Friday, 21 May 2021

GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988)

Directed by Isao Takahata, Featuring the voices of: J Robert
Spencer, Rhoda Chrosite, Veronica Taylor and Amy Jones.  Animation, Japan, 1988, approx. 90mins, cert 12.

Based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel, writer/director Isao Takahata’s 1988 Studio Ghibli anime focuses on 14 year old Seita and his 4 year old sister Setsuko, and their desperate struggle to cling to life and hope amidst the scorched ruins of a firebombed Japan in 1945.

With father away serving with the Japanese navy, Seita and his little sister live with their unwell mother in the city of Kobe. During a devastating air raid by US forces, the two children are separated from their mother and upon emerging from the dust and smoke are confronted with a decimated landscape. Forced to flee the rubble they initially escape to the countryside to stay with an aunt. Tensions soon mount as food supplies become scarcer and Seita takes the decision to leave their aunt and seek refuge on their own. Alone, they face an arduous struggle for survival.

Not an obvious choice of subject matter for an animated film then.

This is a profoundly moving and truly unforgettable piece of filmmaking. It fully deserves its status not only as classic anime, but also as one the greatest war films ever made. The depiction of the horrors of war are presented with searing honesty and without overwrought manipulation. Director Takahata himself experienced an air-raid when he was 10 years old and this clearly infuses the bombing sequence with a chilling level of authentic detail. The awful 'beauty' as the glowing firebombs fall from the sky, the eerie silence before the flickering flames of the incendiary devices burst into deadly life and rip through wooden homes without mercy are images which seer straight to the minds-eye and linger.

Although Seita and little Setsuko’s plight is heart wrenching, director Takahata takes time to pause from the inevitable bleakness and gives the children precious moments of innocent pleasure and beauty. Running on a sandy beach and paddling in the sea. Sharing a bath, Seita uses a piece of cloth to create an air bubble which splashes a giggling Setsuko. And of course we have the magical glow of the fireflies, caught in numbers to illuminate their abandoned sheltered hide-out. These gentle bitter sweet scenes stand out like sun rays bursting through the storm clouds of war.

This is not an anti-American film. The B-29 bombers that drop their deadly cargo are of course US, but the film is not about apportioning blame, but instead about the loss of innocence and the consequences of war.

Originally released in Japanese cinemas as a Studio Ghibli double-bill with the charming MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, audiences understandably gravitated toward Miyazaki’s sweet fable compared with its more challenging and provoking accompaniment. (The intention was for TOTORO to be the soothing second feature balm, I can only imagine the impact if the audience had watched FIREFLIES after TOTORO). I freely admit I sobbed uncontrollably at the closing image. But this is a film everyone should see. It may not be one you can easily revisit time and time again, but even if you only watch it once, you will never forget it. 

*****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Featuring the voices of: Kirsten Dunst, Janeane Garofalo, Debbie Reynolds, Animation, Japan, 1989, approx. 103mins, cert U.

Adapted by Hayao Miyazaki from the children’s book by Eiko Kadono, this was Studio Ghibli’s fourth feature film and yet, somewhat surprisingly, their first real box-office success.

Upon turning thirteen, teenage witch Kiki must leave home in order to complete her training. Accompanied on her broomstick by her sarcastic familiar black cat Jiji, Kiki leaves her loving parents behind and clumsily flies off into the starry night. A storm forces her to seek refuge on an overnight cattle train. Awakened by the cows on board who are breakfasting on the straw Kiki and Jiji have bedded down on, Kiki takes flight once more into a clear blue sky morning and eventually comes to a picturesque city by the sea. Not possessing any specific skills like potion-making or fortune-telling, Kiki is initially at a loss as to what she can offer the city as their witch in residence. But she soon utilises her broom-flying abilities to reunite an infant with its “pacifier” (dummy to you and I) and an idea begins to surface...

This is a gentle coming-of-age tale set in an alternative 1950’s where world war hasn’t occurred. Bi-planes and airships grace the blue skies over the fictional city of Koriko (largely inspired by the cityscapes of Stockholm and specifically the city of Visby on the island of Gotland). Beautifully detailed buildings and streets are meticulously rendered and offer a breathtaking degree of realism. The magic elements of the story are played very matter-of-fact and at its heart we have a young teenage girl embarking on a journey of self-discovery (albeit on a broomstick).

