Ringers, about the self-destructive folie ~A deux between identical-twin gynecologists, both played by Jeremy Irons. While the film maintained certain idiosyncratically ghoulish shock elements, notably its range of avant-garde gynaecological tools, Dead Ringers proved most disturbing in its exploration of pathological co-dependency and rivalry between siblings, each brother at once determining and eroding the other's identity.

From Videodrome on, many Cronenberg films display a hallucinatory ambiguity, with reality, nightmare and media-generated imagery-whether from television, computer games or the literary imagination-disconcertingly flowing together in a single stream of fantastic logic. In Videodrome, the reality inhabited by Max Renn is engulfed by the nightmares of the TV he watches, until it is impossible to tell one realm from the other. Similarly, the surreal and sometimes farcical chase narrative of eXistenZ finally proves to be a consensual hallucination, the product of a video game; without a doubt, this film is Cronenberg's most direct commentary on the pleasures and terrors of cinema itself.

Elsewhere, a comparable blurring takes place between Cronenberg's imagination and those of the writers he draws on. In Naked Lunch (1991), the creatures and geographies of William S. Burroughs's book are transformed from written metaphor into concrete special-effects apparitions, while elements from the writer's biography are seamlessly folded into a horribly vivid exploration of the heroin-fueled, science fiction-inflected "Interzone" of Burroughs's verbal universe. In Crash too, an ostensibly realist universe-in which people have names, jobs, ordinary relationships-borders on a perverse domain ruled by absolute fetishistic desire; yet there's never any clear barrier to be crossed, no warning signs marking the point of transgression. It is this thoroughgoing, troubling indeterminacy that surely made Crash so threatening to those who called for its ban in the UK.

By the same token, reality, imagination and illusory memory seep into each other in Spider (2002). One of Cronenberg's most controlled and introspective films, Spider, adapted by Patrick McGrath from his own novel, is about a schizophrenic (Ralph Fiennes) who attempts to unravel the mystery of his traumatized past while at the same time weaving his own distorted web of fantasies around it.

It is an unmistakable mark of Cronenberg's auteur status that pretty much any material directed by him acquires his idiosyncratic imprint. His work is recognizably "Cronenbergian," whether" it originates in adapted literary material or in other writers' scripts. This is certainly true of his two most recent films, A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), which although ostensibly unrelated, and scripted by two different writers -respectively, Josh Olson and Steven Knight-come across very much as companion pieces. Cronenberg's first ventures into crime narrative proper, they both explore the tenuous division between over-ground and underground society, and the role of male violence in both. In A History of Violence, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), the quintessential American small-town "quiet man," is feted as a hero after defending his community against invading thugs. It then emerges that his identity as a peaceful family man hides his past life as a violent hoodlum. His wife (Maria Bello) is horrified, yet she soon finds herself responding sexually to his reawakened dark side.

Eastern Promises again stars Mortensen, this time as Nikolai, foot soldier in a London-based Russian crime syndicate. Drawn into the gang's orbit is Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife attempting to discover the identity of a young Russian girl who has died in childbirth. Anna and her family find themselves threatened by a violence that is utterly alien to their sheltered vision of the world, but she is also attracted to the ambivalent Nikolai, a glamorous but hard-to-read figure of menace who, like Tom Stall, is not what he seems at first glance.

The old Cronenberg theme of the body returns in Eastern Promises in a strange new guise though the film's use of Russian criminal tattoos. These are the medals of a hard man's survival and violent triumphs, making his flesh an instantly readable open book. When Nikolai receives the star tattoos that will make him a "made man" in the Russian mob, he comments, "I am dead already... Now I live in the zone all the time." Cronenberg's distinctive contribution to cinema, through an unpredictable yet surprisingly cohesive career, is to remind us that we all live much closer to the "zone"-of desire, of taboo, of the turbulent unconscious -than we like to admit.