You'd expect a bit of strangeness from David Cronenberg‘s student films, but for most of its short length, From the Drain, which he made in 1967 while attending the University of Toronto, seems to deliver strangeness of an unexpected kind. Playing more like Waiting for Godot than his later vivid-to-the point of harrowing pictures like Crash, Videodrome, or The Fly, this thirteen-minute black-and-white film, only Cronenberg's second, presents us with two fellows seated, fully clothed, in a bathtub. The situation looks bizarre, and as soon as the players start talking, it reveals itself as even more bizarre than we'd thought: evidently, one of these men has mistaken the tub for "the Disabled War Veterans' Recreation Center." The conversation continues without its participants leaving their porcelain confines, making a certain kind of sense on the surface but none at all beneath. This feels almost like the realm of Monty Python's Flying Circus, which wouldn't debut and begin exerting its vast influence on young comedic filmmakers until 1969.
We'd feel more secure in our laughter if we didn't know who its director would go on to become. These days, when you watch anything by Cronenberg, perhaps the best-known living auteur of technological menace, "body horror," and formless dread, you can rest reasonably assured that something will sooner or later go horribly, viscerally awry onscreen. So it comes to pass in From the Drain, whose title gives some suggestion as to the nature of the ultimate malevolence. Don't let the hyper-farcical dialogue, the goofy performances, or the classical guitar soundtrack mislead you; here we definitely have a project by the king of unsettlement, though at a time when he presumably had yet to earn even the title of prince of unsettlement, a point from which he could look forward to decades of more advanced and much creepier visual effects. At this point in his career, however, with the bleak-looking Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars due out in the near future, he seems to need nothing so elaborate, still unsettling us, but preferring to do it subtly.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.