Features Live Action Movies


Director – David Cronenberg – 1996 – Canada – Cert. 18 – 100m


This review was originally published in the Arts Centre Group‘s member’s newsletter. See also my review for What DVD.

All stills from Crash apart from the one from Videodrome.

Canadian film director David Cronenberg has a reputation for filming the unfilmable. Formerly dubbed The King Of Venereal Horror (“a small kingdom but I’m happy with it”), his debut (commercial) feature Shivers / The Parasite Murders / They Came From Within (1977) is a low budget horror outing in which high rise tenants are invaded/possessed by little slug-like creatures resembling a bloody cross between phallus and faeces.

For renowned British producer Jeremy Thomas (Bad Timing, The Last Emperor, First Love) he has adapted and directed books considered impossible to turn into movies, notably William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (in 1991) and J.G.Ballard’s Crash.

I was first drawn to Cronenberg’s work from the special effects angle, specifically an article on prosthetics expert Rick Baker which contained some amazing production stills (the shape of a hand-held gun pushing through the unbroken membrane of a television screen) from Videodrome (1983). An image suggesting television can kill? I was intrigued.


When I saw the film, it exceeded all expectations; its images (a man reduced to his videotaped lectures, a Cathode Ray Mission for televisual derelicts, porno cable TV programmer Max Renn (James Woods) explaining, “it’s too SOFT – I’m looking for something TOUGH”) carrying a cultural resonance few films do.

The last two decades have seen Cronenberg virtually single-handedly corner the market in what has come to be known as Body Horror (lesser contenders include Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto of Tetsuo: The Iron Man/1989 and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer/1992 fame). The old Cartesian mind/body split is given a new twist as our bodies suddenly revolt against us. Instead of a monster film where the alien chases us round the ship threatening to devour us, in Cronenberg our bodies give rise to strange new forms or creatures that we don’t really know how to control and which threaten to engulf us. Such as the car crash.

Which brings us to Crash, shot on a closed set but nevertheless (since its brief appearance in the London Film Festival last November where I was privileged to see it) the subject of huge controversy, especially in Britain. Crash is consistent with Cronenberg’s totality of work while at the same time seemingly leaving behind his horror roots (something he’s similarly achieved with other recent movies, most notably Dead Ringers 1988).

This has the effect of upsetting people who think they’re watching serious drama (but are actually watching an excursion in genre and don’t like or expect its effect upon them). Actually, if you’re open minded about it, all Cronenberg’s work can be taken equally as serious drama, or horror, or science fiction.

In one sense, Crash substitutes car horror for body horror; in another sense, it substitutes sex acts for body horror. Cronenberg’s been doing this for years, but never in quite the obvious and abundant quantity seen here.

Where most Hollywood movies employ the sex scene as a mindless break in the action, Cronenberg employs it as a narrative device. I certainly couldn’t relate to the characters in the Hollywood sense: Ballard / James Spader and wife Catherine / Deborah Kara Unger’s search for the perfect orgasm through sex with a variety of partners subsequently recreated in their own sex lives / fantasies is a long, long way from my own sexual experience or anything I’d want it to be – these are not, in Hollywoodspeak, “people to root for”.

Yet at the same time, I’m fascinated by them and their relationship to the motor car – much of the movie takes place in cars, including the “boring” bits in between the sex and the crashes (much as the “boring” car journey from say, home to work gets mentally edited out of modern life). This is not to say that either the sex, or the crashes, are somehow good because they’re “less boring”, or indeed that any moment of this remarkable film is ever less than compelling. This is not meant to sound like a contradiction.

If I were asked to describe this movie as either a cynical moneymaking exercise or a work of artistic integrity, I would opt unhesitatingly for the latter. I’m relieved that the film has been passed uncut / Cert. 18 by the BBFC because I believe people should have the chance to see it and decide for themselves – and there isn’t any obvious frame or scene that could be cut without mutilating the whole. It’s also in my opinion the most fascinating film I’ve seen for months (and, as a working film critic, I see a lot).

That said, if I were a politician flagging in popularity, Crash – with its seeming ability to offend just about everybody – is a really easy target ripe for condemnation. After all, banning some alleged item of filth is a sure way to get people’s minds off subtler issues (why are wealthy people so much better off today than they were fifteen years ago?) and who knows, maybe the TV and news media as a whole will be a little more susceptible to political control if the censorship lobby gain ground in the arguments this time round.

Interestingly, Cronenberg himself has produced a special (video) version for Blockbuster Video in the US (and presumably, in due course, the UK too) when they insisted he remove all the extreme sex scenes. He took out about ten minutes, has no idea whether this version makes any narrative sense or not and advises people to avoid it.

Clearly the extreme nature of its subject matter means Crash is not a film everyone must or should see. A lot of punters who go expecting a gratuitous, titillating sexfest punctuated with thrilling car crashes are going to a) feel very disappointed, b) feel misled if not cheated by the hype and c) be extremely bored. Personally, I consider Crash a masterpiece (not however, THE Cronenberg masterpiece, an honour I still reserve at the current time for his extraordinary Videodrome).

This review was originally published in the Arts Centre Group‘s member’s newsletter. See also my review for What DVD.


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