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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 1/19/04



Three by Filmmaker David Cronenberg

reviews by Rob Hale of The Digital Bits


The Brood

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The Brood
1979 (2003) - Mutual/Elgin International (MGM)

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/C/D

Specs and Features

92 mins, R, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), single-sided, single-layered, keepcase packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 1.0), subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Closed Captioned



Naked Lunch (Criterion)

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Naked Lunch
1991 (2003) - 20th Century Fox (Criterion)

Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/A-

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film
115 mins, R, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ?), dual keepcase packaging, commentary with David Cronenberg and actor Peter Weller, film-themed menu screens, scene access (23 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 Surround), subtitles: English

Disc Two - Supplemental Material
Naked Making Lunch documentary, illustrated special effects essay, production still gallery, marketing material gallery, William S. Burroughs' audio recording of excerpts from Naked Lunch, gallery of Burroughs photographs from The Allen Ginsberg Trust, 32 page booklet (with essays by Janet Maslin, Chris Rodley, Gary Indiana, and William S. Burroughs), film-themed menu screens, scene access (8 chapters), languages: English (DD 1.0 mono)



Spider

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Spider
2002 (2003) - Sony Pictures Classics (Columbia TriStar)

Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A-/B

Specs and Features

98 mins, R, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ?), keepcase packaging, audio commentary by David Cronenberg, 3 featurettes (In the Beginning: How Spider Came to Be, Weaving the Web: The Making of Spider and Caught In the Spider's Web: The Cast), filmographies, weblink, trailers, film-themed menu screens, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

"The clothes maketh the man. The less there is of the man, the more the need for the clothes."

David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone, The Fly) is a rare breed of filmmaker: visually and intellectually stimulating: cold and clinical, yet humane and emotive, and horrifying with a wry smile. You name the contradiction and Mr. Cronenberg has probably explored it, which seems strange since all of his major works (in a career spanning nearly 40 years) deal with a narrow set of themes (another contradiction?). Concepts such as mutant sexuality, identity crisis, and the influence of the psychological over the physical are pervasive in Cronenberg's work and yet he never really feels like he's repeating himself.

This is in no small part due to the fact that he keeps examining these themes from different contradictory positions, turning them back over on themselves and reshaping them into new and still interesting configurations. The last several months have been a boon for fans of David Cronenberg's unique brand of cinema, with the release of three of his films, from three different decades, released by three different studios.

The Brood is the age-old story: Man finds bruises on his daughter's body while giving her a bath. Man suspects his wife (who is in a mental institution undergoing a radical new therapy called 'psychoplasmics' which makes suppressed anger physically manifest itself). Man leaves his daughter with her grandmother while he confronts his wife about the bruises. Grandmother is brutally murdered by what appears to be a mutant child in a snowmobile suit, which sets the stage for the rest of the film, as a series of murders follow the father and daughter. All right, it may not be an age-old story, but it's certainly an interesting one, and what should we expect from a Cronenberg film? We have strange growths on the bodies of those people undergoing the psychoplasmics treatment, people drifting further into madness, overtones of familial violence, telepathic linking of characters, and one of the most disturbing birth sequences ever put to film. It all adds up to an enjoyable, yet still flawed film.

Time seems to have not treated The Brood very well. The special effects are very uneven, usually falling below the standards of low-budget films of the time, although the birth scene is a notable exception. The story, although interesting, also isn't quite as tight as much of the rest of Cronenberg's body of work, with characters that don't seem really fleshed out and some stilted dialog. What is probably the film's biggest problem though is its 'monsters.' Little kids in snowmobile suits just aren't really scary; in fact it all seems silly some of the time. Perhaps this is an effect of multiple viewings, but I can't help but think that this could have been handled a little bit better, even on a low budget. There is still a good deal to recommend about the film though: it still contains some truly disturbing scenes, the story is intriguing, it has a pair of decent performances from Oliver Reed (Dr. Raglan) and Samantha Eggar (Nola) and it is a rather unique experience as a whole. Overall, the film is enjoyable and is a highlight of David Cronenberg's earlyish work, but it doesn't stand up as well when compared to most of his later work.

With the 90's came one of Cronenberg's most difficult and ambitious films, an adaptation of William S. Burroughs' novel, Naked Lunch. Knowing that Burroughs' text was unfilmable (especially as a relatively low-budget production), Cronenberg decided to simply use the book as a starting point, and pull in ideas from other Burroughs novels (most notably "Exterminator!") as well as biographical facts about Burroughs' own life, to tell a tale of lost identity, isolation, addiction, violence, and confused sexuality.

Is there any way that Naked Lunch could have succeeded on a mass scale? Probably not. Like its source, it is an extremely demanding and difficult work, asking the viewer to sit through a barrage of twisted, horrible imagery and accept the unacceptable. The viewer is asked to identify directly with the main character, Bill Lee (the Burroughs surrogate) as he hallucinates his way through the after effects of killing his wife. The film is also concerned with the creative process and the isolation and loss of self-control that can be at the center of it. Anchored by a solid performance by Peter Weller (Robocop, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) as Bill Lee, the film works because of Weller's knowledge of the material and his ability to interact with talking bug/typewriters and mugwumps with a dry wit and complete acceptance in the face of absurdity.

