Ranking our 10 favourite David Cronenberg horror moments
Halloween is the time to adore the best of what horror has to offer – to worship your fear-inducing heroes – and, for me, that’s always meant David Cronenberg.
No other director blends Horror and Science Fiction (two of the very best genres) so well. And no one masters body horror like Cronenberg.
I finally got hold of Fast Company (as well as Transfer and From the Drain) recently and – while not a horror film – watching this (for the very first time) sent me hurtling back into a stream of nostalgia for Cronenberg. This inspired me to try to whittle down his extensive works to his very best and most powerful horror moments.
This list only takes into account films directed by David Cronenberg. Therefore, films like Nightbreed, as great as it is, are excluded. Expect some spoilers.
10] Crash (1996) – Post-crash sex
This first entry might be far from a typical horror moment, but it’s disturbing nonetheless. James (James Spader) intentionally rams Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) off the road, causing her car to flip and crash.
She’s thrown from the window and lays by the side of the wreckage, visibly bloody and no doubt suffering from a host of internal injuries that we can’t see.
James pulls up in his own car and walks down to where she lays. True to the sexual fetishes of the film, instead of helping her or calling for aid, he begins to engage in sexual foreplay with her.
The whole film is full of taboo acts like this, but this forcing off the road is the worst of them. It’s an intentional act by James, without a thought for her life, which could easily have been lost. Catherine is in dire need of help, but all she gets are sexual advances instead. And by this point, she’s so messed up herself that she reciprocates.
9] Naked Lunch (1991) – The caged creature
Cronenberg’s adaption or William Burroughs’ novel is strange in many ways, but nothing comes close to the moment when Bill (Peter Weller) wanders into a room to find a huge cage encasing something you wouldn’t even conceive of in your worst nightmares.
Inside, is something that baffles the mind and defies description (but I’ll try). It’s a huge, cockroach/centipede-like creature, with a long neck and a human face, probing into a man’s face with its sharp, thin arms. The man seems to either be enjoying it (it almost seems it’s like a treatment of some kind) or suffering – it’s hard to tell which (perhaps both). It also seems like the creature might be trying to replicate the man’s face, for its own (hence the distorted approximation of a human face in the image above).
It really is a horrific and challenging thing to behold, and Peter Weller’s face conveys his awe and horror. I suggest you give this short scene a watch, to witness this creature for yourself. You might react like Bill did – quickly getting out of there and not looking back.
8] The Brood (1979) – Lifting the gown
Cronenberg’s The Brood is one the strangest and most affecting films of his early career – a true turning point for the director, leading into grander things.
It carries the same kind of magnanimous female horror seen in the alien Queen in Ridley Scott’s Alien – that fear of a powerful mother, beyond the scope of humanity, who produces a brood of wicked underlings at a terrifying pace.
The moment Nola (Samantha Eggar) lifts her gown – in a Dracula-like manner – to reveal the grotesque forms growing on her stomach (early, foetal forms of her brood, each at different stages of growth) is truly shocking to behold. It’s far scarier than the grown-up version of her brood, who are nothing more than real children with masks on.
7] Scanners (1981) – The exploding head
Perhaps the most famous scene in all of Cronenberg’s films, the moment when Darryl Revik explodes the head of a man who is supposed to be scanning him will forever be etched into the memory of horror cinema.
This is due to the shock of the moment (if you were lucky enough to see the film without knowing what’s coming) and especially due to the extraordinary practical effects that Cronenberg achieved here – the explosion is highly realistic and full of gore.
Louie Del Grande’s frantic, scrambling performance really helps too – he completely sells it. Add to this the ever-rising audible pitch that builds, whenever scanning is at play, and it all adds up to one gloriously gorey crescendo.
Imagine watching this film back in 1981 and being hit with that visceral conclusion. It probably wold have put some people off the film immediately, while exciting others – it the tone perfectly for what’s to come, in the film’s final act.
6] eXistenZ (1999) – Constructing the Gristle Gun
I remember watching this moment for the first time, as a teen, as I eagerly combed my way through all of Cronenberg’s back catalogue. It really hit me then as a particularly disgusting and inventive way to construct a gun.
From the bones and gristle on his plate, Ted (Jude Law) places each grimey leftover together, piece by piece, until he’s constructed a working pistol. That makes the bullets – you guessed it – whole teeth. To complete the horror, he fires at his target and a tooth bores into the man’s skull.
The whole film is about digital immersion via biological (and often very sexual) means, but this gristle gun has become infamous. The gun itself was recently up for sale in the UK, in a large film memorabilia auction.
Other entries on this list might have more horrific impact, but this scene had a far greater affect on me than many of these other scenes – cementing it, in my mind at least, as one of Cronenberg’s greatest moments.
5] Shivers (1975) – The pool kiss
Shivers is Cronenberg’s first real horror (if you don’t count the bafflingly comical From the Drain) and it holds a few powerful moments. The best of these is the film’s finale, which sees Roger (Paul Hampton) pushed into a swimming pool and set upon by a large group of the infected.
His attackers carry a slug-like host, which is passed on through the mouth (or other orifices). Standing tall in the pool and staring intensely at Roger, Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) approaches Roger as the group sets upon him and drags him underwater.
