The news that David Cronenberg is making a new sci-fi film seems to have overlooked his new project’s origin, from 50 years ago.

Over the last 20 years, Canadian director David Cronenberg has branched out into all kinds of genres: mystery thriller (A History Of Violence), gangland drama (Eastern Promises) and even a swooning period piece (A Dangerous Method). But for many, Cronenberg will forever be associated with the uniquely personal cycle of sci-fi horror movies he made between the 1970s and the 1990s, beginning with Shivers in 1975, reaching its mainstream peak with The Fly in 1986, and concluding with the reality-warping eXistenZ in 1999.

 In the years since, Cronenberg has drifted off into those other genres – still retaining his icily detached style of filmmaking and unwavering eye for startling violence and uneasy eroticism, but now with fewer deranged scientists or hideous bodily mutations. At least, that is, until now. In late April 2021, Cronenberg revealed that he’s working on a new sci-fi horror film, Crimes Of The Future – a project that, if the synopsis is anything to go by, will mark a return to those derranged scientists and bodily mutations of old.

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 Not that Cronenberg hasn’t tried to get other horror projects off the ground over the past decade or so; he began work on a sequel to The Fly in the 2010s, but failed to get the financial backing he needed. Crimes Of The Future, on the other hand, is officially getting made: it has a starry cast in place – regular collaborator Viggo Mortensen is joined by Léa Seydoux and Kirsten Stewart – and shooting is set to begin in Greece this summer.

What’s also significant about Crimes Of The Future is its somewhat obscure origin: both its name and, by the sounds of things, parts of its premise are taken from a short film Cronenberg made over 50 years ago.

Shot five years before Cronenberg leapt to infamy with Shivers (the Canadian government, it’s fair to say, was less than impressed by that debut feature), Crimes Of The Future provided a sneak preview of the director’s preoccupations. It’s set in a near future where the adult female population has died from something called Rouge’s Malady – a human-made disease inadvertently transmitted via cosmetics. In the aftermath, the male population appear to have descended into an infantilised and perverse funk, at least, according to scientist and narrator Adrian Tripod (Ronald Mlodzik) who floats through the hour-long film in a dreamy haze.

 As Tripod describes the strange and the horrifying in coolly academic terms, we see test subjects ooze a creamy substance from their nipples before they quietly expire; we watch a scientist pick through jars of strange bodily organs that have spontaneously grown – and subsequently fallen off – a human host. It’s all quietly troubling in a distinctly Cronenbergian way.

At a shade over an hour long, Crimes Of The Future is the longest of Cronenberg’s early shorts, and while it’s visibly a low-budget production, the director’s influences and interests are already on full display. The brutalist architecture and eloquent, even dryly comic narration recall the work of JG Ballard – Cronenberg would later go on to adapt the author’s novel, Crash, to a gale of controversy in 1996. There’s also a horrifying revelation towards the end of Crimes Of The Future – perhaps one of the crimes the title alludes to – that appears to be partly inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel Cronenberg has described in interviews as his favourite.

 Even incidental moments in Crimes Of The Future seem to foreshadow later Cronenberg movies: the jars of appendages would show up again in his twisted horror-romance, The Fly. The weird, aquatic soundtrack feels like a foreshadowing of the unsettling electronic score that accompanied the bursting blood vessels and heads of Scanners (1981). The mixture of human-made disease and growths on human bodies is something Cronenberg would explore in his first two feature films, Shivers and Rabid (1977) – both of which gave small roles to Mlodzik.

 Then there are the bits of the story that Cronenberg appears to be returning to for his new Crimes Of The Future: like the 1970 short, it’s set in a near-future world ravaged by disease, this time something called Advanced Evolution Syndrome, an affliction that is transforming the human population’s bodies into new forms. While most are understandably horrified by those mutations, others embrace them – including protagonist Saul Tenser, who turns the new organs that grow on his body into some form of performance art.

“Along with his partner Caprice, Tenser has turned the removal of these organs into a spectacle for his loyal followers to marvel at in real-time theatre,” a plot description published by Deadline tells us. “But with both the government and a strange subculture taking note, Tenser is forced to consider what would be his most shocking performance of all.”

 What else Cronenberg will take from his original short remains to be seen; it’s quite likely he’s simply using it as a loose jumping-off point, given how slight and impressionistic that earlier work is. All the same, it’s fascinating to see the director returning to body horror once again, particularly with a piece that circles right back to the beginning of his career half a century ago. The original Crimes Of The Future is a slow, inscrutable piece that isn’t for everyone – Kim Newman once remarked that it’s both fascinating and boring – but it still has the power to unsettle even today. Whatever else Cronenberg gets up to in his new Crimes, it’s sure to be a wild, disturbing ride.

Here, then, is the full short film…

 

Lead image: BigStock

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