The late ’90s were a great time for independent cinema thanks in part to Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which, coupled with the introduction of DVD, helped fuel an arthouse revival. This was also due to emerging auteurs such as Tarantino, Aronofsky, and Solondz, who were turning out some of the best films of their career while also exploring some of the darker corners of the human psyche. One of the films that I feel is a shining example of this particular period in 90s arthouse cinema is David Cronenberg’s transgressive masterpiece Crash. The film had the director, who had already established himself in Hollywood, returning to his Canadian indie roots to direct what I feel is still one of his best films in his exploration of body horror, which just hit Blu-ray thanks to Criterion.
Loosely adapted from the tome by J. G. Ballard, Crash follows film producer James Ballard (James Spader), who shares a very open marriage with his beautiful wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger). However, things get complicated when James is involved in a deadly head-on collision and develops a sexual relationship with Helen (Holly Hunter), the woman whose husband he killed in the crash. The pair is recruited by the enigmatic Vaughn (Elias Koteas), who leads a cultish support group of car crash survivors/enthusiasts, who have also been transformed by their experiences. When Vaughn isn’t recruiting new members from the hospital he’s recreating celebrity car crashes, which plays a larger part in the book as opposed to the film.
James begins introducing these new interests into his marriage, which has started to feel stale in comparison to the danger and exhalation that he feels on the road with Vaughn on their nightly excursions prowling around town in his Lincoln Continental. Crash has Cronenberg infusing his go to theme of body horror with technology thanks to Vaughn’s mantra of the car crash being “the reshaping of the human body by modern technology.” This culminates in one of the most Cronenbergian scenes in his filmography, where Ballard has sex with Rosanna Arquette by proxy of her car crash scar on her thigh. The controversy surrounding this film was amplified at the time due to the fetishism placed on the car crash and how it’s used almost as a form of foreplay by the protagonists.
It was ridiculous, but it was implied at the time that this film could lead to copy cats — but it never did, unless you count Stuntman Mike.
Crash was one of my first Criterion Laserdisc purchases and it was one of the hardest to let go of when I parted ways with those silver platters. That was due to the film and partly to the excellent director’s commentary that was brought forward on this disc along with a host of other extras that weren’t on that original release. Some of my other favorites on this particular set is an excellent Q&A with Ballard and Cronenberg at the London theater that provides more background on the controversy that was bleeding into the mainstream media at the time. I believe there were even discussions of banning it at one point. I don’t know if it was simply the nihilistic nature of the film, the violence, or the graphic sexuality both gay and straight that’s featured that drove these discussions. The whole violence in films debate, which which was ignited by Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, was still very much a hot topic in conservative mainstream media.
One thing that really resonated with me both in the film and the book is the subject matter’s morose relationship with celebrity reminiscent of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which is equal parts fascination and disgust with these false idols. Vaughn’s recreations of celebrity deaths are as much about his fandom of old Hollywood as they are about his deadly fetish. I found it fascinating in the lengths that Vaughn goes to achieve his “Art” which is only amplified by Koteas’ performance that leaves the viewer feeling just as dirty as the back seat of Vaughn’s car after viewing. While I might be alone in this I feel that this film wouldn’t be nearly as chilling if not for the women of Crash – Hunter, Unger and Arquette, who deliver intriguingly haunting performances that may at first appear superficial to the more casual viewer but are deeply layered.
The film is presented in 1080p from a new 4K transfer approved by Cronenberg himself, on a 50 gig Blu-ray. Now, I know there’s a 4K out there and I have seen that transfer. I honestly have to say if most of you took the Pepsi Challenge to compare the two, most would be hard pressed to tell this Blu-ray and the 4K (Without HDR) apart on a stock 4K setup. Now as far as transfers go, Criterion definitely knows their stuff and because of this their DVDs tend to look better than most Blu-rays. It’s because they understand to go that extra layer, to add that extra storage for the transfer, rather than try and go cheap to save space and a few cents. They also know to steer clear of DNR in order to preserve the grain and film look of their transfers, it’s why I still buy Criterion DVDs of titles I am on the fence about picking up during those bi-yearly B&N sales.
As far as favorite Cronenberg films, Crash easily would be mine. Granted, it’s not a film for everyone, but I think it’s definitely one of the films that most effectively made use of Cronenberg’s obsession with body horror. What I think makes it even more terrifying is its grounded and “this could really happen” premise. This fact along with the theme of deadly celebrity obsessions, which also plays heavily into Cronenberg’s son’s debut Antiviral and actually makes his son’s directorial debut feel like the spiritual successor to Crash. So if you’re a Cronenberg junky, like myself, you probably own this already but for those looking to dip their toe in the body horror genre, I think this is a great introduction that straddles the line between arthouse and exploitation like most of the director’s oeuvre and eases you in for some of the director’s more surreal explorations.