I like watching David Cronenberg's early movies because they're audaciously twisted, but also because they show the promise of what he would become. Two new releases from Shout! Factory, Rabid (1977)and Dead Ringers (1988), illustrate the point. The first is the work of an imaginative (and arguably sick) young filmmaker doing his best under budget and casting restrictions. The second is a fully formed psychodrama with immaculate production value. They both represent crucial steps in a maverick moviemaker's progress.
Cronenberg's early films, including Rabid, Shivers and The Brood, broke ground in what we now call body horror. In Rabid, a young woman (played by porn star Marilyn Chambers) receives an experimental skin graft after a motorcycle accident. She develops a thirst for blood, and becomes patient zero of a new vampire/zombie epidemic. She also develops an orifice in her underarm that seems to include both female and male genitalia. (These are the kinds of ideas that sent Cronenberg's mind whirring).
Science, sex, flesh, technology, death, fear: These were a few of his favorite things well before he gained a measure of mainstream non-horror success with movies like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. A turning point was Dead Ringers, one of the best films of the '80s, and a showcase for one of the decade's best performances, from Jeremy Irons. He plays Beverly and Elliot Mantle, identical twin gynecologists who share everything, including women.
Cronenberg was already on a roll when he made Dead Ringers; The Fly (1986) was both a commercial smash and a critical favorite. Dead Ringers is the work of a confident artist surrounded by top-level collaborators, including composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. Its grisly premise gives way to a crushing story of interdependency and hubris. It's not just shocking; it's a legitimately great film.
Cronenberg always had the macabre imagination. By the time he made Dead Ringers, he also had the budget, the cast, the crew and the self-assurance to spin inspired darkness.