In Miyazaki’s skilled hands he conjures up a potent charm which avoids falling into saccharine sweetness by its genuine honesty and consummate craftsmanship.

Purists will no doubt insist on the original Japanese audio track (and I would never usually go against this point of view) Audio-wise, but the US dub is a fairly decent effort, albeit tweaked for its targeted audience. Kirsten Dunst gives a reasonable account as Kiki but Phil Hartman’s sub-Nathan Lane turn as JiJi the cat adds a welcome touch of cynicism to the proceedings which plays more favourably to my ears than the harsher-sounding original (sacrilege I know but...)  

*****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Saturday, 1 May 2021

RAW (2016)

Directed by: Julia Ducournau. Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella
Rumpf
, Rabah Nait Oufella. France/Belgium 2016, 99mins, Certificate 18.

Released on Blu-ray in a limited edition by Second Sight Films from 26th April 2021.

Early on in writer/director Julia Ducournau’s 2016 debut feature, first-year veterinary student Justine (Garance Marillier) is asked by the school’s doctor: “How do you see yourself?” Justine replies: “Average”. There is however nothing remotely average about this arthouse coming-of-age cannibal hybrid. Nor, fittingly enough, is there anything average about Second Sight’s stunning limited edition blu-ray release both in terms of disc content and in the gorgeously designed slipcase, booklet and collectors’ art cards that accompany it.

Having been brought up in a strictly vegetarian family, Justine follows in the family’s footsteps by enrolling at the same veterinary school her parents graduated from, and where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a senior. Having barely had a chance to unpack and be introduced to her gay male roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), the hazing initiation rituals orchestrated by the senior faculty begin their onslaught. These culminate with Justine having to eat a rabbit kidney after her and her fellow newbies are drenched in animal blood. After being pressured into consuming meat for the first time, Justine suffers an allergic skin reaction before a craving for meat takes hold and she’s pocketing burgers from the canteen and chowing down on raw chicken breast from the fridge. However, Justine’s cravings for meat will transition from animal to human flesh following an unfortunate accident, forcing her to confront family secrets and wrestle with her newly acquired animalistic instincts.

In what sounds like classic grindhouse exploitation hype, during a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, several audience members allegedly fainted during the film’s graphic scenes and required medical attention. (Clearly, they hadn’t been repeating to themselves: ‘It’s only a movie…only a movie…’). Whilst hardened gorehounds would certainly sneer at this over-reaction, the film does contain some genuinely raw (no pun intended) real sequences involving animal dissection and veterinary practice which I can appreciate could be deemed upsetting. Given the film’s subject matter, the actual on-screen cannibalism is however relatively restrained (at least when compared to the notorious Italian gut munching nasties of the 80’s). But its intimacy, coupled with the searingly committed performances of Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf, sell the prosthetics (and light-touch CGI in one scene) and achieve far greater impact as a result. If I am honest, after revisiting the film it made me ravenous (not for human flesh you’ll be pleased to know). I actually feel the most wince-inducing moment involves a close-up botched Brazilian wax job.

The brutalist architecture of the location lends the film visual comparisons with David Cronenberg, as does aspects of the body horrors presented. Overall, it has an arthouse sensibility which is somewhat jarring with the gore and jet-black humour, (and may account for the Toronto audience’s reaction). The clear early visual nod to De Palma’s CARRIE, whilst audacious, seems to hint at an intention to position the film firmly in the horror genre, but there are multi-faceted aspects at work which straddle genres, and takes them confidently in its stride.

Ultimately, it is an exploration of humanity, or as director Ducournau states in the interview feature on the disc entitled ‘In the Name of Raw’: “I think it’s the story of a girl who becomes a human being”.

Speaking of the discs extras, there’s a rich bounty to get your teeth into which provide plenty of food for thought (and that’s enough of the puns). The extraordinary Garance Marillier is interviewed a fresh, providing her with an opportunity to look back on her experiences and close collaboration with her director. Producer Jean des Forets shares some of the practical considerations in terms of the film’s budget, and its selling challenges. As well as a previous audio commentary with Julia Ducournau and film critic Emma Westwood, there is also a new commentary by film critic Alexandra West to lend a fresh critical perspective. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ new video essay contributes a perfectly succinct, and frankly perfect 12-minute summary of the film’s themes and concepts. There’s tons more content including footage from the Australian premiere, panel discussions, an alternative opening, deleted scenes and trailers.

