SuperCool Cinema

More Than Just Film

The Early Works of David Cronenberg (part two)

Crimes of the Future (1970)

I  want to be creeped out. I  want to be disturbed. Maybe even repulsed. 

I  want something that affects me in unusual ways, mentally and physically.

I want to be taken somewhere other filmmakers wouldn’t go. Somewhere that feels radical. Somewhere dangerous. 

Crimes of the Future (1970) made me question what exactly it is I want from a David Cronenberg film. Any fears that his early work would offer only watered-down versions of that Cronenbergian experience were dispelled. It gave me what I asked for and more. By the film’s conclusion, it felt like too much more.

Film theorist and vocal critic of Cronenberg’s work, Robin Wood, claimed that if you watched Crimes of the Future without the sound, long tracts of it come across as gay, fetish pornography. And he certainly has a point. It’s not that anything explicit is shown, it’s more that an air of eroticism and wanton perversity hangs over this tale of a world without women. Each element of this film seems to exist solely to unsettle and unseat any sense of normality.

Adrian Tripod (Ronald Mlodzik) loses his patients.

The context of Crimes of the Future is a cosmetics-related plague that has wiped out all sexually mature females. Men are searching for ways to express their inner femininity in order to, as Cronenberg puts it, maintain a state of duality. Their bodies are generating new organs seemingly without function (this appears to be the only link to the 2022 Crimes of the Future which is neither remake or update). The narrative starts just as the plague has mutated and started to decimate the male population too. Abandon all hope ye who are considering watching this on Youtube.

A quick summary of the plot reveals that Cronenberg’s ability to create striking names for institutions and individuals has fully emerged. Director of dermatological clinic The House of Skin, Adrian Tripod (Ronald Mlodzik), is searching for its founder, Antoine Rogue, who vanished after discovering the plague and naming it Rogue’s Malady. When the clinic closes after the death of its last male patient, Tripod passes though a number of other institutions – the Institute of Non-Venereal Disease, the Oceanic Podiatry Group Programme, Metaphysical Import/Export and the Gynecological Research Foundation – looking for work, refuge and signs of Rouge.

In my Stereo blog, I made a throw away comment about the amount of eating and drinking that occurs in Cronenberg’s films. This feels in line with a wider concern of his for things we put in (or with the case of Shivers (1975), things that leap up into) our bodies. Here, taste is arguably the most important sense. A white goo that emerges from the eys and ears of patients dying of Rouge’s Malady is, it appears, quite delicious and boasts aphrodisiac qualities. It is licked greedily from the patient by whoever is lucky enough to find it. When Tripod witnesses a violent murder and has the victim’s heart spat at his feet, his first instinct is to taste the blood. When he cleans his glasses, he uses his tongue.

Formally, Crimes of the Future is very similar to his previous film, Stereo, the most obvious difference being that it was shot in colour. It too was filmed on the campus of Toronto University and the actors are mostly his friends. Although it appears to have been more scripted at the time of shooting, due to the increase in the number of characters and the number of institutions Tripod passes through, it has the same sparse, drifting feel. Stereo was a tough watch (I mostly consumed it in 10 minute sections) and Crimes of the Future is even harder work. To paraphrase Kim Newman in two blog posts running, this a film much more interesting to describe than to watch. 

So what was it that I found so hard to take at the end of the film? Tripod is accepted into the Gynecological Research Foundation and discovers that they are an organisation of paedophiles abducting young girls and inducing them into sexual maturity in order to breed. Tripod and two accomplices steal one of their research subjects, a five year old girl, with the intention of raping and impregnating her. When Tripod enters the room in which the girl is being held and starts undressing he senses that he has finally found Rogue, albeit reincarnated as the child. The narrative concludes with Tripod seeing that, due to the induced state of puberty, she has become infected with Rogue’s Malady. When Tripod himself then starts leaking the dreading goo out of his eyes we see that death for them both is imminent. Which, all things considered, is probably for the best. 

Anton Rogue, I presume?

The question being posed here is an interesting one. If the only way to save humanity is harrowing and degrading then is not better to admit defeat? Watching the film 52 years later, the 1970s seem especially synonymous for children being preyed upon on institutional levels. It’s possible that this is what Cronenberg is touching upon, how the sexual revolution held dark elements. And yet the sexualisation of children on screen feels like a taboo too far.

Let’s conclude on a lighter note.

A question that often gets asked about Cronenberg’s first two films is, ‘would anyone give two hoots about them if they weren’t the fledgling works of a famous director?’. Well, they would certainly be much harder to get hold of but if they did happen to be found by someone with a particular interest in the underground films of the late 60s/early 70s, they would offer much to chew on. By digging back through copies of established film journals from 1969 to 1971, a keen researcher would find a steady trickle of reviews of Stereo and Crimes of the Future which were mostly glowing and hailed Cronenberg as a true original. But just a few weeks after the release of the second film, the buzz abruptly died.

The underground scene had stalled and the kids were now getting their kicks from Grindhouse cinema; exploitation horrors, zombies, biker gangs and hardcore pornography. The times had changed. It was Cronenberg’s ability to change with them that saw his career take off and provide the kind of viewing experience that so many of us would come to crave.

The early roots of Body Horror are detected.

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July 2022

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