Death to Videodrome! Death to Judge Dave Ryan! Long live the new flesh!
Our review of Videodrome (Blu-Ray) Criterion Collection, published December 3rd, 2010, is also available.
Long live the newly-remastered flesh!
This is what a special edition DVD should be.
Facts of the Case
Max Renn (James Woods, The Onion Field, Salvador) is the general manager of a low-rent Toronto public access cable television channel. His days are occupied with meetings to purchase soft-core pornography (apparently the channel's primary genre of programming), and occasional video pirating sessions with his technical assistant Harlan (Peter Dvorsky). One day, Harlan shows him a tape he's made of an unscheduled and untrackable satellite broadcast he stumbled across. It's called "Videodrome," and it appears to be nothing but videotaped torture, all set in a harsh and austere orange clay-walled room.
Max, who is not the most moral or straight-living person in the world, is fascinated by the tape. He persuades one of his porn suppliers, an older woman named Masha (Lynne Gorman), to prod her contacts in the underground video world for information on the source of this "Videodrome." Max, you see, wants to buy it and air it.
Max also does a spot on a local talk show, where he's on a panel with radio psychologist Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry, Hairspray, lead singer of the rock group Blondie) and "video prophet" Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley). O'Blivion never appears in person; he communicates only via videotape, which he feels is the "new reality." Max is more interested in hitting (successfully) on Nicki. She turns out to be a masochist; perfect for Max's budding sadism. He exposes her to Videodrome, which turns her on.
As time progresses, Max slowly realizes the extent to which Videodrome has permeated his consciousness. He starts to have visions—disturbing visions. Masha attempts to warn him that Videodrome is dangerous, but Max wants to get to the truth. Masha's informational leads point to one person—Brian O'Blivion. Max goes to O'Blivion's Cathode Ray Mission to speak to him, but doesn't get past O'Blivion's guardian daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits, TekWar). She, however, assures him that O'Blivion will contact him soon. When he does, via videotape, the truths he reveals send Max's world spinning out of control. The path eventually leads to a small optical shop and a sharp-dressed man named Barry Convex (Les Carlson, The Fly) who may be hiding some secrets.
That's when it gets weird. Very weird. Weird in a way Max isn't quite prepared to process…
Videodrome is the defining work of one of the greatest (possibly the greatest) film directors in Canadian history, the erudite and singular David Cronenberg. Frequently typecast as a purveyor of gross-out horror films, Cronenberg's work, like Hitchcock's before him, transcends the typical "monster jumping out of the bushes" scare tactics of traditional horror. His films are more psychological, more thoughtful, and ultimately more intelligent than those of his horror peers. This is also true of his non-horror works, such as the powerful psychodrama Spider, or the pensively pornographic Crash.
A study of Cronenberg the filmmaker generally begins with an examination of three seminal early works. First, 1979's The Brood, an excoriation of EST-like self-help pop psychology disguised as a horror film, which first introduced a recurring Cronenberg theme: psychological changes in a person causing physiological manifestations. Second, 1981's Scanners—this cult hit about dangerous brain-exploding telepaths was his first major studio film, and marked his first use of elaborate (and disgusting) makeup effects. Finally, the film that unified all the threads Cronenberg had been exploring up to that point, and wrapped them in a prophetic script that reflected many of the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, the first true media scholar: Videodrome
As a follow-up to their outstanding special edition release of Cronenberg's misunderstood gem Naked Lunch, Criterion has pulled out all the stops for this key film in Cronenberg's career. Featuring an all-new and almost pristine digital transfer of Cronenberg's cut of the film (not the frequently-seen television version, which added an unnecessary coda to pad out the film's running time), as well as several valuable extras, this two-disc set is not only the definitive Videodrome release, but also as close to a one-shot encyclopedia of Cronenberg as you can get.
As mentioned above, the story of Videodrome is heavily influenced by the work of Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan, a Canadian academic who shot to popularity in the late 1960s as an unlikely hero of the counterculture, is best known for popularizing the concept of the "global village," united by new media such as television and telephone (and today, the internet). His mantra was "the medium is the message"—an assertion that (using his words) "Each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects which are its unique message." In layman's terms, McLuhan was arguing that the medium itself changes the perceptions of the viewer, and this change is the "message" the medium carries.
This concept is carried to an extreme by Cronenberg in Videodrome. His Videodrome program carries no message whatsoever—it's pure, unadulterated torture. But the "Videodrome signal"—the medium itself—physically alters anyone exposed to it. The medium becomes the message—and it's a bad message, let me tell you.
