By now, horror film fans should be accustomed to their favorite directors taking an occasional detour away from the genre. John Carpenter did it with Elvis, Sam Raimi with For Love of the Game, and Wes Craven with Music of the Heart, just to name a few. Canadian horror icon David Cronenberg also stepped away from his usual leanings with 1979's drag-racing opus Fast Company, a film which has rarely been seen, but is now available on DVD thanks to Blue Underground.
In Fast Company, we follow the doings of veteran drag racer Lonnie "Lucky Man" Johnson (William Smith), whose race team is sponsored by FastCo Oil. As the film opens, Lonnie's dragster explodes, which doesn't sit well with his company track rep, Phil Adamson (John Saxon). While Lonnie waits for a new car to be built, the team must rely on funny-car driver Bill "The Kid" Brocker (Nicholas Campbell). As the competition heats up between the FastCo team and rival driver Gary "The Blacksmith" Black (Cedric Smith), Lonnie realizes that he may have to fight to keep his team together, as the sly Adamson appears to have his own agenda.
If you've ever seen a David Cronenberg film, then you know that his movies can be described with one word: different. Even mainstream hits like The Fly have their own unique flavor and demonstrate Cronenberg's bizarre take on the world and science. And this theory brings us to the major problem with Fast Company -- there's nothing "different" about it. While the movie isn't necessarily bad, it could have been directed by anyone and does nothing to set itself about from any of the other "car" movies which came out in the late 70s/early 80s. From the stale plot to the hot-and-cold acting, to the overall low-budget feel of Fast Company, the movie has no distinct elements and it's easy to see how it could have been lost in the shuffle of drive-in flicks of the time.
And while Cronenberg may be a great admirer of driving machines (the commentary on the new Rabid DVD opens with Cronenberg giving a mini-tutorial on motorcycles), his distinct approach to filmmaking may not have been best suited for an exploitation film of this type, for Fast Company is a mixed-bag at best. The plot is somewhat odd and never really goes anywhere. At first glance, it appears that the movie is going to be about the older, veteran driver (Lonnie), who must deal with a younger driver (Billy), as in Driven. But, the film doesn't go in that direction. Instead, we get a very simple tale concerning Lonnie versus the greedy Adamson. Both Lonnie and Billy have women in their lives, but they are little more than ciphers. It's been while since I've seen a film with such morally ambiguous characters. While Adamson is clearly the villain of the piece, everyone else makes decisions which could be considered good or evil, even if they don't fit their character. And some of the finale doesn't make any logical sense. The overall ambiguity of the script makes for a lack of suspense and/or interest in the characters. For the most part the acting is good, and, as usual, Saxon is good as the heavy. One thing that Cronenberg and director of photography Mark Irwin did get right was the scenery and the racing scenes. There are some breathtaking landscape shots (with Canada doubling as Montana) and the camera gets as close to the racing action as possible. David Cronenberg is a unique and talented individual, but Fast Company is as pedestrian as they come.
Fast Company races onto DVD courtesy of Blue Underground. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. Given the low-budget and obscure nature of this movie, the image is pretty solid. The picture is sharp, but does show a fine amount of grain in most shots. The colors are good and the dark shades look good. The picture is quite detailed, and only shows trace amounts of artifacting. Edge-enhancement is kept to a minimum and haloes are absent from most shots. Overall, this transfer is impressive.
The DVD box art promises "room-rattling (sound)", but like the other Blue Underground releases, I didn't find that to be true. The Fast Company DVD offers both a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track and a DTS-ES 6.1 track. Both tracks offer very clear dialogue with no hissing or distortion. And the stereo effects, where the cars run from side-to-side, sound fine. But, I found the surround sound and subwoofer effects to be lacking on both tracks. The rear-speaker does play host to musical cues, crowd noises, and car sounds, but the audio is very discrete. The LFE response is never overwhelming, and not once did my room rattle. The bottom-line is that the Fast Company DVD features the typical mono track which have been remastered into a multi-channel mix and the disappointments which can accompany that.
Blue Underground has released Fast Company in two separate DVD incarnations, a single-disc version and a two-disc limited edition release. Disc 1, which includes the movie, contains several extras. We start with an audio commentary from director/co-writer David Cronenberg. Cronenberg speaks at length throughout the film, and considering the fact that he says he hasn't seen the film in 25 years, he has many recollections of the film's production and shares many detailed anecdotes about the making of the film and the crew who was involved. Cronenberg is quick to admit that the film was a low-budget experience, but he clearly has affection for the movie. Next up is "Inside the Character Actor's Studio" (12 minutes), which is an interview with stars William Smith and John Saxon where they share their thoughts on Fast Company and talk about their careers as character actors and what those roles entail. The 14-minute "Shooting Cronenberg" is a very impressive extra, as director of photography Mark Irwin talks about not only his memories of Fast Company, but also talks the five other films he made with Cronenberg, and then goes on to talk about his career after that. (It should be noted that both of those extras are 16 x 9 enhanced.) The extras on Disc 1 are rounded out by the theatrical trailer for Fast Company (1.85:1, 16 x 9), a poster & still gallery, and a bio of star Claudia Jennings.
The extras on the second disc are only available in the limited edition package and they are devoted to Cronenberg and his early career. The DVD contains two of Cronenberg's earliest films, Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), both of which are letterboxed at approximately 1.78:1 and the transfers are enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. If you like avant garde films, then you will love this pair of oddities, about which Cronenberg says, "Stereo and Crimes of the Future are not films one builds a career on..." Both films were shot without sound and feature voice-overs. Stereo, which was shot in black & white, seemingly chronicles the activities of a visitor to a clinic where experiments are being conducted to artificially grant humans telepathic powers. Aside from an early allusion to Cronenberg's later Scanners, this movie is incredibly boring and nearly coma-inducing, as the narration (which is laden with S.A.T.-caliber words) usually has nothing to do with the visuals. The movie features a group of individuals who look as if they've escaped from a Shakespearian theater troupe and the most effeminate man ever seen on film. As for the film itself, the transfer looks great, as the black & white photography is amazingly crisp and shows only minor defects. Crimes of the Future is somewhat better for the simple reason that the film has more a of a "plot" and the narration is actually tied into the on-screen action. However, as was the art-film vogue at the time, Cronenberg has augmented the narration with odd sound effects, which are often annoying. The story centers on Adrian Tripod (Ronald Mlodzik), the director of "The House of Skin", a clinic which was founded by the mad dermatologist Antoine Rogue. (Shades of Rabid here.) The patients at the clinic emit a cholocate-syrup looking substance from their bodies, and others are compelled to lick it off. Tripod then move on to another clinic, where we get hints at The Brood and Dead Ringers. The colors here look fantastic and the image is incredibly crisp. It's very interesting to see how Cronenberg laid the groundwork for his later films in these early exercises, but the films themselves are quite boring and most will find them difficult to watch. Also included on this DVD is a brief poster & still gallery and a lengthy text bio for Cronenberg.
It's a bit of a crime when a famous director's complete catalog isn't available to their fans, so it's a triumph that Fast Company is now available on DVD. Still, die-hard Cronenberg fans who are accustomed to his own special version of "science gone awry" films may have trouble warming up to this lackluster car racing film, but completists will love the fact that two of Cronenberg's early films are included in this set.