Artistic Evolution in the Early Films of David Cronenberg


Over the first 10 years of his filmmaking career, David Cronenberg transformed from a young man making ponderous experimental films into an accomplished horror director who had made the highest grossing Canadian film up to that point. That’s a significant amount of growth over the course of one decade. However, despite the obvious development in cinematic style and storytelling between Stereo and The Brood, much of Cronenberg’s evolution as a filmmaker was strange and even counterintuitive.

It’s true that what has come to be known as the Cronenbergesque obsessions with the body and the mind, society’s influence on individuals, and the sinister machinations of institutions are present in all of Cronenberg’s early films (even Fast Company to an extent). However, beyond his development in technical confidence and storytelling knowledge, Cronenberg shifted his filmmaking in curious ways.

For starters, unlike many directors, Cronenberg did not begin as a broad mainstream filmmaker and transition to a more serious artistic filmmaker as his skills developed. In fact, just the opposite; he began as a experimental formalist and transformed into a more traditional stylist. In a similar vein, he counterintuitively changed the scale of his films over the course of the decade. His early experimental works were limited in scale in terms of individual scenes, but had world-altering, even apocalyptic, contexts; yet, as he developed, his films began to shrink their scale to telling personal stories about professional success or marital strife.

Perhaps most intriguing is how Cronenberg altered his films’ perspectives on the character of the mad scientist, who often serves as a catalyst to the plot and who Cronenberg has admitted to using as a stand in for himself. In his early films, the mad scientist is an unseen meddler, someone whose relationship to the film is almost as absent from the action in front of the camera as Cronenberg the director is. As he continued to make films, he developed his mad scientist stand-ins into actual characters, and furthermore, transformed them into subjects of critical inquiry, as if Cronenberg began to critically examine himself as he developed his storytelling abilities.

Cronenberg turned the microscope on himself, evolving from an experimental filmmaker with universal obsessions to an intensely personal filmmaker who uses a traditional style to tell intimate films that are more universally appealing than his apocalyptic early work. In essence, he adopted mainstream methods in order to tell more personal stories.

Formalist to Traditionalist

Filmmakers often cut their teeth on commercial fare and develop more artistic, even formalist, styles as they grow more accomplished in their career. However, David Cronenberg did not take this typical route. Like George Lucas, his first films were experimental and he only developed his identifiable style after tempering those experimental impulses with more traditionalist styles. 

Cronenberg’s first two features, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, are art films through and through. They lack dialogue and scenes are not constructed in a conventional manner. The lack of dialogue means that there aren’t any shot reverse-shot constructions to cover conversations, nor are there other conventional editing patterns. Cronenberg uses slow motion in moments of Stereo and in one key scene in Crimes of the Future to force the viewer to reflect on his themes and understand their arch tone. In other moments, he uses silhouettes or stark frames that hide key information off screen to manipulate the viewer’s perspective or develop the atmosphere of the film. Even in his television dud for Programme X, Secret Weapons, he manipulates off-screen space in ways that are more befitting an art installation than a narrative film. Throughout Stereo, Crimes of the Future, and Secret Weapons, Cronenberg uses the camera to conjure an oppressive atmosphere and reflect on his film’s themes; he is not attempting to tell a conventional story.

With Shivers, Cronenberg’s formal approach begins to change. He begins to rely on shot reverse-shots to provide dialogue exposition and uses a less-meticulous, centre-focused frame through many scenes. He has a few moments of visual innovation, such as when the camera takes on a first-person perspective, but these moments are not meant to play with abstract imagery or bring esoteric concepts to life; instead they manipulate the audience’s emotional investment, which is essential to narrative storytelling. Rabid furthers Cronenberg’s development of a mainstream style. The shots are more elegantly-composed than in Shivers, but they lack any of the experimental rigour of Stereo or Crimes of the Future.

Fast Company marks Cronenberg completely jettisoning his early formalist impulses and constructing a straightforward hero narrative. Instead of using the frame to obscure information or force the viewer to reflect on the irony of the scenario, he uses low angles to make characters seem more intimidating and moves the camera to generate narrative momentum. In essence, he fully relies on the conventional style of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.

