“Cronenberg’s first ‘unpredictable peak’ emerges in his student film, From the Drain. An organic military weapon kills a soldier, throwing into question his current mission but sparing another who has no such doubts. Often read as a political text, the film is equally an existentialist intervention: the soldiers’ moral superiority has no bearing on the weapon’s behaviour” – TIFF’s Cronenberg Museum1
The second student film from Canadian body-horror auteur David Cronenberg, From the Drain (1967), is nothing short of absurd and experimental; a foreshadowing of the dystopian futures that would dominate the first 15 or so years of his career such as Scanners, Videodrome and The Brood. Seemingly constructed from Dymo labelling and gaffer tape – not literally but notably spartan in its art direction – one could assume every cent of the $500 budget was sunk into 16mm film stock and lab processing. While low-budget productions, and the limitations that come therein, are almost mandatory for students, few reveal the level of creativity within restriction, budget or otherwise, that a young Cronenberg does.
From the Drain is a 14-minute long, one-set story that features two clothed men in a bathtub, knees up around their armpits. There are no personal items or establishing decoration in this bathroom, merely a used cake of soap and little else. Despite the two men wedged up against each other, they are strangers, evidenced by one man (Mort Ritts), who I will refer to as ‘Mr Moustache’ for ease of identification, opening the dialogue somewhat facetiously with: “Do you come here often?”
With effete affectation, Mr Moustache says he’s looking for “The Disabled War Veterans’ Recreation Centre” (an early example of Cronenberg’s penchant for coming up with colourful names for organisations2), although the implication is that it is a mental institution for returned soldiers from an unspecified conflict. He salaciously fingers the bathtub taps and faucet throughout the entire exchange admitting he’s looking for companionship and “a little affection even” but he always gets partnered with “speechless idiots”, referring to his new tub buddy (who I will refer to as Mr Silent Type).
Clasping his hands gleefully, Mr Silent Type (Stephen Nosko) is clearly obsessed with the plughole, over which Mr Moustache is crouched. He finally breaks his silence with the single word “tendril” and admits to believing it would be best if they put the plug in. According to Mr Silent Type, they need not be concerned about what goes down the drain but what will come up from it. Given Cronenberg’s forthcoming propensity for the viscerally morbid, this serves as possibly the first instance of ‘Cronenbergian’ horror expressed explicitly in dialogue, conjuring images of the parasites from Shivers or the armpit worm from Rabid.
Paranoia now bubbles as an undercurrent, and the two men argue as to their real identities: chemical and biological weapons expert? Recreational Program Director? Undercover agent? Mr Moustache says, “Nothing ever comes from the drain, it all comes from your mind”, concisely summarising Cronenberg’s ongoing creative agenda of mixing the physiological and the psychological, which runs through nearly all of his films, even up to today. Their banter and switching of authority continues until the paranoia manifests itself in a stop-motion tendril monster that rises from the S-bend to kill one of them.
A jaunty classical guitar track, delicately baroque in nature, is overlaid as an audio soundtrack across the entire film, acting as the light to the elemental shade of the story. It is particularly effective when its happy trills play out against the plug attack of the tendril monster. At this early stage in Cronenberg’s career, he demonstrates powerful proficiency in creating storytelling counterpoint. Even the ‘dandyness’ of Mr Moustache and his casual pickup bar conversation could not be further removed from the gravity of chemical warfare, existential angst and what is now broadly recognised as PTSD (although tackled here by Cronenberg in a prophetic manner) that sits as the thematic heart of this film.
Within these contrasts is the humour that dominates From the Drain, notable also in Cronenberg’s first short film, Transfer (1966), where a patient tracks down and confronts his former psychoanalyst. The subject matter of both films might not sound comedic but, that’s the funny thing, they are funny – or, at the very least, intellectually amusing. This evidences Cronenberg’s innate understanding of form and function.
Despite rarely being regarded as a humourist across the duration of his career, the ‘wickedly funny’ does play a huge role across Cronenberg’s oeuvre.3 Even as a student, and confined within the short film format, Cronenberg opted to use comedy to create audience rapport quickly within a tight timeframe. Both horror and comedy share similar qualities in terms of emotionally engaging an audience rapidly, whereas drama requires screen-time to develop meaningful attachment to characters. The fact that Cronenberg chose humour over horror indicates he is unfairly pigeonholed as a ‘horror filmmaker’ and, arguably, actually scaring people figures very lowly in his storytelling priorities; it’s more about psychological abstraction. Ethical conundrums, questions around morality and existential dilemmas are the dominant themes that colour and define his work, even when making From the Drain.4
It is important to remember that From the Drain is still a student film and, therefore, an experimental study in the cinematic artform. It could likely be better executed by a more experienced filmmaker, and that means a more experienced David Cronenberg too. Within the avant-garde nature of this film, its surreality and figurative diegesis – a common employ of students in pushing creative boundaries and finding their own ‘voice’ – shows Cronenberg was not immune to the filmmaking zeitgeist of the 1960s, in which students the world over were most influenced by the French New Wave (film commentator Kim Newman posits a more direct link to Alain Resnais5).
Where From the Drain falls down is in its technical execution, and possible print deterioration over the passing decades, despite the Toronto International Film Festival’s recent restoration effort for the 2016 Arrow Video Blu-ray release David Cronenberg’s Early Works. The echoing of the sound recording and harsh, perfunctory lighting make the dialogue and narrative difficult to interpret, let alone penetrate, which means it needs to be replayed a couple of times in order to grasp the story thread. Cronenberg works in a dialogue-heavy fashion in these early years, an approach that defines his first feature films Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) too, so if dialogue is inaudible then a massive chunk of the film’s thrust gets lost.
TIFF’s Cronenberg Museum admits From the Drain is often “read as a political text” and there are definite correlations to John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) in its intrigue, conspiracy theory and narrative layers. More than anything, though, From the Drain is an illuminating case of retrospection, whereby we get to see a fledgling master discovering his craft, honing his approach and sketching the broad outline of a career that would go on to combine the physical and psychological in an unparalleled manner.
- Sourced from TIFF’s Cronenberg Museum http://cronenbergmuseum.tiff.net/ 8 February 2017 ↩
- Other examples: Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry (Stereo, 1969), House of Skin (Crimes of the Future, 1970) and The Cathode Ray Mission (Videodrome, 1983). ↩
- For example, in Videodrome, it is difficult not to derive amusement when VHS cassettes start to pulsate, James Woods develops a vagina dentata in his belly-button and Debbie Harry’s lips balloon out from a plasticised TV screen like some sort of lip monster. ↩
- Films such as Dead Ringers (1989), M. Butterfly (1993) Crash (1996) while depicting events that could be called ‘horrific’ are not entries into a horror canon. Across the past 20 years, Cronenberg has largely directed films that could be loosely classed as dramas and/or thrillers such as A History of Violence (2005), A Dangerous Method (2011) and Maps to the Stars (2014). ↩
- Taken from the Special Feature recorded exclusively for Arrow Video’s 2016 Blu-ray release David Cronenberg’s Early Works, where critic and author Kim Newman discusses Cronenberg’s early works. ↩