Recommended.

*****

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.


Sunday, 28 February 2021

THE STYLIST (2020)


Directed by: Jill Gevargizian Starring: Najarra Townsend, Brea

Grant, Sarah McGuire US 2020, 105mins, Certificate TBC.

Available exclusively on the Arrow VOD platform from 1st March 2021.

“But we all want what we don’t have”.

Expanding on her award winning 2016 short, writer/director Jill Gevargizian’s debut feature is a stylishly crafted and beautifully executed portrait of a serial killer hairstylist. Claire (Najarra Townsend, CONTRACTED) has a penchant for drugging her clients and scalping them. By candlelight, Claire then sits in her cellar wearing her victims scalps in a macabre costume role-play acting out her clients perceived coveted lives through recalled phrases, flesh and hair.

A cursory glance at the above would suggest comparison with Joe Spinell’s grungy grindhouse scalper ‘Frank Zito’ from William Lustig’s MANIAC (1980). However, shorn of the male gaze, Gevargizian’s primary focus is less the dissection of the female form, (albeit unflinchingly graphic on occasion), but rather more about social isolation. Her protagonist Claire’s crippling low self-esteem hampers her from successfully navigating the intricate cutting mores of social interaction and precludes her from forming any meaningful female friendships.

The opening sequence, re-worked from the short, encapsulates the intimacy and sensuality of the hairstylist’s work and maps out the dichotomy of the stylist/client relationship. A new random customer reveals that she is having a marital affair. A hitherto secret that the client feels she can somehow unburden to a stranger, enlisting Claire as an anonymous confessor. What her client doesn’t realise is that Claire absorbs these snatched intimate details of her clients lives, the only meaningful interactions she has beyond ordering her daily coffee, and weaves them into her fatal fantasies.

When Claire is asked by regular client Olivia (Brea Grant) if she will step in as an emergency replacement hairstylist for Olivia’s upcoming wedding, it sets in motion a chain of events that will give Claire am initial tantalising glimpse of the friendship she dreams of creating before exposing her emotional fragility and unhinged psychology. Inevitably her obsession will eventually lead to nightmarish consequences.

They say write what you know, in which case writer/director Jill Gevargizian’s background as a hairstylist has obviously informed her insight into the nature of the profession (but hopefully not into the mind of a scalping female serial killer). This is an astonishingly assured debut feature, with a nuanced performance from Najarra Townsend at its core, accompanied by lyrical storytelling imbued with vividly rich colour and texture.

Stylishly shot by Robert Patrick Stern, the film looks fantastic, with a vibrant giallo-like palette which belies the modest budget. Split screen sequences highlighting the contrasting lifestyles of Claire and Olivia are pure De Palma, and Nicholas Elert’s lush score, punctuated with discordant notes perfectly encapsulate Claire’s dysfunctional state of mind. Production, costume and of course the hairstyles (naturally) are all meticulously interwoven to illustrate character and setting. Claire’s ornate chandelier and candlelight cellar is a glowing gothic subterranean lair, not unlike that of the operatic Phantom, in contrast to the relative starkness of the salon and Olivia’s apartment.

But the film isn’t merely gorgeous to look at on the surface, it has real bite and Gervargizian pulls off an excruciatingly nasty sequence involving a drugged victim’s untimely regaining of consciousness. Hitchcockian transference of empathy is earned as you cringe for Claire when her Single White Female stalking leads to her having to take refuge behind the shower curtain of an intended victim or almost being caught red-handed (and red-faced) on Olivia’s bed.

Claire’s backstory is only briefly sketched in, an absent father and the death of her mother (also a stylist) at a relatively young age are nearly all the hints we are given. When recalling her mother’s constantly changing hair colour and styles, Claire does however tellingly reveal: “I never knew who was gonna come home”, foreshadowing Claire’s own (twisted) role-plays.

