Color, 1979, 91m.
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring William Smith, Claudia Jennings, John Saxon, Nicholas Campbell
Blue Underground (DVD & Blu-Ray, US R0 NTSC/HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1/DTS 7.1

Years before he melded his body grotesqueries with car collisions in the controversial Crash, director David Cronenberg helmed this more straightforward ode to one of his more obscure passions, competitive auto racing. Another tax shelter Canadian project incredibly made back-to-back with the equally personal but far more harrowing The Brood, this film offers straight-up drive-in entertainment with a solid cast of B-movie legends.

Facing the end of his run on the dragstrip due to approaching middle age, racer Lonnie Johnson (Grave of the Vampire’s Smith), dubbed “Lucky Man” by his fans, is about to lose the sponsorship of the motor oil company with which he’s become identified under the rule of a hard-nosed CEO (Saxon). Aided by his beautiful younger girlfriend, Sammy (Jennings), he tries to come up with a way to keep up with the accelerating demands of his dangerous profession.

At first you’d be hard pressed to peg this as a Cronenberg film, though the presence of regular collaborators like actor Nicholas Campbell and cinematographer Mark Irwin give it this uniquely ‘70s Canadian feel also found in his more fantastic projects. You also get an attention-getting scene involving the erotic use of motor oil, which is difficult to forget. However, the actor chemistry is the biggest difference here mainly due to the presence of Saxon, an industry vet from films like Enter the Dragon and Black Christmas, who really anchors his scenes with great authority. Perhaps even more significant is Jennings, a hugely popular Playboy Playmate whose film career had already amassed such credits as ‘Gator Bait, Deathsport, Moonshine County Express, and even a quick bit in The Man Who Fell to Earth; unfortunately Fast Company would prove to be her cinematic swan song as she died in a car accident shortly after filming at the age of 29.

Blue Underground’s elaborate special edition of this film puts many studio efforts for the director’s more presitigious titles to shame with an impressive transfer and a comprehensive roster of extras. Mastered in HD, the film looks terrific and sounds even better with an immersive surround mix. (The original mono is present on the DVD while the Blu-Ray ditches it in favor of three similar 7.1 options in Dolby Digital or DTS.) Cronenberg contributs another of his excellent solo commentary tracks and shares many memories of Canadian filmmaking at the time and how his passion for racing fueled the entire project. Then Smith and Saxon appear for an interview featurette in which they recall how they become involved with the film and the state of their careers at the time, with both coming off as animated and full of enthusiasm. Irwin gets a separate interview discussing his relationship with the director and how they approach the visual scheme for each of their films, and you also get the original theatrical trailer.

Both the double-disc limited DVD edition and regular Blu-Ray offer the heftiest and more desireable extras: Cronenberg’s two most famous early “short” films, Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), both of which are virtually feature length. The former is an obvious dry run for ideas later explored in Scanners and The Brood as a psychology researcher at a cinic uses brain surgery to cut off verbal communication from a group of volunteers, but the study begins to go awry as the psychological ramifications begin to manifest themselves. Crimes is far less accessible and definitely feels more like an early trial project as a skin doctor named Adrian Tripod (Cronenberg regular Ronald Mlodzik) in a clinical, emotionless future begins to tamper a contagious version of sexual hysteria, ultimately blurring the lines of gender identity. Both are highly visionary and fascinating films, especially for Cronenberg fans, and are worth the effort to find this release by themselves.

Color, 1977, 91m. / Directed by David Cronenberg / Starring Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore / Metrodome (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / New Concorde (US R1 NTSC)

Following the success and controversy ignited by Shivers, David Cronenberg expanded his view of clinical, sexualized horror with Rabid, a chilly account of venereal disease gone absolutely haywire through Montreal. Most notable in the history books as the first attempt by hardcore actress Marilyn Chambers (Behind the Green Door) to go straight, the film has gained considerably in both meaning and chilling effectiveness in context with Cronenberg's later films. A devastating motorcycle accident in the countryside leaves beautiful young Rose (Chambers) seriously burned and mutilated while her boyfriend, Hart (Frank Moore), is thrown clear. Luckily employees at the nearby Keloid Clinic witness the accident and, using innovative new techniques in plastic surgery and tissue regeneration, manage to save Rose from certain death (or at least horrible disfigurement). Dr Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) and his partner, Murray Cypher (Joe Silver), feel their procedure has been successful, so Rose is left alone to recover. A month later she regains consciousness in a state of utter hysteria, causing one of her fellow patients to come to her aid. She embraces him tightly, an act which causes him to react with horror. Later the patient, bloody and dazed, staggers down the hospital hallways, but no one is able to treat him. One by one Rose seduces and attacks others in the hospital, draining them of just enough blood to satisfy her hunger. Keloid discovers a strange, vaginal growth in her armpit which hosts a horrendous side effect of her skin graft, one which is also capable of leaving its victims in a dangerous, rabid condition capable of spreading through the population like wildfire.

