6. The Fly (1958)
Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery. Cronenberg’s fascination with this late-50s B-movie would lead him to put his own spin on it thirty years later with a film that’s nowadays considered to be the crowning jewel in his filmography. And though both iterations loosely follow the same overarching story—that of a scientist inadvertently turning into a hideous fly-hybrid creature while testing their new teleportation device—they take different turns to tell it.
The original version contrasts the remake by framing the whole thing as a mystery whodunit told in flashback. This adds an extra element of surprise as we slowly fill in the gaps to make sense of the scientist’s tragic demise, meaning that we don’t get our first glimpse at his mutation until the 58-minute mark. The special effects can feel rather quaint now and certainly don’t hold a candle to Cronenberg’s, while the female co-lead is noticeably less compelling, a meek housewife here instead of a resourceful and independent journalist. But despite all of its glaring flaws, as long as you go with the proper frame of mind, Kurt Neumann’s ‘The Fly’ can be an absolute riot.
7. Alien (1979)
Anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock for the past forty years is familiar with the iconic chestburster scene from Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic. An infinitely lesser number of moviegoers have even heard of ‘Shivers’, a Canadian horror movie made for roughly $130,000 four years earlier — a film that not only marked the arrival of a young up-and-coming director by the name of David Cronenberg but provided the template for the eighth passenger seen in Ridley Scott’s beloved sci-fi hit.
Cronenberg’s breakout film centers around a strain of black, slimey parasites that enter through human’s orifices and breed in the stomach while occasionally ejecting some kind of mild acid. Though the Canadian holds Scott’s movie in high esteem, he argues that certain similarities with his own are hard to overlook. During a recent interview, the director half-jokingly implied that Dan O’Bannon (‘Alien’ screenwriter) owes him hundreds of thousands of dollars for stealing his idea. “I think he’s dead now, so I guess I’ll have to sue his estate.
8. Woman in the Dunes (1966)
Sexuality is an underlying theme that pervades a surprisingly large swath of Cronenberg’s films. From the sadomasochistic fetishes of ‘Crash’ to the sex-crazed maniacs of ‘Shivers’, the director has never shied away from probing our venereal desires in the most disruptive and unconventional of ways, often overstepping the accepted boundaries of mainstream cinema.
Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara was another agent provocateur who similarly relished the opportunity of pushing our buttons with his work. ‘Woman in the Dunes’ is a film that uses eroticism as a vehicle to deliver a haunting modern retelling of the Myth of Sisyphus. An entomologist wanders off during a desert expedition and is taken captive by a group of villagers, coerced to perpetually shovel sand and live with a woman in a claustrophobic house located at the pit of a dune. Isolated from society with no means of escape, the entomologist ponders about the meaningless of his existence, his lack of purpose and the illusion of freedom while his life slips away in front of his eyes. Cronenberg expressed his admiration for Teshigahara’s masterpiece while he served as curator for the 2018 NIFF, screening and commentating the film during the course of the festival.
9. Raw (2016)
Five years before she knocked our socks off with her 2021 automotive slasher / family drama, Julia Ducournau earned her stripes with ‘Raw’, an unflinching horror slasher that flipped its genre on its head. The story centers around a vegetarian college freshman who has no choice but to contend with the nasty ceremony of initiation pranks throughout her first semester at veterinary school. Much like ‘Titane’, delving too much into plot specifics is a sure way to spoil the fun. Let’s just say that the film is not for the faint of heart and conceals plenty of skin-crawling moments that will keep haunting you long after the credits roll.
To no one’s surprise, David Cronenberg got a kick out of it and was so awestruck upon first watching it during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival that he decided to get in touch with the French director to personally compliment her for her transgressive debut. “I was very impressed by ‘Raw’ and I contacted her producers to have a chat with her. I just knew she had a strong talent; she was very ferocious, unafraid and inventive.”
10. Duel (1971)
Steven Spielberg’s made-for-TV feature is one of those hidden gems that’s frequently overlooked in the vast sea of veritable classics that is his catalog. Admittedly, the director would churn out far more polished films in a technical sense later in his career, but there’s a brazen, gritty vitality beaming through ‘Duel’ that feels thoroughly refreshing and distinct. His early-stage thriller more than makes up for its modest resources with heaps of ambition, superb framing and high-wire chase scenes. Make no mistake, ‘Duel’ is every bit of a monster film as ‘Jaws’ and Jurassic Park’, only the force of nature is not a great white shark or an 18-ft-tall T-Rex but rather, a completely unhinged truck driver who terrorizes a hapless businessman across the Californian desert.
Connecting the dots between Spielberg’s nightmare fuel slasher and Cronenberg’s pet interests is pretty self-evident. His well-established fascination with automobiles would find fruition in his drag racing B-movie ‘Fast Company’ and, most notably, in 1996 with ‘Crash’.