In 1983 David Cronenberg’s strange, lyrical, and indelible Videodrome was released, and over 20 years later the question remains “What is Videodrome?” Following up the four films that cemented his reputation as the master of venereal horror (from 1975’s Shivers to 1981’s Scanners), Videodrome was the apex of Cronenberg’s career at that point, as both an experimental film (which his early college films were) and a horror movie. James Woods stars as Max Renn, a cable TV producer looking for the hottest latest and sleaziest new show, and runs across a show that just features people being torture with no plot or explanation. He and his girlfriend Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry) are fascinated by it, but the byproducts of watching it cause Max to hallucinate, and perhaps become a murderer. My review of Criterion’s Blu-ray of Videodrome follows after the jump.
Sleazy cable TV president Max Renn (James Woods) is looking for a hit show that hopefully will take the porn and violence he sells to the next level. Through his tech guy Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), he stumbles on a brief snippet of a program called “Videodrome,” which consists of people being tortured and murdered in front of a red clay background. Thinking that this may be the next big thing, he tries to track the show down, but the feed is being bounced around and is eventually found to be broadcast out of Pittsburgh. Who’s behind it is unknown. Max’s new girlfriend Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry) also finds the show intoxicating — she has strong masochistic tendencies, and to investigate further she decides to go to Pittsburgh, hoping to become a “contestant.”
Eventually Max is led to Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creely), who only appears on television, and he learns more with the help of Brian’s daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits), who gives him a video that confirms her father is dead, killed by simply watching Videodrome. It turns out that Videodrome is not what it seems — it is being used to test a new form of mind-control that causes visions and tumors. But the further Max falls under the show’s influence, the more his reality becomes distorted. After all, the program’s produces hope to use him as an assassin to get Videodrome on the air.
This is the end of Cronenberg’s early career, and his move to American studios saw him working more in the mainstream after this picture. Perhaps he knew he couldn’t take it any further — it also was his last original screenplay for sixteen years until 1999’s eXistenZ, which itself comments on Videodrome. That’s the baggage. But what the heck is this film, and what is it saying? Perhaps it’s best not to ask — Cronenberg explores his fascination with body mutation to its own logical end. Or perhaps “logical” isn’t the best word. The film has the pace of a fever-dream, and like a dream narrative, how much is real is always in question. What isn’t in question is how fascinating the picture remains to this day.
What has always separated David Cronenberg from other horror directors is the intelligence he applies to his work. Although his films are just as visceral, it’s the ideas behind the gore that tend to stick in the mind. And Videodrome is the director’s ultimate “head” movie, in that virtually everything takes place within Max Renn’s mind. Like Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, the film has the logic of a poet’s dream — except in this case, it’s about an artist exploring the dark side of sexuality and violence. As the story moves further along, reality itself becomes distorted, and it’s impossible to say how much Max’s body mutations and visions (of such things as pulsating eroticized televisions) are in his head and how much is actually happening — a point Cronenberg intentionally blurs. But since Cronenberg has always been fascinated by human forms in mutation, and how technology becomes an extension of human existence, Videodrome comes across as his grandest statement on the topic.
In fact, the picture itself mutates (perhaps partially because filming began without a completed script). At first the movie seems to be about how exposure to extreme events can be corrosive, but it’s later revealed that the effects of Videodrome could be accomplished over a test pattern, while some of the important characters have been dead since their first appearances. The hallucinogenic imagery becomes an end to itself — the sight of Renn sticking his gun into a VCR slot that has opened in his chest, with its decidedly sexual implications, is something that could have only escaped from David Cronenberg’s imagination.
The Criterion Collection presents the uncut Videodrome in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and in its original monaural audio (1.0). The film comes with two audio commentaries, the first with director David Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin, the second with actors James Woods and Deborah Harry. Ccronenberg has always been one of the best commentators, and his work here is excellent, as he offers some insight into the scripting process and his feelings about the movie (then twenty years on), while the Woods/Harry track is a little more friendly, but Woods is a smart guy, and he loves this film. All the supplements are carryovers from the original DVD release (right down to the packaging design), so there’s also “Camera” (7 min.), a short film Cronenberg made for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto film festival with Videodrome co-star Les Carlson. This is followed by the special-effects documentary “Forging the New Flesh” (28 min.), created by video-effects supervisor Michael Lennick, which interviews Lennick, make-up artist Rick Baker, physical effects supervisor Frank Carere, make-up effects crew member Bill Sturgeon, location manager David Coatsworth, and also includes vintage interviews with Cronenberg and Woods. Next up is “Effects men” (19 min.), which consists of audio interviews with Lennick and Baker. In the “Bootleg Video” section, the video footage included in the film is shown uncut: “Samurai Dreams” (5 min.) features commentary by Cronenberg, and a second audio track with Lennick and Irwin, who provide the sole track for the “Videodrome” footage (7 min.), while Lennick goes solo on the “Helmet Cam Test” footage (5 min.).
“Fear on Film” (26 min.) is the most intriguing supplement, collecting Cronenberg for an interview with fellow directors John Carpenter and John Landis, and it’s hosted by future director Mick Garris. Though it holds more promise than it delivers, the topics of conversation are reasonably interesting, and just the collision of these three minds is fascinating, even if there’s not enough overlap of them talking. Also included are three trailers, a vintage “making-of” spot (8 min.), and extensive stills galleries. What unfortunately is not included are the cut scenes which were used for television screenings, which were not included on the previous release, but I understand why those are being ignored. This is a year-end contender for best Blu-ray.
[Blu-ray captures courtesy of DVDBeaver]