The scene then reverts to slow motion, which elevates the suspense. We watch Roger rise, slowly, from the water, just in time for Nurse Forsythe to plant a fatal kiss on his lips – infecting him with the parasite. It’s a wonderfully bleak ending and it’s one of those rare times where slow motion is used to great effect.
4] Videodrome (1983) – Inserting the gun
Cronenberg has never been afraid to craft horror that is openly sexual (see eXistenZ, Naked Lunch, Crash and more), but this time he opts for yonic (the female version of phallic) visuals. Only not on a woman, but on a man.
Imbedded deep in Videodrome, Max (James Woods) experiences distortions in reality. One of these is a large, yonic opening that appears in his stomach. He rubs the gun (the phallic symbol here) against it, before inserting it into the hole.
To his surprise, the hole closes up, leaving the gun concealed inside him. It’s a trick that he later uses to sneak a gun into a presentation, so he can undertake an assassination.
It’s such an overtly strange and sexual moment (without being pornogrpahic) that it really makes a mark on you. I’d certainly seen nothing like this before, when I saw Videodrome for the first time. Ever since that first viewing, it’s been one of my favourite films.
3] The Fly (1986) – Pleading for death
The Fly is a one of Cronenberg’s best-known and most adored films, and for good reason. Cronenberg revels in the gore, presenting the viewer with impeccably creepy and disgusting practical effects.
The are many horrific moments, but the very best of these comes at the film’s close. When Seth (Jeff Goldblum) is inside a pods alone (with nothing on the other end), the device merges his fly form with the metal in the empty pod.
This leaves him as a hideous, pitiful mess of a creature – an insect monstrosity with metal protruding from his back. As he crawls towards Veronica, he clearly signals for her to kill him by placing her gun against his head.
Thankfully, Veronica is brave enough to go through with it – executing both a monster and also her lover. It’s a wonderfully bleak and bold ending and I’m really glad that the writers were courageous enough to go through with it.
2] Scanners – The telepathic duel
People talk about the exploding head scene, but for me, nothing beats the final battle between brothers Darryl (Michale Ironside) and Cameron (Stephen Lack) – two very powerful scanners with very contrary ideals.
It begins with Cameron grabbing an object and smashing Darryl around the temple with it, then the scanning starts. As each brother tries their best to kill the other, their bodies can’t take the intense scanning (both the effort of it and the oncoming assault).
Bublous veins appear on their heads and expand, spouting blood. Cameron claws away at his face and leaves a gaping wound. Darryl’s eyes turn white and he roars. Flames appear in the palms of Cameron’s hands, before his whole body sets aflame.
Ultimately – as Cameron’s eyes burst – it looks at first like Darryl has won. It’s then revealed that Cameron managed to inhabit Darryl’s body and take him over for good. He even has his own eye colour intact to prove it.
I recently saw Scanners on the big screen for the first time and this scene felt even more impactful. What makes it work so well, apart from the adept gore, is the score. It’s a simple, perfectly-suited, orchestral tune, which, when combined with the high-pitch scanning noise, contributes towards an ending that I’d consider among the very best in cinema.
1] Videodrome – “Long live the new flesh”
No other Cronenberg horror moment reverberated with me as well as this wholly affecting ending. After a twisted, provocative, thought-provoking film, Cronenberg ties up the narrative by having Max (James Woods) – now the video world made flesh – place his bio-mechanical gun against his temple, state “long live the new flesh” (a phrase given to him by his elusive superiors), then pull the trigger.
We don’t see this once – we see it twice; once as Max watches it on a television screen, then again when he performs the action himself.
While this is far from the goriest entry on this list, I would argue that it’s the most affecting. Max’s self-sacrificial attempt to bring down Videodrome leaves you with a cold, vacant chill. This is because horror is most affecting when it mirrors fears in the real world.
Despite VHS being a thing of the past, we live a world where streaming services are becoming ever more popular (to the point of addiction). Gaming, too, is inching ever closer to becoming indistinguishable from reality (there is a very VR-looking headset in this film and Cronenberg even made a VR experience back in 2015).
Cronenberg’s very best film feels almost like prophecy – a wise warning to tread carefully in the digital (then analog) world. That’s why this moment takes the number one spot.
Cronenberg’s back catalogue is extensive, with many great films that couldn’t be included in this short list. Are there any other scenes that you’d include in your top few Cronenberg horror moments? Let us know in the comments section below.
Image credits: CFDC, Cinepix, DAL Productions, Elgin International Films Ltd., Mutual Productions Ltd., Victor Solnicki Productions, Filmplan International, Guardian Trust Company, Famous Players Limited, SLM Production Group, Brooksfilms, Recorded Picture Company, Telelfilm Canada, Ontario Film Development Corporation, Film Trustees Ltd., Pierson, Heldring & Pierson N .V., Nippon Film Development and Finance, Naked Lunch Productions, Alliance Communications Corporation, TMN, RPC, Canadian Television Fund, The Harold Greenberg Fund, Natural Nylon Entertainment, Seredipity Point Films, UGC