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A guide to David Cronenberg in 7 YouTube videos

Exploding heads, external wombs and naked knife fights – here are a few essential clips to help you get into the guts of the cult director’s body of work

For David Cronenberg, the human body is a work of art ready to be dissected. It could be a torso that plays VHS tapes (Videodrome), a spine that plugs into a games console (eXistenZ), or the biological canvases that allow gynaecologists to use surgical tools like paintbrushes (Dead Ringers). In Crimes of the Future, the 79-year-old Canadian director’s newest feature, the icky envelope is pushed further: Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux play artists whose stage show involves the removal and replacement of inner organs in front of a live audience. David Blaine, somewhere, is seething with jealousy.

But there’s more to Cronenberg than body horror (a term he dislikes) and sheer grossness (his films are often classically beautiful). Since the 90s, the writer-director has worked almost exclusively with dramas that your parents might watch, and amidst his horror heyday he still delivered Fast Company (a sports movie) and M. Butterfly (a period romance). This might explain the mixed reactions to Crimes of the Future: if you only know the Cronenberg who directed The Fly, then you’ll be wrongfooted when he’s more interested in heady conversations than simply exploding heads.

Simply put, Cronenberg is complex and singular. The word “Cronenbergian” is impossible to define, yet completely understandable within everyday parlance. As the director has 22 features, it would require faking illness for several days to get enough time off work to catch up in time for Crimes of the Future. Instead, here are a few essential clips that probe, poke around, and get into the guts of the director’s body of work.

A man’s head explodes in Scanners (1981)

You may not know the movie, but you’ve seen the GIF: at a conference, a guy is subjected to such a strong bout of psychokinesis that his brain detonates and bursts like a gooey bomb. Scanners, otherwise, is rather forgettable, but those few seconds helped Cronenberg transition from B-movies to bigger-budget features. The effect itself was done practically: a fake skull was filled with junk (including leftover burger meat) and fired with a shotgun.

James Woods eagerly sticks his head into a TV in Videodrome (1983)

In what was probably a common fantasy in the 80s, James Woods gets to make out with Debbie Harry when a close-up of her face appears on a TV screen. Except there’s a catch: the TV set morphs shape in accordance to the Blondie singer’s breathing pattern, and her lips burst out of the screen like a pervert’s idea of 3D. By fusing technology, erotic desire, and social commentary (yes, it’s predicting ASMR), the kiss sums up Cronenberg in a single, confusingly arousing image.

Erotic photoshoot at an accident site in Crash (1996)

Humans supposedly can’t look away from a car crash but Cronenberg’s JG Ballard adaptation turns it up a notch. A gang of vehicular fetishists get their kicks from motor accidents and Cronenberg’s immersive direction (the score, the sleaze, the straight-faced performances) invites the viewer into their headspace. “It’s a work of art,” Elias Koteas moans with pleasure upon witnessing a multi-car pile-up. “Yes, yes, yes!”

A mother reveals an external womb in The Brood (1979)

In the aftermath of a real-life divorce and custody battle, Cronenberg shot what he referred to as his own Kramer vs Kramer. Subsequently, Samantha Eggar’s character – a terrible mother, seemingly written out of revenge – reveals that her anxiety manifests in an external womb that produces monstrous, killer creatures. Whatever you make of the horror’s backstory and arguable sexism, Eggar animalistically licking her newborn is an image that will sear itself in your brain.

A giant insect starts a conversation about politics in The Fly (1986)

It’s strange enough that Cronenberg’s only box-office hit is about a scientist turning into a insect, but the director did so while remaining true to his early, B-movie roots: Jeff Goldblum, by act three, is truly revolting as an overgrown fly. Goldblum’s nervous mannerisms, for once, fit the role (how else would a fly talk?), and what his insect brain has to say is both chilling and sadly believable: he wishes to become a politician.

Jeremy Irons breaks down in front of Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (1988)

Starring Jeremy Irons as two twin brothers, Dead Ringers incorporates stand-ins and a motion-controlled camera to pull off its special effects. However, the real masterstroke is casting Irons, who adjusts his body language and vocal patterns to create two separate, identifiable personalities. When Beverly sobs in front of his stoic, physically identical sibling, it’s evidence that Cronenberg knows how to get the best – in this case, twice – out of his actors. 

Viggo Mortensen’s naked knife fight in Eastern Promises (2007)

A grounded crime-thriller written by the co-creator of Who Wants to Be a MillionaireEastern Promises is gritty, mature, and still fascinated by the human body. For reasons to do with tattoos, a sauna is a chosen meeting place between gangsters: certain symbols inked on the flesh reveal your loyalties. When a lengthy battle to the death ensues, Mortensen is without a towel, swinging more than a fist around (an assailant’s knife), and demonstrating why he’s starred in four of Cronenberg’s last six movies.

Crimes of the Future is out in US cinemas on June 3. A UK release is yet to be announced