CRASH *****

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 H.D. 4K Blu-ray and Blu-ray in limited editions by Arrow Video from 14th December 2020.


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 H.D. 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 primarily 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 80s, 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 permitted 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 H.D. 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 mainly shot 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 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 U.K. in a bare-bones DVD, this limited-edition release from Arrow Video represents somewhat of a gourmet banquet in comparison.


Firstly, the H.D. 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 H.D. 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 are five short films vying for attention on the disc. Firstly, an 18-minute film originally broadcast as part of the B.B.C.’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 be included on the upcoming U.S. Criterion Blu-ray release, is a 1997 commentary by Cronenberg himself, which does seem an odd omission. 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 a 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 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 undoubtedly recommend accepting.


Paul Worts.


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