David Cronenberg Short Films

No serious fan of David Cronenberg should be without this DVD in on their shelves. David Cronenberg Shorts is the only release of two of his early short films, which are a lot more professional and eminently watchable than his better known student films that have received many more releases on DVD and blu from companies like Blue Underground, Alliance Atlantis, and even Criterion. For these, there's just this one Japanese DVD from 2003, by Happinet Pictures. It's been pretty widely distributed, so historically it hasn't been that rare, but the older it gets, the harder it becomes to track down a copy. So if you haven't snagged one yet, you'd better get on it.
First up is The Lie Chair, a twenty-odd minute horror story made as part of a series for Canadian television called Peep Show in 1976. It's its own isolated story, not part of an on-going narrative, as each the show was just meant to give upcoming Canadian filmmakers a showcase. You can read a brief history and description of the series on the Canadian Communications Foundation website here. So, it's part of a television series and this DVD makes no attempt to hide that, opening with the signature tune of the series before the individual episode's opening credits, and even closing with scenes from next week's episode, starring Martin Short in an early dramatic role.
So for The Lie Chair, Cronenberg forgoes his usual science fiction themes to present a sort of bizarre psychological thriller, written by David Cole, a writer/ producer who's been fairly prolific in television for decades, and recently wrote the film Straight A's. It's presented like a very traditional ghost story, with a lonely couple coming upon a big, isolated house in the middle of the night. Their car broke down during a thunderstorm, but of course the owner says they don't have a phone, so they'll have to spend the night. The maid who answers the door tells them the old lady who lives there wants them to pretend to be her grandchildren because she's gone senile and expects them even though they're not coming. But as soon as the maid leaves them alone, the old lady tells them she knows they're not her grandchildren, and is only pretending for the maid. Then the wife starts to notice that her husband seems to want to keep being the grandson. What is going on here?
This is a pretty smart story that will definitely have your mind racing along as more clues are laid down, though I'm not sure the ending entirely satisfies (it's both predictable and a bit of a misfit with the rest of the story). But you can certainly see the dark yet relatable psychological elements that must have attracted Cronenberg to the story, and he gets some strong performances from his cast to match it. It takes a tough look at the lies we tell ourselves, "not lies as evil, or lies as deceit, but lies to make a happier truth," and how they can actually wind up becoming the scariest of all.
The Lie Chair doesn't feel much like a Cronenberg film, largely because he didn't write it. But its look, too, has a old school television feel. Some episodes of Peep Show were shot on film, but most on video; and this is presumably one of the latter (or else this transfer has a lot to answer for). So it's very boxy and looks more like an Upstairs, Downstairs than Videodrome. But that can actually work in the film's favor, especially if you've watched a lot of the old BBC ghost stories... a creaky old ghost story in a creaky old house, displayed in a creaky old transfer. But it's not that bad as far as old television transfers go. I mean, they certainly didn't get the original footage and do any kind of fancy restoration, but it's at least free of the kind of problems, like ghosting or interlacing, that often plagues DVDs of old shows like this.
Well, we know where the lower half of the DVD cover comes from...
The yellow face on top? Not so much.
The Italian Machine isn't a horror story, but feels much more like a Cronenberg flick. I remember reading interviews where he talked about how crafting motorcycle engine parts can be high art, and only when this disc was released did I realize that line of thinking probably originated from this script. He wrote and directed this short film for a series called Teleplay, also in '76. Teleplay was similar in concept to Peep Show but ran a lot longer. Again, you can read CCf's write-up on it here. I've read online that Cronenberg also created two more episodes for Teleplay, but this is the only one to be released to date.
You'll also notice about half the cast here went on to appear in Cronenberg's other films including Rabid, The Brood, Fast Company and The Dead Zone. So, while I imagine a number of fans will be disappointed that this isn't horror or sci-fi, other fans will be pleased with how "Cronenbergian" it feels. An enthusiastic trio of motorcycle enthusiasts who all seem to live together in a garage are crushed when they learn that the most exotic bike in the city sold to some rich collector who doesn't want to ride it, just display it as an art piece in his living room. So they just have to come up with a plan to liberate it.
The Italian Machine is classic Cronenberg, with an eccentric cast of characters bonded by their fetishistic obsession and strange set of values. And it's funnier than Cronenberg's usual work, but without getting silly. That's thanks largely to the terrific cast who are a delight to watch. I was only a bit disappointed when it was over that there wasn't any more.
Unfortunately, this looks a little worse than The Lie Chair. No interlacing but a little ghosting and it's softer. This also looks like it was shot on film (though 16, not 35), so it probably has the potential to look a lot better. The Lie Chair's never going to look pretty, but there's the possibility for The Italian Machine. Still though, for an Asian import that's probably sourced right off a TV broadcast, this could be a lot worse.
Of course, there aren't any extras in this set - just optional (I'd say we dodged a bullet having them not burnt in) Japanese subtitles for both films. It would be terrific if the CBC would issue an official DVD of this with the other Cronenberg episodes - Hell, maybe even the whole series; I'm sure there's plenty more lost treasure in there. But rather than holding your breath, if you consider yourself a serious Cronenberg fan, I suggest getting this disc while you still can.

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