Color, 1979, 99 mins. 58 secs.
Directed by Jeff Kanew
Starring Hal Holbrook, Louise Fletcher, Jose Ferrer, Viveca Lindfors
Fun City Editions (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Seen as excessively Natural Enemiesgrim upon its release in 1979 but painfully familiar today, Natural Enemies barely Natural Enemiesmade a blip during its brief major city theatrical run but left its mark on more than a few unprepared rental customers in the late '80s on VHS. In a sense this is the darkest chapter in a series of Hal Holbrook performances about the savagery seething inside of the middle-aged everyman, the logical companion to his roles in Rituals and Creepshow (with the latter's Viveca Lindfors turning up here briefly before her legendary turn as Aunt Bedelia). Seen today, this feels like a primer for the later psychological apocalypses found in films by the likes of Lars von Trier, Jörg Buttgereit, Pascal Laugier, Michael Haneke, and Douglas Buck, though its atmosphere could only have come from the end of a wild decade that was leaving many families feeling completely unmoored.

Our story charts a single day from the point of view of Paul Steward (Holbrook), an editor for a scientific journal, who relates via narration his plan when he wakes up in the morning: to spend his last day on Earth doing his job, then coming home and killing his wife Miriam (Fletcher), three children, and himself with a rifle at dinner time. He blames Miriam's severe mental breakdown five years earlier for the erosion of their marriage but is unwilling to take any steps himself to communicate in any meaningful way. Paul starts to field the ideas behind his homicidal plan with various people he encounters over the course of the day, Natural Enemiesthen decides to indulge in a tryst with five prostitutes who have some clear ideas of their Natural Enemiesown about his domestic situation. Meanwhile Miriam finds the rifle hidden in their closet, setting up a pivotal evening for them both.

Though it's Holbrook's chilling performance that anchors most of this film on its downbeat march through his day, Natural Enemies has a fascinating trump card up its sleeve with Fletcher who completely swipes the final sequence with a turn quite different from her most famous, icy role in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. The ending seen on home video and when the film first bowed in New York is a particularly grim one borne out of production necessity (reasons explained in the extras) and more nihilistic than what was originally planned. However, given the combination of image and sound in those last few seconds, it may not be as clean cut as it initially seems. In any case, the last bit of audio was dropped when the film played in L.A., casting a significantly different and more ambiguous tone over the entire film.

Not surprisingly, this proved to be far too bitter a pill for major studios to pick up at the time, though incredibly RCA/Columbia ended up releasing the VHS in 1985 that remained the only accessible viewing option until Fun City Editions' 2022 Blu-ray. The new 2K restoration comes from the best surviving film element, a 35mm deposit print held by Library of Congress, and all things considered it looks great with a lot more detail and natural film grain than what we've had before. Some telltale signs of damage are evident here and there, but it's mostly in fine shape and a welcome upgrade that extends to the solid DTS-HD MA 2.0 English mono track as well. (English SDH subtitles are provided as usual). Director and screenwriter Jeff Natural EnemiesKanew (who went on to direct far more mainstream fare like Revenge of the Nerds, Eddie Macon's Run, Troop Beverly Hills, Natural Enemiesand Gotcha!) turns up for a quick video intro (2m10s) about the inspiration of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and the film's descent into oblivion for decades, as well as the two-part "The Road to Natural Enemies" (23m18s and 44m18s) video interview. Here he goes into great detail about the impact of early films he saw like The Dark Mirror, his time working for a trailer house, his time in exploitation films directing Mail Order Confidential and working on The Wicked Die Slow, an experiment involving the trailer for The Graduate, the creation of his Harlem documentary Black Rodeo narrated by Woody Strode, his editing gig on Ordinary People, and a massive amount about the making of this film from source novel adaptation to the release including the alteration of its ending, the near departure of one of its stars, and some very funny trivia about the hooker scene. An excellent and well-researched new audio commentary by Bill Ackerman of the Supporting Characters podcast starts off noting the interpolation of Bergman into American films throughout the '70s before deeply pulling apart the film's visual language, the state of American criminal cases in the late '70s, notes on even the briefest screen performers, the film's fate at the box office and release through Cinema 5, the tropes of midlife crisis and New York stories, the depictions of chauvinism here, and the source novel by Julius Horowitz. Also included are that alternate ending and the theatrical trailer, while the package comes with an insert booklet featuring a new essay by Jason Bailey about the film and its reflection of misplaced rage and a country going through a very tumultuous transition.

Reviewed on September 21, 2022