Is an understanding of McLuhan necessary to appreciate Videodrome? Not at all. The film stands on its own, thanks to Cronenberg's ability to put us squarely into the shoes of Max Renn. We see what he sees; Videodrome is indirectly affecting us through Max, since Max is our only window on this world. We don't need to know the academic arguments behind the script, we get to viscerally experience their consequences.
Another common Cronenberg theme that's well-explored here is the blurring of the lines between the "sensual," the "erotic," and the "pornographic." Each person tends to define these terms in an individualistic manner, with associated consequences arising therefrom. When we meet Max, he's screening soft-core porn. At this point in his life, it totally turns him off—because it's too "soft" for him. Max has become inured to this sort of stimulation, and now looks for things that give him a bigger "rush." This causes him to turn to Videodrome—something that's shocking, but which makes him feel something for a change. As he hallucinates, he begins to become sexually attracted to his television (the intermediary between Videodrome and himself), which is "pushing" him further towards the brink. But think about it—replace "Max" with "society," and you've got a pretty powerful message about the state of entertainment in our world, one which still resonates today. Will society become so immune to sexual pornography that something even worse will arise to take its place in the collective societal consciousness? Cronenberg certainly doesn't miss this—he works this exact concept into a plot point in the script very late in the film.
Cronenberg has often been accused of "hating the human body," or "hating sexuality," thanks to his often-graphic representations of human genitalia in his films. Now this is nothing new in art—just ask Freud—but it is true that Cronenberg…takes it to an extreme. In Videodrome, Max hallucinates (we think—reality is variable in this film) that he has developed a…well, let's call it an input/output port in his chest. He can be "programmed" through this port via the insertion of video cassettes. Is the I/O port a normal VCR tape insertion door? A RCA jack? Of course not—this is a Cronenberg film. It's a giant, pulsating, moist female vagina. Oh, the symbolism: Max is literally being screwed by television, and in theory is achieving orgasmic satisfaction from the process. It may not be your cup of tea—but it's certainly thought-provoking.
All of these themes should seem familiar to fans of Cronenberg's later films—the sensual/erotic/porn/violence connection was explored in Crash; the genitalia/body violation theme in The Fly and eXistenZ; the first-person hallucinatory experience in both Naked Lunch and Spider. Parts of these ideas had appeared in prior films as well—Videodrome is by no means the origin of Cronenberg's dalliances with these concepts. But here, in Videodrome, is the first comprehensive coverage of these now-fully-developed concepts by Cronenberg. That's what makes it a vital film, even though later Cronenberg works are arguably better.
Still don't understand what's going on here? Well, that's the beauty of a Criterion disc—Cronenberg himself will explain it all to you, in his surprisingly gentle and mannered way, on the commentary track. But here's the true shock: If you don't pick it up from Cronenberg, you'll get it from…James Woods?!?
There are actors, there are smart actors, there are really, really intelligent actors—and then there's Jimmy Woods. Woods isn't just smart, he's fantastically intelligent, and exceedingly well-spoken. Although the second commentary track is nominally made up of comments from Woods and co-star Deborah Harry (the lead singer of the group Blondie, who does a respectable job in the film and on the commentary), it's really a forum for Woods to discuss the film and the ideas that underlie it. Given the floor, Woods lectures like a professor—but he's a good professor; the kind whose classes fill up quickly. He's literate, interesting, and—most important—he truly gets the film and what it's all about. Woods was the absolute center of this film—he's in every single scene—and actually participated in creating the story, brainstorming ideas with Cronenberg even as filming was underway. It's just a delight to listen to him talk about this experience. If only all actors were this interesting when talking…
If you're still a bit unsure about the whole thing after listening to the director and star—well, there's always the critics and historians. As is common with Criterion releases, a well-assembled 37-page booklet is included, featuring essays on the film by critic Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas, and novelist/critic Gary Indiana. Each essay is unique, each adds some juicy behind-the-scenes tidbits about the film and its production, and there's no overlap in content between the three. For the ultimate in liner notes, you really can't beat Criterion's output.
There are additional extras on the second disc in the package. First, a half-hour featurette entitled Forging the New Flesh, covering the visual effects design for the film, parts of which were coordinated by legendary special makeup effects artist Rick Baker (Star Wars, An American Werewolf in London). (The documentary was made by director Michael Lennick, who was, back in 1982, the visual effects supervisor on Videodrome.) "Effects Men" is an audio interview with Lennick and Baker. There are also the usual production stills (which are actually captioned—why don't more studios do this for their stills?), trailers, and promotional geegaws as well.