Though undeniably rough around the edges, Rabid is a strangely potent and haunting film. Chambers is surprisingly good in the role, which doesn't require much range but definitely exploits the mixture of pleasure and dangerous hunger lurking beneath her attractive features. As usual Cronenberg maximizes the chilly potential out of his sterile, angular settings and barren countrysides, while the city locales are cleverly manipulated to expose the dangerous underbelly of urban life. Chambers' visit to a porn theatre in particular and subsequent response to a horny fellow patron is a disturbing, multilayered example of Cronenberg at his finest. The uncredited stock music is also eerily spare and well chosen, though it wasn't until Croneberg's next horror film, The Brood, that music finally took center stage thanks to Howard Shore. As usual the director also relishes throwing in some iconoclastic and often downright rude imagery, such as a shopping mall Santa Claus riddled with bullets and the grim, marvelously ironic coda, which relays most of its horror through the telephone rather than explicit gore. Long unavailable on home video after an early, substandard appearance from Warner Home Video, Rabid has been remastered by Roger Corman's New Concorde. Like their other '70s restorations, this film has never looked so good outside of first run theatres. However, bear in mind that some sequences were shot in a deliberately desaturated and grainy style, while the opening credits were printed with dirt and specks imbedded in the script overlays, so the visual flaws are actually supposed to be there. Like all of Cronenberg's early films, Rabid was shot full frame and soft matted in theatres; the US DVD contains the entire exposed image with (clumsily transitioned) 1.66:1 closing credits, though letterbox purists with 16:9 sets can matte it off if they so desire. The UK disc features an improved and colorful anamorphic transfer which mattes off some information from the top; the increase in resolution is noticeable and quite welcome. The mono audio is adequate given the source materials and is free from distracting background noise or distortion. The US disc also includes the gleefully dramatic US theatrical trailer, while the UK disc instead contains a Cronenberg intro, notes by Kim Newman, and an image gallery.

Color, 1997, 111m. / Directed by David Cronenberg / Starring James Spader, Holly Hunter / New Line (US R1 NTSC), Columbia (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

Maligned by Ted Turner, ignored by American audiences, and a general offense to many of the attendees at Cannes, David Cronenberg's Crash has been so overshadowed by the political and critical turmoil surrounding it that the actual film's voice has been drowned out in the process. If you like Cronenberg, you'll love the film, which is a quantum leap in maturity and quality over the flat M. Butterfly. While the sight of James Spader sexually assailing a gash in Rosanna Arquette's leg may not appeal to every sensibility, this is a challenging and often rewarding ride if you're willing to go along with the filmmaker's own unique, marvelously depraved point of view. Based on J.G. Ballard's scandalous counterculture novel, Crash revolves around James Ballard (Spader), a director who suffers a near-fatal car crash when he collides with doctor Holly Hunter. The two find themselves aroused by the experience, and she introduces Ballard to a bizarre subculture dedicated to reenactments of famous celebrity car crashes (Jayne Mansfield, James Dean, etc.). The group's leader, Vaughn (the always fascinating Elias Koteas), orchestrates a series of fleshy auto escapades involving his protegee, Rosanna Arquette, and Ballard's spacey, erotically insatiable wife (Debroah Kara Unger, The Game). One of the film's most notorious scenes, a mild sex scene between Spader and Koteas, was primarily responsible for driving audience members away, but there's much stronger stuff on display. The eerie, unresolved finale ("Maybe the next one") amazingly manages to wrap up the dreamlike proceedings on a satisfying note that will leave a strange mood hovering in your mind long after the film is over.

While no video presentation can really replicate experiencing Crash in the theatre (after which audience members had to drive home), DVD is about as close as you can get. Though supervised by Cronenberg, the Criterion Collection laserdisc was a visual mess, smeary and dull, with poor detail. The anamorphically enhanced DVD is a feast for the eyes, filled with glittering planes of glass and metal and suffused with unearthly shades of blue and silver. There's simply no comparison. The US DVD also has the option of playing the film's R-rated cut, which causes momentary pauses in the film's playback as it skips over the most graphic bits. Aside from basic curiosity, however, it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to see this watered-down Blockbusterized edition. Likewise, the Dolby Digital soundtrack is expansive and chilling, with Howard Shore's unnerving experimental score swelling from each speaker and drowning the ears in uneasiness and lust. Unfortunately, aside from the US trailer, the DVD features none of the Criterion bonuses (feature length commentary by Cronenberg, the original and superior Canadian trailer, and a making-of featurette), so completists will unfortunately want to get both. If you just care about the movie, though, the DVD is definitely the best (and most affordable) way to go.

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