The interplay between Claire and bride-to-be Olivia is teased out with precision playing by Najarra Townsend and Brea Grant (writer/director of the also excellent 12 HOUR SHIFT), and incrementally increases the cringe factor we share with, and for, both characters before the final bleak yet beautiful payoff.

Originally screened at the Arrow Video FrightFest online Halloween event in October 2020, I was glad to book in another appointment to see THE STYLIST, and to reconfirm my opinion that it’s a cut above the rest and destined to be one of the genre highlights of 2021.

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FRIGHTFEST.

Friday, 19 February 2021

BREEDER (2019)


Directed by: Jens Dahl. Starring: Sara Hjort Ditlevsen,
Anders Heinrichsen, Signes Egholm Olsen, Morten Holst. Denmark 2019, 107mins, Certificate 18.

Released digitally and on Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment from 15th February 2021.

“How much can you get away with when you hold the reins?”


Originally premiered as part of the Arrow Video FrightFest Digital Edition 2, Jens Dahl’s disturbingly chilling dissection of biohacking certainly created a stir in genre circles. Inaccurately dismissed by some as a belated Danish entry into the annals of the so-called torture porn sub-genre, the strong reactions to sequences in the film’s final third seemed less about the actual content, but more about their jarring juxtaposition in contrast to the relatively measured restraint and cold sense of foreboding intrigue which precedes.

Olympic equestrian Mia (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), conscious of her body clock and with a specific window before the next Olympics, wants to have a child, but her investment banker husband Thomas (Anders Heinrichsen) has taken to refusing her sexual invitations. One of Thomas’ clients is Dr Isabel Ruben (Signes Egholm Olsen), who is experimenting with a revolutionary new anti-ageing treatment labelled ‘Resurrecta’. After a neighbour’s Russian au-pair narrowly escapes abduction and staggers dishevelled to their door for help, Thomas offers to drive her to the hospital. Mia’s suspicions lead her to track Thomas’ iPhone not to a hospital, but instead to an old sugar factory, and it is here, in the bowels of the facility, where Mia will discover the ghastly secret behind Dr Ruben’s ‘Resurrecta’ and be forced to engage in a brutal struggle with her tormentors for survival.

There is a clinical precision to BREEDER, both visually and scripted. At its cold heart is Signes Egholm Olsen’s white-coated Dr Isabel Ruben, whose unflinching pursuit of the fountain of youth has transformed her into a modern-day Countess Elizabeth Báthory. “There’s nothing natural about ageing. Ageing is a disease”, she opines to an interviewer. Interestingly, screenwriter Sissel Dalsgaard Thomson admits in the disc’s interview that she did not originally envision Dr Ruben’s mad scientist as being female. However, the change of heart adds additional resonance and poignancy to the script when it tackles gender inequality and the sexual politics of ageing.

The film also takes broad swipes at the injustices in the class divide, and the moral implications of animal husbandry.
Visually, the colour grading is predominately tinged sickly yellow once the narrative arrives at the old factory, reflecting the (very) queasy goings on within, and the notable focus on urination and urolagnia. Branded like cattle, the caged women are tortured and humiliated by Dr Ruben’s viscous caretaker ‘The Dog’ (Morten Holst) and his assistant ‘The Pig’. “You’re a sadistic misogynist, and I’m letting you live out your dreams” admonishes Dr Ruben, who seemingly will turn a blind eye on her video monitor to nearly every act of enforced degradation metered out by ‘The Dog’ but will draw the line at rape (presumably not wanting her ‘cattle’ to be internally compromised). For this however is all merely a prelude to the gynaecological procedures awaiting ‘breeder’ Dr Ruben’s captives, and the horrific DNA extraction method that will follow. 

Although compared in some quarters to the New French Extreme films of the early 2000s, the level of onscreen violence, gore and nastiness, whilst unquestionably repugnant on occasion, never reaches those notorious ‘heights’. Nor can it be said that it delivers such a devastating denouement as Pascal Laugier’s MARTYRS (2008). The most affecting moment is a disturbing display of Stockholm syndrome by one of the captives towards ‘The Dog’. Cathartic just deserts for torturers and experimenters are relatively slim-pickings, and the somewhat hurried wrap-up does not fully satisfy or entirely gel given all that has transpired, and the various plot-elements that remain underdeveloped.

