David Cronenberg was my first favorite director. Even before I knew what a director did, or before I’d seen more than a grand total of two of his films, I knew this to be true. Seeing his name above both The Fly and Videodrome was enough for me to realize that there was something special about this one, and every film I’d subsequently watch would only help enforce that, diving me deeper and deeper into nightmare worlds of body transformation and sexual obsession. But as my last Crypt entry discussed, every director has to start somewhere—and with Cronenberg, that “somewhere” is two brief feature films, micro-budget experimental movies that help lay the groundwork for some of the greatest works from one of cinema’s greatest artists.
His first feature, Stereo (1969), is something of an independent miracle. Running only a little over an hour, Stereo was made on a shoestring budget in one location with a camera that was too loud to properly record audio and an almost nonexistent cast and crew. Yet, even with all these limitations and completely without the luxury of his signature body horror special effects, Stereo still manages to be a perfect example of the wonderful career to come.

The film functions as an educational account of the fictitious studies conducted in the hallowed halls of the “Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry,” where scientists probe the secrets of the mind. The particular case study featured in Stereo was a study by the unseen Dr. Luther Stringfellow, who surgically altered eight willing test subjects (one of whom is played by Cronenberg regular Ronald Mlodzik) to grant them telepathic abilities. Of course, there’s a catch—all psychics need to develop their powers, which is done through constant sexual experimentation, exploration, and interaction. This process is referred to as “the sociochemistry of the erotic,” which might be the single most Cronenbergian sentence ever written.

It’s easy to see how a movie that’s functionally about omnisexual psychics developing their powers through psychic orgies would become nothing more than a skin flick or grindhouse roughie, but Cronenberg puts the concept to great use. There is a very clear line in the film between the development of the subjects’ sexual encounters and their mental prowess, building up to omnisexual orgies so powerful they shatter psyches. Yet Cronenberg never lets the film’s clinical, controlled gaze falter, capturing even the most explicit scenes like they’re nothing more than sterile interiors.

As I mentioned earlier, the camera Cronenberg used to shoot the film was so loud that it was impossible to properly record audio, so the storytelling takes a different turn. Instead of following the events of the study as they happened, the film is narrated by a host of different scientists recounting Stringfellow’s experiments with footage of the subjects playing out silently on screen, free of dialogue or diegetic sound. The scientists all seem to have different specialties on the case, and as such, all of them recount the story in different ways, all of which barrel towards the same horrifying ending. It’s a novel approach to proceedings that easily sidesteps the camera’s limitations, as well as adding to the clinical tone that would go on to become one of Cronenberg’s staples.

Another limitation that adds to this unique atmosphere is the way Cronenberg uses the setting. Since Cronenberg had attended the University of Toronto years before, he decided to stick with the familiar and shoot the film entirely within the institution. While one could see this being a problem—college campuses are scarcely known for looking like sterile experimental facilities—Cronenberg shoots the university in a way that manages to capture both a unique geography and a perfectly sterile, clinical aesthetic. In fact, the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry is visually striking and believable enough to function as a character of its own, and a damn memorable one at that.

Still, the highest high of Stereo doesn’t come from the plot, the setting, or even the impeccable narration. No, Stereo’s soul rests in its pacing, unfolding like a marriage between a hypnotic tone poem and a dry educational video. The film just flows from one scene to the next with very little physical action happening, creating a vibe that makes it feel more like a special interest documentary than a narrative feature. It’s a structure that can easily be isolating to most viewers, but if you can gel with it, the entire film just opens itself up to you, making the brief runtime feel like an eternity in the best possible way.

It’s this touch that makes the experience of watching Stereo really unlike watching any other Cronenberg film. It’s a movie that’s aggressively academic about a science that doesn’t exist, and when combined with long diatribes about omnisexuality (“the true norm, an expanded form of bisexuality”), it’s clear why a viewer would bounce off Stereo hard. But to do so would to miss out, because Stereo is not only one of the most fascinating Cronenbergs from a historical perspective, it’s his most fascinating from a formal perspective as well.

