Stereo tells the story of a group of test subjects who are endowed with telepathic abilities and thrust together. This is purportedly in order to test the hypotheses of a Dr Stringfellow who has a number of interesting theories on the nature of the human mind and the ways in which it responds to the introduction of telepathy. Whilst initially those conducting the experiments maintain control over the subjects and the conditions they are in, eventually this control falls apart and darker events take hold.
The opening of Stereo is a bizarre experience for an unsuspecting viewer. I began watching it, spent several minutes adjusting the volume repeatedly and then finally realised that the film was truly silent. Once I had come to terms with watching Ronald Mlodzik (who would go on to appear in several of Cronenberg’s early films) wander around noiselessly for a few minutes, I nearly had an underwear accident when, out of nowhere, a voice-over started. Once I had adjusted to this insane way of presenting a film - silent segments accompanied by occasional voice-over - I began to realise that what I was watching was strange in another way as well. It was as if I was watching the embryo of David Cronenberg’s talent as an auteur.
Because Stereo is not a great film. Whilst it does satirise the medical profession and the idea of overblown psychoanalysis quite well and the actors accomplish a surprising amount with complete silence, especially well conveying the idea of tentative sexual exploration, the good parts of the film never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole. It’s as if Stereo was an experiment by Cronenberg to see if he had any skill as an auteur: an experiment that is certainly successful enough.
The main strength of Stereo is the visual flair shown by the young director. With the limitations of his location, he manages to create a deeply unsettling clinical atmosphere for the story to occur in and some of the shots are masterfully choreographed. This harsh, medical detachment plays on the voyeuristic instinct of audiences and also highlights the detachment between scientist and experimental subject that would later form the central conflict of Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method.
For all its failings, Stereo is a solid debut feature. It shows the seedlings of all of the factors that make Cronenberg’s films awesome: strong acting performances, dark satire, a willingness to take risks and of course, the uniquely unsettling atmosphere of creepiness that we now describe as Cronenbergian.
Next: Crimes of the Future (1970).