Nevertheless, this is an intriguing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde hybrid entry in the medical conspiracy sub-genre, popularised by more mainstream fare such as COMA (1978). However, once Dr Ruben’s secret is revealed, it transforms into a strong survivalist horror nightmare which is a different beast altogether. Be warned.

Extras:
There is an interview with director Jens Dahl and screenwriter Sissel Dalsgaad Thomsen, a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by film historian Kat Ellinger, which will be a fascinating take of the film, and exclusive to the first 2000 copies, a Limited-Edition O-card Slipcase.

***(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts
 
This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.

Friday, 29 January 2021

LINK (1986)

Directed by: Richard Franklin. Starring: Terence Stamp, Elisabeth Shue, Steven Finch.

UK 1986, 104 mins, Certificate 12.

Released on Blu-ray, DVD & digital download digital on 1st February 2021 by Studiocanal.

Thankfully, Australian director Richard Franklin (PATRICK, ROAD GAMES, PSYCHO II), chose not to heed W.C Fields’ advice to never work with animals or children when he helmed his pet project (no pun intended) high-concept killer chimp flick, LINK. Eschewing the conventual wisdom of using stunt performers in ape costumes, Franklin plumped for dyeing an orangutan’s fur black and kitting him out with prosthetic ears to provide his gloriously barmy conceit with its titular ‘chimpanzee’.

A brief plot summary just doesn’t do this film justice in terms of its numerous jaw-dropping elements. But for the record, future Oscar nominee Elisabeth Shue (THE KARATE KID, BACK TO THE FUTURE II/III, LEAVING LAS VEGAS), plays American zoology student in London ‘Jane’, in a far from subtle Tarzan reference from Ozploitation scripter Everett De Roche. Taking a summer job at a remote gothic farmhouse pitched picturesquely and precariously on a cliff-top along the English coastline, her goal is to work for, and study with, its human inhabitant, Dr Steven Phillip. Sporting a wild mop of hair and a crazed Rik Mayall like appearance, it’s none other than ‘General Zod’ (SUPERMAN II) himself Terence Stamp. Dr Phillip, a mad misguided anthropologist, is studying the link (ahem), between man and ape, and rather dubiously exploring the concept of ‘civilisation’ by utilising his prime primate chimpanzee ‘Link’ (played by Locke the orangutan) as a butler.

(Side note: the film’s German title was literally ‘Link, der butler’).

In addition to which, Dr Phillip also encourages his former circus trained captive companion to recreate his talent for lighting and smoking cigars. (This is foreshadowing folks). In addition to Link, Dr Phillip is also working with a rather aggressive and mostly caged elder female chimp ‘Voodoo’, and a deceptively playful younger chimp, ‘Imp’, who may well be not nearly as child-like and innocent as the cheeky little scamp appears. This dysfunctional and frankly disturbing set-up cranks up through several bizarrely unnerving notches until Jane finds herself suddenly abandoned and alone in the farmhouse with the three primates. And she’s about to find out quite how accurate were Dr Phillip’s graphic warnings about the inherent aggressive nature of chimps…

This stylishly idiosyncratic addition to the killer primate sub-genre, released two years before George A. Romero’s critically regarded MONKEY SHINES, is often unjustly overlooked. Having pulled off, with some considerable aplomb, the unenviable task of delivering a worthy sequel to Hitchcock’s seminal shower slasher, director Franklin (a Hitchcock devotee), works in several PSYCHO references in his commendably warped take on beauty and the beast. Dispensing with the star-billed lead a third of the way in mirrors PSYCHO structurally. A further doff of the cap occurs from a notable dissolve into a bath drain sequence. Then there are the PSYCHO (and PSYCHO II) reminiscent interiors, crowned with the ominous looming overhead shots of the grand staircase. Lensed by veteran cinematographer Mike Molloy (who worked as camera operator for Kubrick on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and BARRY LYNDON), Franklin pulls out all the stops visually, including a bravura opening POV sequence stalking a pursued cat up a trellis and across a rooftop toward a pigeon coop, whilst cutting to TV footage of Marlene Dietrich emerging from a gorilla costume in BLONDE VENUS.

