Film Reviews

Naked Lunch (1991) – 4K UHD Review

David Cronenberg’s movie Naked Lunch doesn’t actually have a great deal in common with the William S. Burroughs novel. This is a good thing, because the novel lacks a few things that are rather important for films, like an identifiable main character and a coherent storyline. Instead, Cronenberg’s version amalgamates a few of Burroughs’ stories, including The Exterminator, Queer and Junkie to present us with a tale that instead offers a fictionalised account of the writing of the book. The audience sees everything through the eyes of exterminator turned junkie Bill Lee, and his time in the strange, dreamlike place called Interzone.

We open on Bill going about his day job of exterminating roach infestations, but we don’t stay there for long. We quickly establish that Bill is, perhaps, not the most reliable of narrators as we learn that he’s getting high off his own supply of yellow bug powder. From there Bill’s life spirals out of control and he’s forced to flee to this strange place known as Interzone, following instructions provided to him by a succession of strange, insectoid individuals who claim that he’s actually an agent working for them.

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Is any of this real? Is it all in his head? The film delights in messing with the perceptions of the characters and the audience, never leaving a viewer entirely sure how much of what they’re seeing is real. Naked Lunch is an unsettling, disquieting watch, helped along by the performance of one hell of a cast. Peter Weller, hot off his turn in the metal underwear of Robocop, brings a gloriously deadpan demeanour to his portrayal of Bill, his under-reaction to the craziness that surrounds him the highlight of the film. Bill spends the film feeling like he’s wandered into someone else’s story, and has been mistaken for someone else. Everyone seems to know him, and expect things of him, and all he can do is try to go along with it, while being utterly bemused as to everything that’s going on.

Weller is helped by a superb collection of supporting actors, including Roy Schieder (Jaws, 2010) as the elusive Dr Benway, Ian Holm (Alien, Brazil) as Tom Frost, Julian Sands (Warlock, Boxing Helena) as Yves Cloquet, and Judy Davis (Barton Fink, Georgia) as Joan Lee. There’s even a great soundtrack from Howard Shore. Long before the sprawling, epic orchestration for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, he brought us something entirely more discordant, freeform and noir-esque with his soundtrack to Naked Lunch, which both fits perfectly within the film while also being worth a listen in its own right.

So what about this new release from Arrow Video? Is it worth picking up over, say, the Criterion version that’s been out on DVD for a while? Well the special features don’t disappoint. We’ve got the archival stuff from previous releases such as the trailer, the commentary track with David Cronenberg, the ‘Naked Making Lunch’ making-of documentary and the like. On top of this we have a smorgasbord of new material. There’s a new commentary track with film historian Jack Sargeant and screenwriter Graham Duff. There are new interviews with cast and crew, including a truly entertaining one hour interview with Peter Weller where he waxes lyrical about this movie and Burroughs’ other works.

The single most useful/informative addition is the ‘A Ticket to Interzone’ visual essay by critic David Cairns, which digs into the background of the film, how it came to be adapted, and offers other insights into the life of Burroughs and how it ties into the film. This one is pretty much mandatory viewing for anyone coming into this film cold. The Limited Edition version, as is standard for Arrow, also includes a poster, postcards, and an 80 page booklet with additional writing on the film and the production.

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Naked Lunch is a trippy, disjointed, erotic, grotesque, disturbing mess of a movie with a storyline that only occasionally deigns to make sense for a scene or two. Which is exactly what you want from a Cronenberg picture. This new Arrow release is their usual high standard, with a restoration that shows off the strange creatures of Bill Lee’s world in glorious detail, the visual effects holding up beautifully for a film that’s over thirty years old now. It’s not a film for everyone, but we still think it’s worth taking a trip to Interzone and checking it out. Maybe say hi to the Mugwump while you’re there, take in the sights and sounds. Just be careful what brand of typewriter you buy.

Naked Lunch is out now on 4K UHD and Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

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