David Cronenberg is the undisputed master of body horror. No director can pull off horrific body transformations and dismemberment as easily as he can. However, he's also adept at handling more serious stories, such as Cosmopolis and A History of Violence. This is because, fundamentally, Cronenberg is more interested in his characters and their psychology than he is in schlock.
From The Fly to Eastern Promises, Cronenberg wants his audience to hear what the character is going through.
'The Brood' (1979) IMDb: 6.8/10
Candace (Cindy Hinds) becomes suspicious after he discovers bruises on her during a visit with Frank's ex-wife Nola (Samantha Egger), a notorious psychiatric facility. As a series of horrific murders unfolds, Frank investigates further.
The Brood is a gruesome horror film that resembles Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. Cronenberg wrote the script in the aftermath of his divorce. The film depicts a couple navigating their broken relationship while they co-parent their child.
'eXistenz' (1999) IMdb: 6.8/10
eXistenz is similar to Cronenberg's The Matrix, which was released in the same year. It centers on Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a videogame developer who suspects there is a flaw in her latest project, and Ted (Jude Law), a trainee at her company who is dragged into the mess.
Allegra and Ted enter a virtual reality game that plugs directly into their spines, but the dangers inside the game become all too real. eXistenz features excellent practical effects and impressive performances from the actors, especially Leigh, who excels at these kinds of anti-hero roles.
'Spider' (2002) IMDb: 6.8/10
In the 1950s, young Dennis suspects that his father (Gabriel Byrne) had murdered his mother and began a new friendship with prostitute Yvonne (Miranda Richardson).
For a Cronenberg film, Spider features surprisingly little gore and violence. Instead, the focus is on Dennis's disembodied mind and his determined attempts to reconstruct his past into some truth. It's a skillful marriage of psychological thriller and realistic drama, which works thanks to a layered, subtle performance from Fiennes.
'Naked Lunch' (1991) IMDb: 6.9/10
Naked Lunch, one of Cronenberg's more bizarre films, revolves around an exterminator (Peter Weller) who becomes addicted to the herbicide he uses to kill insects. He then accidentally kills his wife (Judy Davis) in a failed William Tell stunt, and is swept up in a plot involving devious giant insects.
Naked Lunch is Cronenberg's worst-performing film at the box office. It grossed only $2.6 million, compared to a budget of at least $16 million. It's understandable: this grim, surreal tale isn't for everyone, but those who are interested will find a lot to appreciate.
'The Dead Zone' (1983) - IMDb: 7.2/10
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a regular guy until he recovers with psychic powers. He has fantasies of future times, including one in which local politician George Stillson (Martin Sheen) takes the lead in a nuclear war. Against his nature, Johnny sets out to murder Stillson in order to sabotage the outcome of this event.
Cronenberg perfectly matches the Stephen King tone and delivers engaging performances from the cast. Walken, in particular, is terrific as the lead man. The Dead Zone has matured well and is still a credible mix of thriller and science fiction. It raises important questions about whether or not to take matters into your own hands.
'Videodrome' (1983) IMDb: 7.2/10
Max Renn (James Woods) manages a small TV station and is struggling to get by. When he encounters a strange TV broadcasting snuff films, things quickly escalate: the signal induces terrible hallucinations in viewers, and those questioning Videodrome end up dead. Soon, Max finds himself trapped in a conspiracy involving mind control and murder.
Videodrome was a box office flop, but has since become a cult classic and one of Cronenberg's most famous films. It's like the greatest hits of the director's hallmarks: femmes fatales, brutal body transformations, and themes around people's fascination with on-screen violence.
'Dead Ringers' (1988) - 7.2/10
Dead Ringers is one of Cronenberg's darkest, strangest films. Jeremy Irons plays a pair of twin gynecologists who exploit the fact that no one can tell them apart. They routinely pretend to be the other, especially around their patients. But their relationship is ruined when one twin, Beverly, falls in love with their patient Claire (Genevieve Bujold).
Cronenberg drew on a real story of twin doctors who died in unexpected circumstances, making the film an enjoyable affair for everyone.
'A History of Violence (2005) - IMDb: 7.4/10
A History of Violence is one of Cronenberg's more relatable and restrained films. He foregoes sci-fi and horror for a small-town drama mixed with a thriller. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a family man who manages a diner, but this act has unintended consequences. Soon, secrets from Stall's previous come back to haunt him.
Mortensen is excellent as his lead actor, as well as Maria Bello as his wife, Edie. Ed Harris and William Hurt both provide excellent supporting performances. The result is a compelling character study, which has much to say about violence, identity, and redemption.
'The Fly' (1986) IMDb: 7.6/10
The Fly is easily Cronenberg's most engaging film. Seth is funny and charismatic as a scientist working on a teleportation device that goes horribly wrong. A fly finds its way into the module, causing its DNA to fuse with Seth's. Slowly, he transforms into a hideous insect.
The movie is brimming with gore (the sequence in which a baboon is turned inside out is a good example) and sci-fi wackiness, but at its core, it's about one man's reaction to his terrifying new circumstances. In the best way, it's like a pulpy version of Kafka's Metamorphosis.
'Eastern Promises' (2007) - IMDb: 7.6/10
This gangster film about a Russian mob in London by Cronenberg is the best. Anna is played by Naomi Watts, who is trying to uncover what happened to the mother of a teenage Russian prostitute who died in childbirth. She also meets the mobster Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).
Eastern Promises gives a thorough look at the Russian criminal underworld, including their mannerisms, code of honor, and tattoo meanings. Mortensen gives one of the greatest performances of his career as a complex character navigating this harsh environment (not to mention, he nails the Russian accent). One of the film's most compelling scenes, where a naked Mortensen fights off attackers in a bathhouse, is among the most compelling in-screen violence of the last two decades.