A year after Stereo, Cronenberg gave the feature film another stab with Crimes of the Future, a spiritual successor to Stereo. Much like Stereo, it’s a film with no diegetic sound or dialogue, following a scientist as he makes observations on the world around him. Unlike Stereo, however, Crimes of the Future is meant to be seen less as a scientific document and more as a series of diary entries, swapping out multiple narrators for one man: Adrian Tripod (Ronald Mlodzik).

Adrian is a scientist and the head of a dermatology clinic menacingly named The House of Skin. The institution is sparse, consisting of only Adrian, two interns, and a single male patient, but unlike Stereo’s Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry, the explanation behind the lack of people in The House of Skin is bone-chillingly sinister. A mysterious disease known only as Rouge’s Malady was spread through cosmetic products, and quickly spread around the world, mysteriously picking off the planet’s entire population of sexually mature women, leaving only boys, men, and young girls left alive. During the plague, the man who discovered it, Adrian’s mentor, Anton Rouge, vanished, and Adrian takes it upon himself to track the man down, leading him through the darkest parts of plague-devastated Canada.

While Stereo was Cronenberg developing the psychosexual side of his work, Crimes of the Future fleshes it out with his other infamous trademark: sickening body horror of the highest caliber. Rouge’s Malady causes mysterious white foam to flow from victims’ orifices (helpfully dubbed “Rouge’s Foam”), and the disease soon leads to bleeding and mysterious fluids pouring from the eyes. Given the budget, the effects aren’t anywhere near on par with the horrific sights of The Fly, Videodrome, or Scanners, but when you have mysterious white goo oozing from someone’s ear, you don’t need the greatest effects in the world to be gross.

Helping work around the budget is the fact that the grisliest bits of body horror are saved for narration. Like Stereo before it, Crimes of the Future uses the narration to not only tell the main story, but to give the briefest glimpses at worlds too fantastical for the film’s resources. It’s a clever trick, but there’s one big problem: Ronald Mlodzik’s narration is bad. Really bad. It’s stuck in a limbo between the professional, matter-of-fact presentation of Stereo’s narrators and a traditional monologue, filled with needless breathy pauses and a vocabulary that fits his character, but distracts from the otherwise gritty tone of the film. He acts like he belongs in the world of Stereo, and instead of creating a neat dissonance, all it does is distract.

This is a problem that runs through nearly every frame of Crimes of the Future. It really, really wants to be Stereo 2.0, even when that’s at odds with its own story and content. The narrator’s tones don’t fit, the lingering pace doesn’t fit, and the examination of non-heterosexual orientations goes nowhere, ending up seeming cruder than it feels the film would like it to be viewed.

Now, none of this is to say Crimes of the Future is worthless compared to Stereo, or even that it’s just a rehash, because it’s not. In fact, when Crimes of the Future does its own thing, the results are quite remarkable. The focus on giving the film more clearly defined characters as well as a constant POV helps ground the film in its world, and gives the plot actual stakes beyond the scientific curiosity of unseen doctors. Plus, a wider variety of fascinating locations are used, and the addition of color really helps make the more visually striking locations (such as a lobby filled with glowing neon boards) stand out.

But when you get down to it, the biggest, most important change Crimes of the Future makes from Stereo is where it chooses to go. While I will not divulge into spoilers, Crimes of the Future takes a turn in the third act to tackle subject matter Cronenberg hadn’t dared explore before and reasonably hasn’t approached since. I can’t say with confidence that he actually handles the taboo as well as the story needed, but it’s certainly disconcerting, and really hammers home the film’s hopeless, crushing atmosphere when it matters most.

Unlike Stereo, Crimes of the Future isn’t a great film, but it’s certainly a fine one and helps set up themes that would later be explored in titles like Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood. Yet, much to my disappointment, the narration would never carry over to another film, leaving just Stereo and Crimes of the Future as Cronenberg’s two solely narrated features. While it’s a disappointment he’d never touch the format again, the two films that did use the format certainly stood out in their time, and still stand out today. For better or worse, Stereo and Crimes of the Future both represent Cronenberg at his most experimental, and are essential pieces of an essential director’s filmography. Don’t let them pass you by.

Next: Crypt of Curiosities: The CAT PEOPLE Films