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Baby Body Horror: David Cronenberg’s early films (1966-1970) – Blu-ray review

August 13, 2015 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

The birth of horror’s greatest director – even in those faltering first steps and messy mistakes, there is no doubting the arrival of a fearsome intellect.

1 Stereo Cronenberg

Transfer (1966)
From The Drain (1967)
Stereo (1969)
Crimes Of The Future (1970)

If nothing else, the early David Cronenberg films collected on the new Videodrome Blu-ray boxset from Arrow Films confirm that the Canadian horror maestro already had a handle on his themes as a twenty-something student. These four works – ranging from seven minutes to just over an hour – offer a microcosm of the sex, violence, paranoia and psychoanalysis that the director would perfect over the next five decades.

Transfer (1966) is the earliest and least significant of the films, a bizarre two-hander between an exiled therapist and the patient who tracks him down in the wilderness. It is poorly acted and visually distinguished only by its strange juxtaposition of setting and content, yet what is fascinating is how quickly Cronenberg has defined his half-aroused, half-appalled view of the science of the mind. The Brood, Dead Ringers and A Dangerous Method all begin here.

From The Drain (1967) – despite being another surreal two-hander, this time in a bathtub – already feels more like ‘Cronenberg,’ with its tale of infestation at a secretive science base. It suffers the same technical shortcomings as Transfer; these two films play out as a more cerebral, clinical take on the equally transgressive stuff that John Waters was coming out with at the same time. But, equally, that means that Cronenberg’s personality (notably, his sardonic, satirical wit) shines through.

Stereo (1969) is a major advance: a ruthlessly controlled and eerily precise study of telepaths in a research facility. It is easy to see why Cronenberg made such a name for himself, because nobody was making films like this in 1969. (Hell, few new directors are attempting this kind of intellectual, idiosyncratic stuff now – perhaps only Shane Carruth is approaching genre from a similar place to Cronenberg.)

What remains striking is that Cronenberg completely eschews diagetic sound; while that was done primarily for technical reasons, there is a clear thematic rationale for the experimental style. The entire film is based on a structural joke – that the researchers can’t eavesdrop on telepathic communication and so have to rely only on observable signs. In other words, it’s cinema. The narration (with its parody of academic jargonese) would make an ace short story but it’s the counterpoint with the images that truly defines the film.

Cronenberg’s dedication to this ascetic form is remarkable; there isn’t the slightest concession to mainstream form. The title might imply that at some point we might hear the wonderful sounds that the telepaths hear but no, it’s just another irony. Instead, the images themselves provide some degree of metaphor, especially in the fascination with lines and criss-crossing patterns in the architecture. Early Cronenberg was defined by the director’s remarkable location scouting, finding these impressive but sterile environments of malign modernity. As an exercise in mise en scene, this is compelling.

Thematically it’s all here, too. Scanners is an obvious descendant; in fact it introduces some of Cronenberg’s cogent thought that the reality of life as an untrained telepath would be an unbearable noise. But the film’s central idea – that telepathy is a handy means of bypassing conventional sexuality in favour of new forms of eroticism – crops up throughout Cronenberg’s films. Rather amusingly, this Epiphany can only be achieved with the help of synthetic drugs, making this Cronenberg’s sardonic riposte to the era of free love. It’s the least hippyish film of the late 1960s.

Crimes Of The Future (1970) bears the same superficial style as Stereo, but here there’s no built-in rationale for the formal constraints within the narrative. This unfortunately makes an already muddy narrative virtually impossible to follow; together with monotone narration of lead actor Ronald Mlodzik, it becomes soporific despite the brief running time.

The film has a callow inability to dramatise its themes, the reckless ambition of a young filmmaker throwing all of his ideas at the screen, that makes it seem as if it was made after Stereo and not before. There is stuff here even darker than peak-period Cronenberg (notably the final stretch where it falls to a conspiracy of paedophiles to continue the human race, after a plague wipes out all mature women) but the idea comes across as an idle thought rather than the transgressive, satirical shock it needs to be.

The entire film is like that: an episodic quest whose scenes are overextended and poorly integrated, albeit conceptually interesting, like the guy who keeps growing bizarre extra organs a la The Brood. But that is merely one of the (ahem) embryonic Cronenberg tropes here and the film is best viewed in that spirit. There’s the hunt for a missing mentor; a disease whose symptoms include a weird desire amongst humans to propagate it (disgustingly by licking the victims’ deadly secretions).

Visually too it looks like vintage Cronenberg; so much of the effect of his early films comes from the the exaggerated splash of viscera against the beige palette of those anonymous scientific environments. But it’s not quite there. One murder is shown by the victim’s shoe being left behind; a callback to the dark punchline of From The Drain but rather coy from the guy who would eventually explode a character’s head there on screen.

David Cronenberg’s early films appear as extras on Videodrome, released by Arrow Films on Monday 17th August.

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