(On Cable TV, January 2019) I’m not sure whether it’s a disappointment or a compliment to say “Wow, that wasn’t as unpleasant as I expected” at the end of writer/director David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. I suppose that it depends on what you think of Cronenberg’s movies and his reputation as a master of body horror. What seems like faint praise can be interpreted as disappointment if you hold the view that Cronenberg movies should be as extreme as possible, then go back to praise considering that Cronenberg’s reputation is such that he creates a sense of dread even before we start watching the movie, preparing our imaginations to all sorts of terrors yet to be experienced and perhaps more effective than if they had been shown on the screen. Of course, “not as unpleasant as I expected” is a relative term and jaded Cronenberg viewers will interpret it differently than more mainstream audiences—Dead Ringers remains a movie with sexual deception, torture-like gynecological tools (ick!), drug abuse, fatally codependent relationships, evisceration and a body count. “Not as unpleasant as I expected” may simply mean that we’ve been spared horrors such as a fifteen-minute one-shot of the film’s most sordid business. Everyone’s mileage will vary. Jeremy Irons stars as twins working as gynecologists and is suitably creepy in his dual roles, while Geneviève Bujold plays the unusual client that divides them. Dead Ringers’ sense of unease is displayed early on and never dispels, although it does prepare us for horrors more extreme than what we actually see. (For once, the female character escapes unscathed—and may even unwittingly deliver the killing blow.) It may not be as crazily imaginative as Cronenberg’s most unhinged movies such as Scanners and Videodrome, but it’s slicker, better controlled and probably a bit cleverer in the way it plays with unease rather than outright disgust. This being said, I suspect that Dead Ringers is more effective for viewers who think they know what to expect than relative newcomers to Cronenberg, and that male viewers will have more muted reactions than female ones.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) Michael Crichton became a contrarian cuckoo in his last few years, but even that sad brain-eating epilogue shouldn’t distract from an amazing career in which he wrote best-sellers, created hit TV shows, coded computer games, won a Technical Achievement Academy Award (!) for budgeting and scheduling innovations (!!) and, oh, directed half a dozen big-budget movies. Movies like Coma, showing his knack for technical medical drama coupled with solid storytelling abilities. While it’s not required to praise Coma beyond its own goals as a straightforward thriller, Crichton’s film does manage to be effective. Based on nothing less than one of Robin Cook’s early novels, it’s a blend of medical drama, high-tech investigation, conspiracy thriller and woman-in-distress drama. Genevieve Bujold stars as a doctor who becomes suspicious of mysterious coma cases at her hospital, with some good supporting performances by Michael Douglas and Rip Torn. (Watch for Ed Harris in his first film role as a technician.) While the film can’t escape a certain seventies stodginess, it’s this very same atmosphere that makes the film more interesting than expected today—Coma has emerged from the last thirty years as a period piece rather than a dated one, and it’s seeing things like Douglas in a full beard that makes the film rather entertaining to watch. Even the high-tech gloss of the film, at times ridiculous, is now rather charming. Not an essential film, but not an uninteresting one either.