David Cronenberg: The Body as a Canvas

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you here the name “David Cronenberg”? Gore, disgust, exploitation, brutality among many others. Much of these annotations are directives of the “body horror” genre, of which Cronenberg is considered a pioneer. While obvious in his early films, when compared to his more contemporary work, while the horror is lacking, there is still a major element in play: the human body.

Cronenberg’s fascination with human anatomy is widespread among his filmography. The human body isn’t as much a singular theme as it is a conduit which Cronenberg uses to present a multitude of ideas. Let us take a closer look at Cronenberg’s filmography to get a deeper sense of how he uses the body as a tool for storytelling.



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“Videodrome” (1983) is a bizarre, technology-driven roller coaster of technological surrealism. The protagonist, played by James Woods, loses touch with reality as the story goes on, and becomes haunted with disturbing hallucinations involving technology. Although made in the 80s, Cronenberg’s statement on man and machine is all to relevant today than it ever was. Through Wood’s disturbing hallucinations, we get a statement on the ever-progressing interconnection between man and machine.


The Fly

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Arrogance is a dangerous thing. Dr. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) of “The Fly” (1986) learned that the hard way. Cronenberg resumes his body horror persona to portray yet another human flaw, only this time, in a far more grotesque. In his mission to “change the world”, Brundle’s arrogance got the best of him when he tested his prototype teleporter on himself, not realizing that a fly with him. As a result, he mutates in to the horrible titular creature; a result of his pettiness.




A History of Violence

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The past never stays hidden for long. Cronenberg’s 2005 crime thriller “A History of Violence” shows a unique way of body art this tale of lies and deceit. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) seems to be an everyday, likeable married man living in a small country town. Everything changes when two violent criminals attack his diner, and he kills both in self-defense. As their wounds spill blood, Tom’s own wounds open. Though these not physical, but psychological, and opens up a realm of deceit and secrets Tom has kept for years. To Cronenberg, the body is the gate to a terrible secret, and Tom Stall, through his actions, was the key that opened the gate, having his past catch up with him.



Eastern Promises

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Mortensen returns to collaborate with Cronenberg in 2007’s gangster-thriller “Eastern Promises”. Taking place in London, the plot follows the interconnected paths of a British-Russian midwife (Naomi Watts), Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a driver and “cleaner” for the Russian mafia, and a 14-year-old Russian girl named Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), who dies in childbirth. Where as in his previous works, Cronenberg used the body as a statement on the human mind or a surrealist theory, in this film, Cronenberg uses the body as a symbol of something for more deceptive: societal status. Wholey summarizes in one scene, the police discover the body of a mutilated man. They identify him, but not from fingerprints, facial recognition, or any sort of DNA test… but by his tattoos. The tattoos, in the mafia, are everything. It is one’s rank, one’s purpose, one’s life story, and one’s standing within the crime family. The body is, ironically, the embodiment of society.

Ryan Parker