Criterion // 1983 // 89 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 3rd, 2010
"Television is reality, and reality is less than television." -- Brian O'Blivion
Back in 1982-83, David Cronenberg was known (if he was known) for making some creepy exploitation flicks that presented the revolt of the body against the mind. Films such as The Brood, Shivers, and Scanners had cemented Cronenberg as the king of "venereal horror." He obviously wasn't entirely comfortable with that crown, and as his career has gone on, he's done more and more to trouble his role as the purveyor of strictly body oriented horror. Arguably that transition started with Fast Company, Cronenberg's foray into the racing and road movie genre so popular in the '70s, but for most viewers Videodrome was the film that announced David Cronenberg as an artist with more than exploitation on his mind. A genre-bending and mind-blowing foray into the effects of television, Videodrome is a classic, and to honor it Criterion gave it one of their more lavish single-movie DVD editions way back in 2004. Now that release has been updated to hi-def, and the results are nothing short of spectacular.
Max Renn (James Woods, Any Given Sunday) runs a cable TV station that broadcasts material as extreme as it can get away with. When his resident satellite pirate catches a glimpse of a show called Videodrome that features realistic-looking torture and death, Renn is hooked. As he tries to track down the signal, he gets more and more wrapped up in a world where what's on the screen may be more real than what's in front of him.
I fully admit to a certain nostalgic love of Videodrome. I saw it at an impressionable age, and it was not only my first Cronenberg film, but also one of the first films that showed me just how flexible the medium could be. I am a film fan today in large part because of Videodrome. Because I'm generally suspicious of nostalgia, I'm always shocked when I revisit Videodrome: it still holds up. The world has moved on -- "tapes," VHS or otherwise, are not on most peoples' radar and the film does little to predict something like the Internet -- and yet the film still asks important questions about the role of technology in our social lives, about the line between what's real and what's virtual. Sure, some of the little things are off, like cable TV now being ubiquitous, but when Brian O'Blivion says in the future we will all have a television name, he's not far off. It was just the Internet instead of TV that brought the point home. More importantly, the film isn't in the business of predicting the future. Rather, it was trying to make sense of the impact of television's dominance in our culture. That dominance might have broadened out to include more media outlets than television alone, but Videodrome still asks us to question where we stand in relation to the things we consume.
Enough of all that heavy stuff -- Videodrome is also, to a large extent, a kind of sci-fi thriller. Max Renn against the evil, controlling corporate bad guys. Sure, the film doesn't end in a particularly thrilling (or necessarily satisfying) way, but it does keep the viewer on the edge of the seat because on the first (or even the fourth) run-through it's hard to know exactly what's going to happen next. We're helped along on this journey by a fine performance from James Woods. Max Renn isn't the most likable guy in the world, but in Woods' hands he's a credible antihero, someone we want to unravel the mystery of Videodrome. He's helped by the great Deborah Harry, a left-field choice from Cronenberg that continue his penchant for hiring outside the mainstream actresses in his work. Her job is basically to exude sexuality, and with her blonde hair and red lips, does a fantastic job of it. Also, Rick Baker throws in some brilliant effects that continually ground the more intellectual concerns about identity in the fleshy details of the body -- like when Max Renn pierces Nicki Brand's ear during as a sexual act. It's probably not going to go down in the Top Ten effects movies, but Videodrome has its share of old-school practical effects joys.
Then, there's this Blu-ray from Criterion. The name of the game here is texture, that's what the AVC transfer offers up this time round. The first DVD from the company looked amazing, with a generally clean print and a fine transfer. This time around, the little things pop. The small details of clothing, the fine wrinkles of the face seem to jump out like they haven't in previous releases. Certainly it's not a reference transfer: the film was made too long ago for too little money, but print damage is minimal, and the grain revealed by this transfer looks intentional and well-rendered rather than simply noisy. It's not jawdropping by itself, but in context the look of the film is amazing. The mono track is uncompressed, which gives the sound a little room to breathe here. Dialogue is clearly audible, and the film's occasionally throbbing soundtrack comes through quite easily.
All those extras from the DVD edition are back and just as good as before. Two commentary tracks -- the first with Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin, the second with James Woods and Deborah Harry -- are included, though both are edited together rather than duo commentaries. Both offer different perspectives on the making of the film, from the more technical material of Irwin, to the view on the set from Woods and Harry, up to Cronenberg's discussion of the afterlife the film has enjoyed since its release. We also get a documentary from the previous DVD, "Forging the New Flesh," which is a look back on the film's effects. To continue the effects theme there are audio interviews with Rick Baker and Michael Lennick. The "Bootleg Video" feature shows us the unedited Samurai Dreams segment from the film as well as more footage from the set of the Videodrome show and test footage for the helmet cam. These segments are offered with optional commentary by Cronenberg or Irwin and Lennick. One of the more interesting features for me is "Fear on Film," a roundtable interview between Cronenberg and fellow horror luminaries John Landis and John Carpenter from way back in 1981. The trio are not as engaged as they could be, but it's an interesting document of the time. Last up on the disc is a collection of marketing materials including trailers, an EPK, a gallery of posters, and stills. The usual Criterion booklet includes essays from Tim Lucas (who wrote a book on Videodrome), Gary Indiana, and Carrie Rickey.
Although the effect isn't quite the same, the Blu-ray is a scaled-down version of the DVD packaging, including a faux-cassette case housed inside a sturdy cardboard sleeve.
Cronenberg films are not for everyone. In Videodrome he sets out to discomfit the audience, and with some viewers he may succeed to well. Others will find the film's ending somewhat dissatisfying. There's also enough gore and nudity to turn some off, but for those willing to brave it, Videodrome is a visionary statement.
Some might also quibble that there's nothing new about this release except for the audiovisual upgrade. Apparently some of the Easter eggs haven't been transferred as well, but since they were supplemental supplements, it seems harsh to worry about them too much.
An upgrade in a case like this is a tough call. Obviously if you don't own the previous release (or you own the old school Universal disc from last century) and have any interest in the film, this is the way to see it. I think the difference between the old Criterion DVD and this Blu-ray is sufficiently powerful to justify an upgrade. The improved grain and fine texture detail really help the film, though a rental might be necessary to cinch the deal.
Videodrome on Blu-ray is not guilty. Long live the new flesh.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Image Gallery