Based on J.G. Ballard’s equally notorious cult favourite novel of the same name, David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) may be the most divisive film from a director who has been consistently toying with the line between what is and isn’t allowed in mainstream horror cinema. He certainly has his more accessible works, such as horror classic The Fly (1986) and his two more recent crime-dramas, A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), but Crash certainly isn’t one of them, and it also never tries to be.
Starring James Spader (now more known for playing Ultron in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though he used to appear in many other independent films), Deborah Kara Unger and Holly Hunter, Crash is, believe it or not, a film about a dingy underground cult-like group of people who are turned on by the idea of car-crashes (or, at least, car crashes deeply involved in their sexual lives). Needless to say, it proved divisive upon release, but both Ballard’s 1973 novel and Cronenberg’s film adaptation is focused on more than just extremity and shocking their audiences – they’re both speaking to a far more disturbing shift within industrial society that sees the car become an intimate part of everyday life in spite of the fact that, as Ballard has said, every time anybody gets into a car they are leaving their lives in the hands of a volatile machine.
Just as Cronenberg has always been an odd, eerie filmmaker, Ballard was always a strange writer, and the two converge here perfectly. Others may have tried to adapt Ballard’s writing, such as Ben Wheatley with 2015’s High Rise, but none have succeeded to the same extent that Cronenberg did in 1996 (even if some of the other adaptations of Ballard’s work have become cult favourites, too – his writing seems to be directly connected to certain groups of readers), as much as they may have tried. Cronenberg appears to be the only director who was willing to go all the way when adapting his work, and so he effectively captured all that made Ballard’s writing work in experimental literature circles and applied it to film, hence the cult status (which it gained very quickly after being released to mixed reviews, many finding it too violent and too disturbing to watch).
It’s a shame that a film as good and as innovative as Cronenberg’s Crash would have to become synonymous with Paul Haggis’ Oscar-baiting train wreck of the same name released eight years later, but it’s a little ironic that a film so angry and so sexually-violent would be overwritten somewhat by another film so different, a complete cinematic opposite. Cronenberg’s Crash remains one of his most infamous films, and surprisingly one that doesn’t seem to be recognised as a cult classic as often as it should be given its reception. Both Ballard’s book and Cronenberg’s film are disturbing and perverse, but very intense experiences that have a lot to say about modern industrialism and its place in our daily lives, whether that is a position we recognise or not.
Crash, directed by David Cronenberg and released in 1996, is available to stream on Amazon Prime and is available on DVD. Arrow Video also recently released a limited edition Blu-Ray of the film. Watch the trailer below: