David Cronenberg’s filmography is among the strangest in horror cinema. He started in Canada making an unofficial adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise – with parasites thrown in for good measure – and has seemingly ended his career with a drama about a Hollywood family.

In between, he remade the 1950s classic The Fly, somehow managed to turn the infamous Naked Lunch into a movie, made one of the most scandalous and controversial films of the 1990s with Crash, and helped inadvertently kick start a new horror genre in Japan when filmmakers like Hideo Nataka and Shinya Tsukamoto borrowed elements of Videodrome to make movies like Ringu and Tetsuo. And, in the middle of all that, he let Jason Voorhees to kill him onscreen. Cronenberg is a true cinematic pioneer if there ever was one.

Cronenberg’s films have been endlessly analyzed by cult fans and academics as people have tried to figure out how his films manage to be so endlessly intelligent and endlessly gory. He takes a surgeon’s approach to the blood and guts on screen and wants viewers to analyze what it means no matter how repulsed they are by what they see.

It’s a technique that makes him different from, say, John Carpenter. Cronenberg doesn’t just want to scare people. He wants them to consider what it really means for psychics to exist or for a man to find himself slowly morphing into a human/insect hybrid.

But what’s even more interesting is examining his approach to horror and science fiction in later films and comparing that approach to his actual debut, the sixty minute Stereo. It’s an obscure film and, according to IMDB, only exists because Cronenberg lied to the Canadian government to secure financing. The film is shot like a documentary and has no dialogue, just narration.

And, more than a lot of other directorial debuts we’ve looked at in this column, Stereo is a perfect film to explain who David Cronenberg is and what themes he’s obsessed with.

The movie takes place some time in the future and is about an experiment involving psychics and psychic behavior. None of the test subjects can speak – they had the ability surgically removed – but communicate to each other via telepathy. They are observed by a Dr. Luther Stringfellow – a professor who dresses like he’s about to give one of Richard III’s soliloquies at a Shakespeare in the Park performance. The test subjects form bonds with each other and severing those bonds leads to disastrous consequences.

Already, we see similarities to his later work. The plot follows his later Scanners – there’s even mention of a test subject who “wounded himself with a hand drill” – and there are a ton of references to the sexual themes of Cronenberg’s later films, as Dr. Stringfellow encourages the test subjects to form a sexual bond with each other to see how that will affect their psychic abilities. There’s also a reference by one of the narrators to a “telepathic false self,” which Cronenberg would later explore in Videodrome.

What’s more striking, though, is how the narration works. It’s completely dry – like a Michael Crichton novel or Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon – and emphasizes the disconnect between Stringfellow and his test subjects. This approach to dialogue – as academic as possible in a way that makes his characters seem not quite human- is recreated in Scanners and The Fly through Patrick McGoohan and Jeff Goldblum’s performances.  

What’s always separated Cronenberg – and directors like Stanley Kubrick – from their peers is how they treat their characters. Usually, filmmakers have some degree of empathy for their protagonists and use their empathy as a short cut to making the audience care – see Steven Spielberg and how often he makes his child actors cry for the camera. That’s not really the case with Cronenberg, especially in his early films. He just wanted the audience to observe them and make up their own minds about whether these people deserve attention or sympathy. It leads to some of the greatest performances of his stars’ careers because they play characters that must fight for our sympathy and are as horrified by what’s happening around them as the audience. Cronenberg doesn’t take the easy way out. He makes his characters earn our sympathy on their own.

That, unfortunately, is one element missing from Stereo. It makes sense why a young independent filmmaker would shoot a movie without sound – it’s much cheaper – but it removes the strongest element of Cronenberg’s later films. Additionally, Cronenberg is famous for the special effects in his films. None of that is present here, beyond the outlandish cloak Dr. Stringfellow wears. Based on this film, it’s impossible to understand how Cronenberg became so interested in special effects. Additionally, none of the actors in this movie give anything close to a memorable performance. Part of this is because the movie is silent, but I also could not identify any of the test subjects and how properly relate to one another. To make this movie work, I needed to know who is involved in the experiment and why.

Because we don’t have any personal connection to the characters, by the end I didn’t understand why I should care about this psychic experiment. Scanners made me care about the protagonist and the villain who had abilities beyond what humans have – and why that destroyed their lives. Stereo tries to make the same point but it never works. A clearly defined hero and villain may have given me a more emotional connection to the film, but as it stands the only person I can identify is Stringfellow, mostly because how outlandish and surreal he was.

It’s ironic that Cronenberg’s strongest element in his films is his protagonists. Based on his debut, Cronenberg didn’t have any interest whatsoever in his characters. He was far more interested in exploring the bizarre pseudo-scientific ideas in his favorite sci-fi stories. Fortunately, he fixed this mistake in later films. But that doesn’t help make Stereo more intriguing. Imagine if The Fly had no dialogue but only a narrator who explained in monotone why Seth Brundle lost his fingernails and said it happened due to a “merging of deoxyribonucleic acid between a homo sapien and a Diptera.” It’s not boring, exactly, but it’s not exciting either – and “not exciting” is something that even the worst Cronenberg movies can’t claim.

Stereo is one of the most interesting films I’ve watched for this column. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the themes Cronenberg explored throughout his career. He’s one of the few directors who’s truly interested in what makes us human and what would happen if a person really lost their humanity. It’s easy to see how Stereo relates to the rest of Cronenberg’s filmography. But I can also see how Cronenberg stumbled out of the gate and needed to focus on his characters and really work with his actors. Fortunately for us, he succeeded. But that still leaves his debut as a fascinating, but overall confused movie.