First films are often dicey propositions, especially when those debuts sit at the start of a long, illustrious career full of far superior material. Often the seeds of greatness are there, but for every Orson Welles, emerging fully formed with an impeccable first feature, there’s a dozen examples of conceptually interesting efforts that don’t quite pan out upon execution. David Cronenberg’s Stereo is one of these, an admittedly ambitious attempt at genre subversion that predicts his later, more successful ventures, while still standing out as an enervating slog. A low-budget experiment that barely crests the 60-minute mark, it might more charitably be classed as an extended apprentice short than a proper debut, a distinction also held by 1970’s Crimes of the Future, with which it shares a host of narrative and stylistic similarities.

Like many novice directors, Cronenberg started his career short on funds and brimming with ideas. As the Bolex he was working with was producing too much mechanical noise for synchronized sound to be an option, he decided to shoot a silent instead, constructing the entire film around these technical limitations. It’s hard to fault this choice, especially considering how sharp the director’s compositional sense is from the outset. Working with a tiny cast and no traditional storyline, he turns the Scarborough campus of the University in Toronto, where he was studying at the time, into a daunting Brutalist playground, its empty landscapes granted an eerie sci-fi edge.

The atmospherics are held together by a faux educational film structure, which employs a jargon-heavy, tongue-in-cheek narration purporting to document the experiments conducted by an unseen doctor, amusingly dubbed Luther Stringfellow. Stringfellow’s work has something to do with encouraging polyamorous sexual relationships between a select group of twenty-something subjects with telepathic abilities, in the hopes that, bolstered by their blooming powers, these unions will allow for a radical reforming of the family unit. Of course, this all goes horribly wrong, as the subjects devolve from sweeping about the campus in flowing robes (the film’s de facto protagonist resembles a cross between Doctor Strange and a Hogwarts student) to attempting suicide and other forms of self-harm. Yet by conveying all of this abstractly, the wisps of plot buried beneath monotonous narration and overly oblique staging, the director deprives it of the menacing frisson that fuels his best work.

At its worst, Stereo feels like the student film it technically is. Yet it’s also a rare example of a visionary director’s ethos captured in perfect gestational form, with all the usual methods and concerns present, lacking only the experience needed for them to stand on their own. Conceived as a caustic fusion of parody and social commentary, it instead ends up as a bizarre curiosity that never progresses beyond its initial concept, barely justifying the already brief runtime. By 1975’s Shivers, Cronenberg would find a formula with which to organize these concerns, blending acrid humor, clinical stylization and gory catharsis into sui generis trash horror, the first of many masterful creative modes. It’s a fragile balance, the delicacy of which a failed experiment like Stereo only serves to further accentuate.

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