Even though most of the film’s mayhem (and modest final third body count) occurs offscreen - which may have harmed its commercial success – the tangible simian threat (not to mention the added menace of attack dogs) is convincingly staged thanks to the work of animal trainer Ray Berwick (THE BIRDS) and skilfully judicious editing.

The actual ‘performance’ from Locke the orangutan as ’Link’, garnered from the meticulously crafted use of montage, is brilliantly nuanced, and the scene whereby Link perves at a naked Elisabeth Shue is unforgettably disturbing on several levels.

Composer Jerry Goldsmith (scoring again for Franklin after PSYCHO II), opts for an impishly playful musical approach, reminiscent of his GREMLINS work, which perfectly complements the largely tongue-in-cheek off-kilter material on screen.

Inspired by the work of primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall (perhaps another reference for Elisabeth Shue’s character’s name), LINK is a far more interesting work than its somewhat limiting and misleading tagline: ‘an experiment in terror’ suggests. Thematic development and character backfill were pruned from the released print’s running time, but thankfully there is some tantalising clues to the originally intended version provided on this disc with a generous reel of deleted workprint scenes.

As well as a superbly restored HD transfer, which showcases the richly infused visual storytelling of this hairy tall tale, there’s also some juicy treats to forage for.

A new audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin, (author of ‘Massacred by Mother Nature’) and film critic Jarret Gahan is both exhaustive and exhausting. Lee’s boundless enthusiasm for nature-centric horror films is infectious, and it’s a great accompaniment. Film programmer and horror expert Anna Bogutskaya’s interview offers a fascinating reading of the film, and a short audio interview with director Franklin serves up some tantalising titbits about the project. (I particularly chuckled at his disappointment with the work ethic of the British film crew and their slavish devotion to tea-breaks. Perhaps it was the simian cast providing a constant reminder of PG Tips TV commercials?). Jerry Goldsmith’s demo of the main theme is included as an audio extra – fair warning, it’s an infectious earworm, and the original UK trailer rounds off a decent selection of extras.

LINK is very much a product of its time. Were it to be made today (highly unlikely, granted) we would probably have Andy Serkis’ motion-capture wizardry replacing living breathing primates. Of course, it is morally questionable to stick fake chimpanzee ears on an orangutan and dye his fur (or for that matter dyeing a tiger in order to play a black panther, Don THE BEASTMASTER Coscarelli I am looking specifically at you here) purely for the pursuit of entertainment. But LINK is nevertheless far more than one-dimensional schlock, and worthy of reappraisal and appreciation.                        

Paul Worts

****(out of 5*)

This review was originally published by FRIGHTFEST.

Friday, 18 December 2020

CRASH (1996)

 

Directed by: David Cronenberg. Starring: James Spader,
Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette. Canada 1996, 100mins, Certificate 18.

Released on digital download from 30th November 2020, and on both Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray and Blu-ray in limited editions by Arrow Video from 14th December 2020.

“The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event.”

When David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s controversial 1973 novel ‘Crash’ screened at the Cannes Film Festival on the morning of 16th May 1996 it set off a chain-reaction that became a very English moral panic. The Evening Standard’s pompous film critic Alexander Walker pronounced the film as being “beyond the bounds of depravity”, and wrote in his review that it contained “some of the most perverted acts and theories of sexual deviance I have ever seen propagated in mainline cinema.”

So, thanks to Arrow Video you can now view these depraved sexually deviant acts in ultra HD courtesy of a 4K restoration of the uncut NC-17 version, supervised by director of photography Peter Suschitzky and approved by director David Cronenberg himself!

Not that the film was ever actually banned or cut in any way by the BBFC. Instead, thanks largely to a concerted crusade spearheaded by the Daily Mail - which eventually led to some 400 press reports on the film – and harkened back to the ‘video nasties’ moral panic in the 80’s,  Westminster City Council insisted on cuts being made before it was shown in London’s West End. This, despite the fact the Council had previously given permission for the film to be premiered as part of the 1996 London Film Festival. Having been granted an uncut ‘18’ certificate from the BBFC, to the distributors considerable credit, they refused to re-submit for cuts and the film was therefore effectively banned in the West End, including Leicester Square. (I watched it at the A.B.C. Shaftesbury Avenue, a short walk away over in neighbouring Camden).

