AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 17th August, as a Special Feature in Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray set of Videodrome
RUNNING TIME: 65 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Sometime in the future, the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry is investigating the theories of parapsychologist Luther Stringfellow. Seven young adults volunteer to submit to a form of brain surgery that removes their power of speech but increases their power for telepathic communication, which they are encouraged to develop through drugs and sexual exploration. It is hoped that telepathic groups, bonded in polymorphous sexual relationships, will form a socially stabilising replacement for the “obsolescent family unit”. As the experiment progresses, Stringfellow’s theories come to fruition. Then things start to go wrong….
Watching early works by great directors is a sometimes frustrating but always interesting exercise. It’s especially interesting with filmmakers like David Cronenberg who have the same interests and themes that keep on popping up in their films. Stereo is not really an enjoyable or entertaining watch – in fact it’s quite a difficult viewing experience – but being familiar [though there are certain films of his that I adore, in general I wouldn’t really consider Cronenberg to be one of my favourite filmmakers, but he’s one I find fascinating and compulsive] with this director’s body of work, it’s still very intriguing. The man already demonstrates an interest in things like para-psychology, dangerous [or maybe not so dangerous] sexuality, degrees of human interaction, transformation and dangerous [or again, maybe not so dangerous] scientific research. I see echoes of Stereo in Shivers, The Brood, Scanners, Dead Ringers and Crash, especially. There’s even a guy who drills his own head to release the voices in it.
Cronenberg was only able to get funding for Stereo from the Canadian government by pretending he was writing a novel, and the result is so self consciously arty that I can’t imagine that Cronenberg ever expected to make any money from it. Watching it for the first time, I got thinking that Cronenberg’s filmmaking career could have progressed in a far stranger, more abstract direction, but that he soon obviously realised that it was better to present his crazy and subversive ideas in the form of commercially inclined genre movies especially horror films. Stereo was originally intended to contain dialogue, but apparently Cronenberg’s camera [he wrote, directed, photographed, edited and produced this movie!] was too noisy, so he opted for a totally silent soundtrack with some narration here and there. The film takes the form of a fake documentary so the style adopted works in theory, but the narration, from three different people, is so full of scientific gobblygook [ok, it probably does mean something but I barely understood half of it] that it really holds back the picture and fails to contribute to the illusion that we are watching a sometimes fly-on-the-wall documentary. A bit less terminology and clearer explanations of what is going on would have immensely improved matters.
After some text tells us that we are watching ‘Tile 3B of a Caee Educational Mosaic’, the film opens rather strikingly with a black robed figure getting out of a helicopter. I reckon he’s meant to be Luther Stringfellow, the guy masterminding these experiments, though I’m not sure. We then follow him as he goes amongst his test subjects and then follow what happens to some of them as the experiments in releasing telepathy and sexuality from the supposedly restrictive norms of society progress. Things soon become uncontrollable with incidents like the formation of a dual personality and suicides occurring. The very cold and scientific handling of all this prevents much tension to ensure, while the budget ensures that some important events happen off-screen, but there’s definitely a real style to the proceedings and parts of the black and white film actually look rather good. Cronenberg’s camera seems fascinating by the patterns and the corridors of the very sterile interior of the institute [actually the University of Toronto], gives us one superb shot [used as a poster for the film when it was re-released] of a silhouetted woman lying on a white bed having her hair played with, and sometimes follows people all over the institute in lengthy takes. There’s even some slow motion, notably during the film’s one major sex scene. Unfortunately the film seems to suddenly stop, as if Cronenberg had to wrap matters up as quickly as possible.
Except for Ronald Mlodzik’s very quirky lead, the acting is very weak, even without being able to hear any line deliveries, but, while it’s quite slow paced and unexciting and with a few lengthy silent scenes which play like filler, I certainly wasn’t bored by Stereo though it’s unlikely to be something I will be returning to very often in the future. While watching a director’s films in the order in which they were made can often be a great idea, I wouldn’t recommend anyone new to Cronenberg or only familiar with a few of his pictures to start with Stereo. It is though thoroughly recommended to those experienced in his work to see where it all began. The seeds of so much of his later stuff are here, though I almost wished that Cronenberg had remade this a decade or so down the line and gone further with some of the more subversive ideas suggested in the film [though censors would not have liked it one bit, and we still get to see a man fondling a medical dummy], such as sexuality possibly being wrongfully held back by the labels of heterosexuality and homosexuality. In any case, it already shows a filmmaker with a unique voice.