However, a couple of the extras really stand out. First, under the title "Bootleg Video," the package includes the raw video footage of the soft-core porn series "Samurai Dreams"—the series that Max is contemplating buying at the beginning of the film. The footage was shot by Cronenberg himself (with some assistance from director of photography Mark Irwin, who had gotten his start on soft-core porn shoots just like it) straight to videotape, which was a new medium to him at the time. His commentary is interesting—he talks about the challenges of adapting his filmmaking knowledge to a new format that's completely different from film in almost every aspect. Also added in are large portions of the "Videodrome" program itself—again, filmed by Cronenberg on videotape. Don't worry—no actors were harmed in the making of "Videodrome." (In fact, apparently some of the extras were a little too into it…) Again, Cronenberg comments on the challenges faced in shooting these scenes of apparent torture, and on the quirkiness of video versus normal film stock.
But the capper of the set—something that will be of intense interest to fans of the horror genre—is Fear on Film, a promotional "roundtable" program assembled by Universal Studios in early 1982 to showcase three of their hot, young directors: David Cronenberg, John Landis, and John Carpenter. The roundtable session is absolutely fascinating. Cronenberg was, of course, working on Videodrome at the time. Carpenter was in the midst of finishing up his remake of The Thing, which was released that summer. Landis had recently completed An American Werewolf in London, and was working on a "secret project" for Universal. (The "secret project" was almost certainly the video compilation Coming Soon, a collection of clips from Universal's "50 greatest horror classics.") The fascination of this piece doesn't really come from what the directors say, although they do say some interesting things. It's all in how they interact with each other. Landis is bubbly, effervescent, and clearly chock full of manic energy—after all, he hadn't seen Vic Morrow die yet. Carpenter is quiet and extremely reticent; it's almost as if he's afraid to actually say anything, lest he embarrass himself. (He later became one of Cronenberg's most vocal advocates.) And then there's Cronenberg, the intellectual Canadian in the middle, who speaks about unfathomable perversions of the imagination in the no-nonsense, gentle tones of a country doctor asking about your family. The three directors talk about a wide range of things—censorship, marketing, history, where ideas come from, and so forth—and never, ever get boring. What more could a movie junkie or a horror buff ask for? The roundtable is presented as if it were a talk show of some sort (think of it as a precursor to an infomercial) and is hosted by Mick Garris, who was at that time a public relations person for Universal. Garris has since gone on to become a horror director himself—he directed both the Steven King miniseries The Stand and the miniseries remake of King's The Shining.
Since this is a Criterion release, it almost goes without saying that the digital transfer of the film is stupendous. I compared this copy of the film to the original DVD release (which, admittedly, was a fairly poor transfer), and the superiority of the Criterion transfer is almost shocking. The color balance is drastically improved; the film is much sharper and has better contrast than the old DVD version; and there are almost no traces of damage to the film. (The first DVD version was as scratchy as my old Sesame Street LPs.) In lieu of cobbling together a faux "stereo" track, Criterion has cleaned up the film's original audio track and released it in mono, as it was originally. It's a good mono track—but, alas, it's still mono.
Almost as an afterthought, the package includes a bonus bonus: Cronenberg's short film Camera, made in 2000 as part of an anniversary celebration for the Toronto International Film Festival. The film is essentially a five-minute monologue by actor Les Carlson, who played the role of Barry Convex in Videodrome. But even in this limited timeframe, the short manages to make bold and vivid statements about filmmaking, digital film vs. traditional film stock, and growing old. A well-made short film can be truly spectacular—and this is a very well-made short film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Absolutely none whatsoever.
A fantastic, creative, unique, and inimitable director. A bright, talented, inimitable star. A challenging, prescient, disturbing and unforgettable film. A near-flawless transfer. Solidly valuable bonus features. Debbie Harry. Even way-cool packaging. The Criterion Collection's release of Videodrome is everything a Cronenberg fan could ever want, and is by far the best place to start for those who have yet to be exposed to this master craftsman.
Acquitted, acquitted, acquitted—and the court suggests you sue the police, and maybe even the court, for false arrest and imprisonment. Seriously—I just can't say enough about this disc. Criterion absolutely gets three snaps in a Z-formation.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Director David Cronenberg and Director of Photography Mark Irwin
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