Man-machine interfacer, new-flesh apostle, techno-porn merchant, David Cronenberg has devoted his career to experiments in transfiguration. A Cronenberg premise often amounts to a giddy metaphoric riff on the mind/body split, or a cathartic literalization of same; his characters are invariably poised to escape their corporeal prison (or otherwise cast off the shackles of self), even if the emancipation eventually proves untenable. As Anthology’s retro demonstrates, this project has required some versatility on the part of the perennial mad scientist: In some 20-plus shorts and features, Cronenberg variously dons the lab coats of virologist, oncologist, gynecologist, neurologist, epidemiologist, dermatologist, venereologist, entomologist, and pharmacologist.
Cronenberg got most of his youthful pretensions out of his system with a pair of short, mildly surrealist two-handers. Made while he was at the University of Toronto (having abandoned science in favor of English), Transfer (1966) patches together disjointed conversations between a psychiatrist and his patient. It’s a strained, murky skit, but an amusingly apt start for a filmmaker who has been subjected to so much critical psychoanalysis over the years. In From the Drain (1967), two veterans of a biochemical war sit in a bathtub and banter obliquely, until a murderous tendril wriggles out of the plug-hole (prefiguring Barbara Steele’s rape-by-priapic-slug in Shivers).
The trancelike featurettes that followed, Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), scan as crystal-clear sonograms of Cronenberg’s obsessions in utero. To cut costs, both were shot without sync sound, and deploy acres of expository voice-over. Stereo takes place at the Canadian Academy for Erotic Enquiry, where a commune undergoes all manner of telekinetic and aphrodisiacal tests. While a soothingly clinical monotone recites jargon-choked postulates, the inmates, clad in quasi-medieval dress, cavort and pair off, fondling pacifiers and mannequins. Stereo spikes the kinky medical-sex trope with some flower-power free love, and exposes the peculiar hybrid to the director’s version of Murphy’s Law: Any experiment that can go wrong, will—and violently to boot. Fashioning stark geometric compositions from the brutalist architecture of the location, Cronenberg’s mood-making is already impeccable.
Toppling Stereo‘s desiccated sense of humor into giggly absurdism, Crimes is set in a near-future where most females have succumbed to a cosmetics-related condition known as Rouge’s Malady, named for Antonie Rouge, a renegade dermatologist who has since vanished. Trenchcoated, turtlenecked Rouge disciple Adrian Tripod (Stereo star Ronald Mlodzik) drifts from one mysterious, declining institution to another (the House of Skin, the Oceanic Podiatry Group, Metaphysical Import-Export) and stumbles on a pedophilic conspiracy plot. Crimes inaugurates the Cronenberg staple of body horror: The suppurating sores of Rouge sufferers ooze a “sensually attractive” effluence—the first of countless transcendent gross-outs in the canon, fleshly disgust commingling with the sublime.
If the early work semi-seriously proposes polymorphous perversity as a means to enlightenment (and summons a persistent homoerotic current, thanks especially to Mlodzik, whose preening affect suggests an effete James Spader), a sexual death wish takes over in the full-length features Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1976), which together constitute a mutant strain of the epidemic movie. In the former, a venereally transmitted parasite turns the residents of a high-rise into erotomaniac zombies; experimental plastic surgery gives Rabid‘s Marilyn Chambers a retractable vampiric phallus under her arm. Cronenberg’s plagues never serve a strictly cautionary purpose—they function instead as revolutionary agents of change, purging bland, dehumanized communities.
Throughout the ’70s, Cronenberg worked periodically for the CBC. Two episodes of the series Peep Show (neither self-written) are on view: a one-rainy-night tale and a crank-call psychodrama, both fairly tepid and impersonal. An earlier one-off, Secret Weapons (1972), scripted by his Dead Ringers collaborator Norman Snider, is more characteristic: In a post-civil-war future, a research scientist thwarts an evil pharmaceutical company via “psychic judo,” and joins a rebel motorcycle gang. Cronenberg’s automotive fixations are at their most unadorned in his rarely screened drag-racing flick, Fast Company (1979)—paired here with his best TV effort, The Italian Machine (1976), in which a trio of bikers attempts to retrieve a cherished motorcycle from a collector who has installed it in his living room as an objet d’art.
Sui generis and ferociously coherent, Cronenberg’s body of work is an auteurist’s dream. eXistenZ refurbishes Videodrome‘s Escher maze of altered states. The climactic zap-off in Scanners echoes the transmigration of souls in Crimes of the Future and foreshadows Dead Ringers‘ brotherly fusion. The auto-fetishism and morbid hedonism of the ’70s films are resurrected and collide ecstatically in the glorious Liebestod Crash. Videodrome‘s central image—a gooey, throbbing cassette, bearer of hallucinatory nightmares, plunged into an abdominal slit—remains the wittiest illustration of these films’ particular subcutaneous effect: As much as they fuck with the mind, they are foremost (and in a most literal sense) visceral—as likely to reverberate in your entrails as your nervous system.