TORONTO - David Cronenberg is about as scary as Santa Claus. His films are another matter.
Cronenberg's thoughtful, politely professorial manner seems at odds with the explicit terror of "Scanners," "The Fly" and "Dead Ringers" or the reality-twisting weirdness of "Naked Lunch," "eXistenZ" and "Spider."
The man's anything but frightening, yet his latest film, "A History of Violence," has the director himself running a little scared. He's used to people feeling puzzled, disturbed, alarmed by the images and ideas in his films.
"A History of Violence" provokes such strong, unsettling reactions, but it also entertains in an un-Cronenberg-like way, like a piece of pulp fiction, a Western in contemporary clothing.
Dare we say it? Like a mainstream movie?
"People are saying, are you feeling the love now for 'History of Violence,' and I say, 'Yeah,' and that's a scary thing, because it could get addictive," Cronenberg said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film played the week before its theatrical debut.
"I don't think it's a good thing, really, for a filmmaker or an artist of any kind to only want to be appreciated or loved. It's if you start chasing that, then I think you've destroyed yourself."
"A History of Violence" stars Viggo Mortensen as small-town diner owner Tom Stall, who has a cozy home life with his kids and a mildly adventurous sex life with his wife (Maria Bello).
When armed thugs invade the diner, Tom's burst of reckless action thwarts the holdup, turning him into a local hero and media celebrity.
The publicity brings Tom to the attention of out-of-town gangsters, led by Ed Harris in a deliriously vicious performance as a one-eyed mad dog and William Hurt in a scene-stealing turn as a self-important mob boss. These interlopers insist Tom is one of their own, who did them wrong long ago and now must atone.
What follows is a captivating study of identity, deceit, shattered faith and past sins coming home to roost, punctuated by explosive bursts of violence as Tom tries to protect his family from a harsh outside world.
"I think Cronenberg's always had a penchant for showing you the veneer, then ripping it back and saying, 'Look how strange people are, the way they behave, and look how much they think that they're not behaving strangely,'" Mortensen said. "He's an expert at that."
"David's working on subjects that interest me," said co-star Hurt. "There's just so much crap out there, so much condescending, artistically immoral work going on with no specificity, no detail, no invention, no audacity of physical form, no probing into the regions that he probes.
"He'll even let himself be characterized as perverse. He's not. He's the opposite of perverse. He's coaxing our perversions, our suppressed perversions, into the open and helping us to deal with them in this wonderful way."
While packed with stark, disturbing moments, "A History of Violence" also has a wickedly absurd undercurrent, provoking titters of ironic laughter at moments of high tension.
It's the closest thing to a crowd-pleaser Cronenberg has done since his biggest hit, 1986's gory remake of "The Fly."
Cronenberg, 62, concedes that after a very uncommercial film like 2002's "Spider," which starred Ralph Fiennes in a challenging tale of mental illness, he figured a more populist movie would be wise, so long as its sensibilities matched his own.
With a bigger budget, "A History of Violence" "also meant I was going to get paid, which I wasn't with 'Spider,' so that was good," Cronenberg said. "But that wouldn't be enough. There were a lot of projects I could have done which I would have gotten paid for, but they just didn't interest me.
"The rule of thumb is, OK, it's the middle of winter, you're either shooting or editing it. Are you exhilarated or are you going to be suicidal? If you're going to be suicidal, don't do it, because you're going to have to live with it at least a year and a half, probably two years, so you better love it. You just better be passionate about it."
Born in Toronto, Cronenberg thought he would become a research scientist and write fiction on the side, hoping to be an "obscure novelist" like one of his heroes, Franz Kafka, someone who wrote prodigiously but barely published a word in his lifetime.
Then he saw a feature film by a University of Toronto student and realized with the independent spirit taking hold in the 1960s, "you don't have to carry film cans around for 10 years before you get a chance to be on a film set. Just grab a camera and make a movie."
He began in low-budget horror flicks, spinning visually graphic tales of mutants, plagues and sexual parasites that included "They Came From Within," "Rabid" and "The Brood."
In the 1980s, Cronenberg branched beyond a cult audience with the telepath terrors of "Scanners," featuring grisly images of exploding heads, the Stephen King adaptation "The Dead Zone" and the telecommunications chiller "Videodrome.
The 1990s brought the William S. Burroughs adaptation "Naked Lunch" and the harrowing "Crash," about dangerous sexual fetishism among car-accident victims.
Cronenberg generally has left behind the overt terrors of his earlier films in favor of the shadows within, though he said he has not consciously quit the horror genre.
So long as a story has the right mix of depth, character and intricacy, he is open to any type of film.
"I have no rules," Cronenberg said. "For me, it's a full, full experience to make a movie. It takes a lot of time, and I want there to be a lot of stuff in it. You're looking for every shot in the movie to have resonance and want it to be something you can see a second time, and then I'd like it to be something you can see 10 years later, and it becomes a different movie, because you're a different person.
"So that means I want it to be deep, not in a pretentious way, but I guess I can say I am pretentious in that I pretend. I have aspirations that the movie should trigger off a lot of complex responses."