Reviewing it again after some considerable time in this glorious HD restored version, I found the film to be far more sexually focused, both visually and dialogue-wise, than I originally recalled. Still somewhat restrained compared to the moral indignation it stirred up however, with only one scene I’d class as actual sexual ‘body-horror’ (involving Rosanna Arquette’s leg, and even that is shot largely through implication rather than graphic close-up). I chuckled appreciatively at the customary dark Cronenbergian conceits (Cronenberg himself admits in the TIFF Q&A to laughing all the way through a recent re-watch). And I admired the detached unblinking viewpoint, admittedly here never bleaker, as he focused his microscopic lens on the Petrie dish of human subjects crashing and colliding about, indulging their symphorophilia and car crash fetishism, or ‘benevolent psychopathology’ as their leader, Vaughan outlines.

Having only previously been available in the UK in a bare-bones DVD, this limited edition release from Arrow Video represents somewhat of a gourmet banquet in comparison.

Firstly, the HD transfer, which I viewed on standard Blu-ray, is superb, rendering every scar and metallic infusion with skin in pristine clarity with natural film grain, and showcasing Cronenberg regular Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography richly and with depth. I would imagine the Ultra HD 4K version is equally terrific and then some.

There’s a brand new audio commentary by the Australian film scholar Adrian Martin. Significant new interviews are included: director of photography Peter Suschitzky, (who doesn’t like horror films, thought Cronenberg was ‘just’ a horror film director, but concludes he was “the most intelligent director I’ve ever worked with”), executive producer Jeremy Thomas, composer Howard Shore (three harps and six guitars), and casting director Deirdre Bowen, which collectively add up to some 90 mins.

There’s two substantial Q&A’s included on the disc, one recorded in 2019 at TIFF with Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen (52 mins), together with the gargantuan 1996 Q&A at the National Film Theatre with author J.G. Ballard (with a running time longer than the film itself, clocking in at a whopping 1 hour 41 mins). Some behind-the-scenes footage, contemporary press interviews and trailers are sprinkled in for good measure, along with a brand new video essay by Caelum Vatnsdal entitled ‘Architect of Pain: The Cronenberg Project’ on the Canadian auteur’s use of architecture and location.

And then there’s five short films vying for attention on the disc. Firstly, an 18 minute film originally broadcast as part of the BBC’s Review series, starring J.G. Ballard and loosely adapted from his 1970 novel The Atrocity Exhibition entitled, ‘Crash!’ (catchy title). Two shorts inspired by Ballard and the novel Crash: Nightmare Angel (33 mins) and Always (crashing) (14 mins). And finally, in terms of what’s crammed on the disc, Cronenberg himself contributes two short films: ‘The Nest’ (2013, 10mins) and At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World (2007, 4 mins).

The only extra which appears missing, which will apparently be included on the upcoming US Criterion Blu-ray release, is a 1997 commentary by Cronenberg himself, which does seem an odd omission. Personally I’d have sacrificed Adrian Martin’s commentary if it was a choice (no offence Adrian).

The limited edition also includes a fully illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Vanessa Morgan, Araceli Molina, Jason Wood and Zoe Beloff, and a reprinted excerpt from Cronenberg on Cronenberg (which I have a dog-eared and well-read copy of on my shelves at home).And to top and tail this lavish release, there’s a fold-out double-sided poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork, and Limited edition packaging with reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx

In an archival interview on the disc, Cronenberg states that his intention with the film was to avoid all the emotional response clichés (in the same way that Ballard’s original source novel does). In this I think he certainly achieved his goal, as it’s a film to be admired and respected, but perhaps a challenging work to completely warm to. Cronenberg, whist somewhat horrified to admit it, also considers CRASH to be ‘politically correct’ in the sense that all the sexual and violent acts depicted in the film are consensual. Ballard, in turn, described his novel as a cautionary tale, a nightmare marriage between sex and technology, but at the same time an invitation to explore. A perfect analogy of the  Cronenberg approach, and now with Arrow’s fine limited edition release, an invitation I’d certainly recommend accepting.

 *****(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.