David Cronenberg began his career as a film-maker In Canada without any formal film school training. There was no such schooling available in his home country. His background was in science, having spent a year at university studying organic chemistry. He had a particular fascination for entemology – the study of insect life – and this scientific aspect influenced much of his work.
Clinics dealing with human scientific potential, the body-horror infestation of insectoid/parasitic attack, all are recurring themes and one can see the seeds of a lot of this in STEREO, his first film of length. At just over one hour, it’s a film record of the behaviour of eight young students under observation at the fictional CAEE (the Canadian Academy for Erotic Enquiry) by the unseen Dr Stringfellow. They are being studied as part of an experiment whereby they are given telepathic abilities and then observed in social and private behaviours on a day-t-day basis. The scenes are all in black and white and silent, overlaid with voice-overs from august-sounding experts recounting the intended theories and results over the course of three months. We are introduced to them via one participant (Ronald Mlodzik), grandly dressed in an opera cloak and bearing a cane, who gains entry into the sterile, barren and vaguely sinisterly architecture institute. Gradually, we see all the students at play with each other, flirting, having sex, eating and enjoying other sensory pleasures, all presumably being recorded elsewhere.
As the film progresses, the narration discusses various tested phenomena such as the understanding that in order for telepathy to be strong, the subjects must form meaningful relationships with each other; also they are administered drug capsules that are hoped to induce a capacity for ‘omnisexuality’ to ‘demolish the walls’ of conventional sexual constraint.
Eventually, we are told that two unexpected consequences have occurred: that a number of the participants committed suicide, one by piercing his skull with an electric drill – and that Dr Stringfellow himself became highly agitated as a result of his separation from the students after the experiment had concluded, concluding that the telepathic relationships established were two-way in nature.
By being presented as a scientific observation of subjects, the tone of STEREO is cool and removed, but as the events unfold in an episodic way without any connecting thread, it’s very disjointed and uninvolving. The detached style invites the same in reaction especially as most of the interesting information is merely told not shown. It is however interesting to spot the themes and obsessions that will crop up in his future films: SCANNERS and THE BROOD will deal directly with parapsychological human talents harnessed by professionally-run private clinics – and the study of human sexuality in all its taboos, kinks etc will occur often, most obviously in A DANGEROUS METHOD. Cronenberg deserves credit as well for making his own films at this stage where, before the Cinepix funding for SHIVERS, he was having to do all of his own filming and editing, learning as he went ‘on the job’.
CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (1970)
This follow-on film again deals with the goings-on within experimental clinics, in this case the House of Skin whose director Adrian Tripod (Ron Mlodzik again)goes on a rambling search to find his mentor Antoine Rouge whose experiments have killed off all the planet’s women. Tripod meets a succession of peculiar obsessives who we are told are involved with organisations such as the Oceanic Podiatry Group, (whose member teaches Tripod to manipulate people’s feet to induce a quasi-orgasmic state of consciousness). He also encounters a man with a fondness for collecting women’s underwear and also, once inside the building, a secret group of paedophiles.
All this may sound promising on paper, but like STEREO what could be potentially intriguing is only given verbally as if in a radio play rather than in cinematic terms - here as a lisping, effete voice-over by Mlodzik (over silent footage throughout) that seriously gets on your nerves after a while. The interminable mentioning of Antoine Rouge grates terribly, as does the loose chain of encounter scenes shot outside in what looks like a university’s grounds. It has the rough alienating feel of a pretentiously surreal student film that makes no real sense and has no clear narrative.
Where CRIMES OF THE FUTURE does have curiosity value is partly in its odd soundtrack of seemingly home-made aural FX and what sound like bird calls – and again the burgeoning themes of human potential under professional observation; body-horror (in the manifesting here of external bodily organs by victims) and investigations into the range of sexual perversity that fascinate Cronenberg’s focus.
It would be four years before David Cronenberg would finally have the means to develop his themes across the canvas of a feature film. Prepare for SHIVERS…