This being said, the film is not for all Burroughs fans and certainly not for everyone in general. Burroughs fans may be disappointed with the film's straying from the source material and the facts of Burroughs' life. The casual viewer may be put off by the film's hallucinatory, paranoid nature. But for those of us that the film clicks with, the film is definitely rewarding - taking the viewer on a trip into the mind of a man losing his grip on reality and his own identity, while desperately trying to control it (or even deny it) through his writing.

With Spider, Cronenberg seems to be taking the themes of identity and isolation, and even creation, dealt with in Naked Lunch even further with amazing results. Perhaps Cronenberg's finest film since 1988's Dead Ringers, Spider is the story of Daniel "Spider" Cleg, played by Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List, The English Patient), a mentally disturbed man who has just been released from a sanitarium to a halfway house in the neighborhood he spent his childhood in. Upon his return, Spider finds himself trying to flesh out his past and revisit the trauma from his childhood. The problem is that these childhood memories begin taking him places he'd probably rather not go and begin to invade his present life.

Boasting an outstanding cast working with extremely difficult material, Spider is a truly impressive piece of work. Fiennes wrenches everything he can out of what is essentially a silent role. Fiennes gives Spider a still, yet expressive, body language that allows the viewer to 'see' the character thinking and understand him, even though Spider cannot express himself with any kind of verbal clarity. It is a truly amazing performance that really cannot be done justice in words. Miranda Richardson is equally impressive in a trio of roles which are all made even more difficult because all three characters are all interconnected and confused in Spider's mind and, since the film is told entirely from Spider's point of view, this is the way we must see all three characters as well.

The film is puzzling in its complexity since it is basically taking place inside Spider's head. We are never really quite sure of what we are seeing: Spider coexists with his younger self as he rewatches the events of his childhood; we see 'memories' of events that Spider could have never witnessed; characters swap identities with each other and we jump around in time from one point to another with no warning. This could all be extremely confusing (but essential to the story) but Cronenberg handles everything masterfully. Cronenberg twists the viewer along so that, like Spider, we begin to try to make sense of the confusion struggling to keep up with little details that change the potential meaning of things that have come before until we finally feel we know what has been going on, or do we? It is through this immersion into the head of Spider that we are able to understand the character on a much deeper level than we would have if the story had been told from any other perspective. Everything seems to click in Spider and since it is relatively 'tame' for a Cronenberg film (it is based in 'reality,' no parasites or exploding heads) I feel it would make a fantastic introduction to his work for those unfamiliar.

As far as the discs themselves are concerned, we have a generally decent job done all around. Video transfers for each film are decent, with Spider fairing the best, which is no surprise since it is the newest of the three films. The Brood fairs the poorest, although it is still well represented with nice color balance, nice blacks and shadow detail. Compression is handled well, with little to complain about. This is a 25-year-old low-budget film and it does look it. Grain is present, but is perfectly acceptable. There is also a little bit of dirt on the print, but overall it's safe to say that this is the best the film has ever looked on home video. Naked Lunch has an equally good transfer, and is a bit cleaner and less grainy overall. There is one issue that seems to be present in both Naked Lunch and Spider though, occasionally in each film there seems to be a flicker in the contrast. This is very slight and since it appears in both films I'm assuming that this was a part of the source material and not a fault of the transfer.

On the audio side, The Brood has a mono mix that is rather muffled, but passable. Dialog is usually clear, but effects and especially the score lack punch. This is probably due to the film's age and low budget, but is still a little disappointing. Naked Lunch has a modest Dolby Digital Surround soundtrack, but it holds up very well. Dialog is always clear and there is little noise on the track. The film's score really shines on this disc, having a much warmer and full sound than the muffled tinny on most earlier video releases (compare the audio on disc one to that in the clips from the documentary on disc two for example). The real gem though is Spider, with an atmospheric track that is quite powerful. Spider's mutterings become almost atmospheric, with the occasional word popping out, while other characters come through loud and clear. The score is similarly well represented. Overall it is a subtle, enveloping track that is perfect from the film.

Extras on the discs are a very mixed bag, with Criterion's Naked Lunch coming out well in front. From the excellent commentary track to the documentary on the second disc, there is a great deal of good information here. There is a little overlap, granted, but it's not too bad. Add to this a detailed essay on the special effects, complemented by copious concept art and behind the scenes still, as well as recordings on Burroughs reading from his novel, there is a great deal to like about Criterion's set. Spider has another excellent commentary track in which Cronenberg leads the viewer through the film, peppering the experience with little anecdotes here and there. Don't get me wrong; this is not just simply reiterating what is going happening on screen, but more of a guided tour of the details throughout the film. Not nearly as impressive are the three featurettes, totaling about a half-hour, which almost entirely overlap with the more thorough and entertaining commentary track. Finally, with The Brood we get a trailer. That's it.

In the end, all of the films are interesting and enjoyable. The Brood is worth checking out for genre and Cronenberg fans alike, and it's at a budget price (which is always nice). Naked Lunch is a much more difficult film, but can be rewarding if it clicks with you, and Criterion's set is very well put together with a good set of supplements. Spider is the easy recommendation though, a wonderfully complex film that holds up well to multiple viewings and is a fine starting point into the work David Cronenberg.

Rob Hale
nirayo@yahoo.com


The Brood
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Naked Lunch (Criterion)
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Spider
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