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Thursday, March 16, 2006 02:06 pm

A history of Cronenberg

He may be becoming more mainstream, but he still creeps under your skin

Martin Scorsese praised David Cronenberg back when Cronenberg was generally dismissed as just a horror director. His penchant for biological horror set Cronenberg apart from his contemporaries, but most critics still ignored Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). Now, with A History of Violence, others are waking up to his brilliance. Violence topped the 2005 Village Voice Movie Poll, the best poll of its kind in the United States. Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of the Rings) stars as the owner of a small-town diner whose life is turned upside down after he foils a robbery attempt. Mortensen dispatches the two thugs with such precision that he becomes a local hero. His celebrity attracts the attention of a Philadelphia mobster (Ed Harris), who claims that Mortensen is actually a long-lost member of the mob. Maria Bello gives the strongest performance as Mortensen’s suffering wife, no longer sure of her husband’s true identity, but William Hurt comes on like gangbusters in a small but pivotal role at the end. Violence is violent, as its title clearly suggests, and Cronenberg’s horror skills are evident in the gory scenes. Scanners (1981), Cronenberg’s first great film, has been widely considered a classic of the horror genre. Scanners, society’s outcasts, have the ability to scan the minds of others and ultimately blow up their heads. The style of the film seems off-kilter at first, but a greater understanding of Cronenberg’s vision permits a better appreciation of its bizarre nature. The cult status of Scanners allowed Cronenberg to cast a more prominent actor in his next film. James Woods stars in Videodrome (1983) as the operator of a cable-television company who becomes intrigued by a mysterious torture television show. Woods’ journey to track down the show draws him into a mind-altering world of surrealistic dementia. Videodrome is Cronenberg at his most brilliant, and it should have crossed over into the serious art-film market. Cronenberg’s most controversial film is something called Crash (1997), but it bears no relation to this year’s Best Picture winner. James Spader stars as an auto-accident survivor who becomes part of a cult of car-crash fetishists. The idea is as strange as it sounds, and few directors could believably handle such a freakish premise. Cronenberg may be slowly moving closer to the mainstream, but he retains his uncanny ability to creep beneath your skin.
Available on DVD this Tuesday (March 21): Capote, Derailed, Dreamer, and The Squid and the Whale.
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