Fast Company might by the outlier in his filmography, but it marks the key moment in Cronenberg’s career where he essentially masters the mainstream style and can then apply that style to his more esoteric interests with renewed vigour. The Brood, which is a remarkable film, both deeply, uncomfortably, personal and conventionally-enthralling, shows Cronenberg utilizing conventional horror movie tactics, such as the fast cutting when the dwarfs attack their victims, in an effort to explore his own personal demons. In many ways, The Brood is more artistic than Stereo and Crimes of the Future, but it relies on a much more conventional style.

All of this shows that in Cronenberg’s early years, his filmmaking improved as he moved away from a restrained, formalistic, rigid art style and developed the more conventional methods of Hollywood filmmaking. By essentially tamping down his “artistic” impulses, Cronenberg began to express himself more clearly through his filmmaking. His films ended up being more artistically satisfying in the process.

Public to Personal

Cronenberg does the counterintuitive and radically limits the scale of his stories as he develops as a filmmaker, moving from world-ending apocalypses and social-changing epidemics to personal stories about a failing marriage and a child in danger. For instance, Stereo and Crimes of the Future are small films that try to be big, and The Brood is a big film that is deliberately small. This is not a common transition in the early years of most filmmakers’ careers. Usually, the first films of a director work on small scales and broaden out to encompass larger scales as their budgets increase.

Counterintuitively, Cronenberg played in a very large sandbox with his micro-budget early features, Stereo and Crimes of the Future. In these films, and Secret Weapons, Cronenberg tells isolated stories that have world-changing effects on the society at large. In Stereo, the young man in the cape enters the Canadian Academy of Erotic Inquiry and learns about telekinetic developments that affect the way people engage with the body and mind. The ramifications of the academy’s work is not world-shattering, but it does affect the society at large as it is government-mandated. 

In Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg amplifies the scale considerably. The entire world is in the midst of a gender apocalypse where most women have died off due to Rouge’s Malady, a disease caused by women’s cosmetic products. Adrian Tripod is restricted to a few institutions in his search for Antoine Rouge, but Rouge’s experiments and the disease named after him have changed the entire world. The individual story of Crimes of the Future is small, but the implications of that story are massive and apocalyptic. Secret Weapons is similar in how it is set in a future where the North American Civil War is in full effect and massive conglomerates fight for control of the ruins. The actual narrative is limited to a few locations and characters, but once again, these characters affect change on a global scale.

This combination of a small story with big ramifications begins to change as Cronenberg becomes a more confident filmmaker. Shivers and Rabid are both more expensive and larger films than Stereo and Crimes of the Future, but their stories do not have the same de-facto global impact that the stories in Cronenberg’s first films do. They begin on a small scale, in one case restricting the action to a high-rise apartment and in the other, a cosmetic clinic in rural Quebec, and the scope blossoms out by film’s end. The epidemics in these films have the potential to upset the fabric of society (and it’s implied that they do), but they do not begin on a massive scale, nor do they actually show the final apocalypse that they hint towards. Although they are much more expensive films than Crimes of the Future or Secret Weapons, Cronenberg is wise enough in both of them to not overplay his hand in terms of scale. He restricts himself in a way that he does not early in his career, understanding that knowing one’s limitations and working within those restrictions are not the same as acquiescing to small ambitions.

By the time he makes Fast Company and The Brood, Cronenberg has come to understand how to employ scale and utilize a budget effectively. He has more money to make his movies, but he does not automatically make large-scale movies about society-altering events. Fast Company is about a small team of drag racers, while The Brood is inarguably the most personal film of his career up to this point, following a father and his daughter as they deal with the trauma of a mother’s mental illness. In particular, The Brood operates on the smallest scale of his early work, but it’s also the best film he made in the sixties and seventies. Later in his career, Cronenberg would play with more world-altering premises, in Scanners and The Dead Zone in particular, but he would understand how to utilize his budget by that point and conjure personal stories within the larger stakes of the story worlds. In order to truly utilize his filmmaking abilities, Cronenberg had to restrict himself and focus the scale of his stories.

Observer to Subject

Many of our reviews have posited that David Cronenberg is something of a mad scientist as filmmaker: he views his films as experiments and likes to subject the characters to brutal experiments and tests in order to explore human psychology or test their ethical mettle. Of all the ways that Cronenberg’s filmmaking evolved in his early years, perhaps the most interesting way was in his approach to this mad scientist avatar.

In Stereo and Crimes of the Future, unseen scientists put the events of the film into action. In Stereo, Dr. Luther Stringfellow has developed the techniques that allow the characters to experiment with telekinesis and explore their sexualities. However, Stringfellow is never seen on screen. In essence, he is merely an analogue for Cronenberg, conducting an experiment in much the same way that Cronenberg is playing around with filmic ideas. Similarly, in Crimes of the Future, Antoine Rouge puts the film's events in motion by discovering Rouge’s Malady and founding the House of Skin, but he is never on screen, except in the final moments where he is mysteriously reincarnated inside the young girl that Adrian kidnaps. These scientists are essential to the narrative, but they are impervious to enquiry because they are not present as characters.

In Shivers, Cronenberg finally shows the mad scientist character in the early moments of the film. Dr. Emil Hobbes is seen murdering a young woman and then cutting open her stomach, before promptly committing suicide. We soon learn that he developed replacement organs that become the parasites which transform the inhabitants of the high-rise into sex-crazed psychopaths. Hobbes puts the action in play much as Stringfellow and Rouge do in Stereo and Crimes of the Future, but because he’s present on screen, we’re able to judge him in a way we aren’t Stringfellow and Rouge. We see the malice he has when murdering Annabelle and recognize the perversity of his actions. If Hobbes stands in for Cronenberg, much as Stringfellow and Rouge do, then Hobbes’s presence on screen and susceptibility to criticism means that Cronenberg is beginning to make himself a subject of his own art. In essence, he is beginning to critically examine his own experimental impulses and perversity.

Rabid and The Brood both make the mad scientist characters more central to the action and in so doing, make the characters even greater objects of psychological and moral enquiry. In Rabid, Dr. Dan Keloid is present for much of the film after performing emergency surgery on Rose and implanting her with experimentally-modified tissues. Keloid fits the mold of the other mad scientist characters as his actions precipitate the film’s conflict. But his large presence on screen and his apparent arrogance makes him increasingly susceptible to criticism. He’s not just a perverse interloper like Hobbes; he is a character who we can observe demonstrating his arrogance time and again.

All of this culminates with The Brood, where Oliver Reed’s Dr. Hal Raglan is both central to the plot and one of the film’s central characters. His egotism is on full display in his elaborate psychiatric techniques, as shown in the film’s opening minutes. He sees himself as a showman as much as a scientist and doctor, and he finds the psychological power he has over his subjects intoxicating. But he is also a human with moral dimensions and he eventually recognizes the limitations of his actions. He plays the hero in the final moments and sacrificially dies trying to save Candice from the murderous dwarfs. 

It’s no accident that in the most personal of Cronenberg’s early films, the character who serves as his own stand-in would be the most developed and morally examined. Raglan is not simply an unseen manipulator like Stringfellow or Rouge, known only for the consequences of his work. But neither is he an oblivious egotist like Keloid or a perverse monster like Hobbes. He’s a complex man with an undeniable intelligence, but also a major blindspot to his own failings as an individual. Art Hindle’s Frank is the obvious stand-in for Cronenberg in The Brood, as the film explores Cronenberg’s own painful divorce from his ex-wife. But it’s also important to consider Cronenberg’s connections to Raglan to comprehend the film’s personal nature. Together, Frank and Raglan comprise the fullness of Cronenberg as an individual, both the husband/father and the intellectual/artist. By complicating the mad scientist stand-in and developing him into an actual character, Cronenberg puts himself under the lens in his films, leading to the profound reflections present in The Brood. Only by truly examining his own relationship to his work could Cronenberg capture the insights of his first masterwork.

Cronenberg’s early works show an unusual development by a brilliant filmmaker. By examining Stereo, Crimes of the Future, and Secret Weapons in relation to Shivers, Rabid, Fast Company, and especially The Brood, we witness a filmmaker playing with style, scale, and subject matter in cunning, yet intuitive ways. We watch as a filmmaker comes to master conventional filmmaking style in order to better enable his own peculiar filmmaking obsessions. We witness a growing understanding of how to scale a film and how a larger budget should not automatically indicate a larger scale. Most importantly, we see an obsessively-clinical filmmaker turning his perceptive gaze upon himself, making his own shortcomings and obsessions subjects of his work.