David Cronenberg’s is one of the most prophetic horror visionaries ever. They Came From Within aka Shivers – featuring bloody potato monsters that increase libidos – foretold the pharmaceutical development of positive parasitology; Rabid explored our infatuation with plastic surgery, and the sleazy, overnight butchers that would sully their profession; The Brood tackled the subject of physical manifestations of emotions; and Scanners, his break out film in America, showcased Cronenberg’s fascination with the effects of drugs and treatments on the human body, giving way to both positive and negative effects. Videodrome, a film that I feel is his best, was more ahead of its time than anything the director has ever made. Not only are many of the ideas more relevant than ever in today’s climate, but some haven’t even been fully realized.
James Woods stars as Max Renn, a self-important business man who owns a small TV station looking for something different to boost their ratings. Acknowledging the allure of sex and violence, he immediately becomes hooked on Videodrome, a snuff-esque pirate transmission found via satellite by Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), an employee of the station. Realizing that this is what he’s been looking for, Max goes off in search of Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a man who seemingly knows everything there is to know about the transmission, while Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), a psychiatrist he’s recently been hooking up with, travels to Pittsburgh, where Videodrome seems to be based in. Of course, everything is not what it seems, and soon after, Nicki goes missing and Bianca O’Blivion, Brian’s daughter and assistant, gives Max a videotape which causes him to hallucinate and physically mutate (if it’s not all in his mind), as well as make him aware of a horrific conspiracy far beyond anything he could have imagined.
Videodrome presents a society in which oppression and order are broken down and non-existent. The United States is the only country in the world where our film censorship board isn’t government regulated, and Cronenberg explores his own frustration with Canada’s censors here (he once commented in an interview that he had to travel to Buffalo to see his own film uncensored). It’s a theme he’s covered again and again, even in character studies like A History Of Violence, where oppression and order are personified in small town life and repression of violence, which has become normal to Joey. While covering the same ground is a quick way to become stale and irrelevant, Cronenberg always managed to keep us engaged because his films are both intelligible and visceral, giving us the best of both worlds. The film is well balanced and never extreme in either direction, and if he would have gone through with his original script, featuring far more “exploding cancer” deaths and several other mind-melding situations, I doubt it would be held in as high esteem as it is today.
The technology seen in the film might as well qualify Cronenberg as a full-blown psychic. In a time when HBO didn’t exist and someone would have balked at the idea of reality TV, Videodrome is a world filled with an audience looking for cheap thrills, because they are morally obligated not to act this way themselves, nor is it something society would smile upon. Much like Battle Royale, the film uses cultural subtext and on-screen thrills to get its message across, something that other productions like, say, The Condemned – an obvious BR rip-off – don’t take into consideration.
Criterion’s Blu-Ray port of Videodrome has absolutely no new bonus features, and even carries the same booklet, including essays by Carrie Rickey (Make Mine Cronenberg), Tim Lucas (Medium Cruel: Reflections On Videodrome), and Gary Indiana (That Slithery Sense Of Unreality). So, the real question here is: does the new transfer and uncompressed soundtrack warrant an upgrade? In short, yes. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is director and cinematographer approved, but is somewhat disappointing. Detail and contrast is vastly improved over the film’s DVD counterpart, as well as color levels and depth. However, there are a few obvious flaws, such as edge enhancement and DNR; it’s not overbearing, and not used in every scene, but it does pop up several times during the film. You can also see some haloing, but again, it’s not extreme. The film does still carry that organic, grainy look, and for a 27-year-old feature, it looks remarkable all things considered. The LPCM 1.0 monaural track has no discernable flaws; the dialogue and Howard Shore’s score are perfectly balanced, and the underlying low frequencies still pack some punch. The track is somewhat limited due to the technology used to create the masters, but it’s a definite improvement over the DVD.
While I wish Cronenberg would return to horror, having a key entry in your filmography like Videodrome is something many horror directors wish they could have. Between the stellar performances by Woods and Harry, Fx work by Rick Baker, and beautiful cinematography by Mark Irwin, Cronenberg managed to create both an artistic and career high with his tale of the psychological effects of entertainment and technology running our lives.
Commentary – Two commentary tracks are included on the disc, featuring director David Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin on one, and James Woods and Deborah Harry on the other, and both are worth your time. The director/cinematographer track is the more technical, and the better of the two, and has the two talking about casting, the many ideas and themes at play in the film, deleted scenes, special effects, and even how a test screening went in Boston. Woods and Harry dish on many of the same topics on their track, but it’s interesting to hear the different perceptions of what is going on in the film, especially for one as layered as Videodrome.
Camera (6:40) – Commissioned by TIFF in 2000, this short written and directed by Cronenberg links life, death, and acting and features work byVideodromealumni Leslie Carlson, Howard Shore, Carol Spier, and Ronald Sanders. I think it’s interesting that it was shot digitally, save for the last shot which was done with the 35mm camera featured on screen, but the short itself isn’t terribly impressive.
Forging The New Flesh (27:41) – The closest thing to a retrospective documentary on the disc, this meaty featurette – assembled by special effects supervisor Michael Lennick – focuses on the production history and special effects of Videodrome, and features interviews with Rick Baker, James Woods, and Bill Sturgeon, among others. A lot of on-set impressions and stories are shared, including a dissection of some of the more difficult scenes to pull off (of which there were many), and several sequences of on-set footage and tests are also provided.
Effects Men (19:28) – Broken up into four sections (The Golden Age, James Woods, Collaboration, and David’s Stories), this audio only compilation of interviews with Baker and Lennick plays out like a deleted scene section from Forging The New Flesh. There’s a good bit of overlap subject-wise, but they dish out a few different stories.
Bootleg Video (17:06) – All the “film within the film” footage, including Samurai Dreams (the softcore porn show pitched to Max), Transmissions from `Videodrome’, and Helmet-Cam Test, which shows various versions of Max’s point-of-view as he sees the world through Brian Convex’s prototype helmet. Optional commentaries with Cronenberg, Lennick, and Irwin are included.
Effects Visual Essay (19:17) – Tim Lucas was the only journalist allowed on the set of Videodrome, covering the film for Cinefantastique along with his wife and Robert Uth. This slideshow is a collection of stills taken over the course of their several visits (nine days total once all was said and done). There’s a fair amount of behind-the-scenes photos, which is to be expected, but the real gems here are those which capture deleted scenes and unfinished sequences that have never seen the light of day, making this a must-see. Cue cards are included between photos, giving some context to what’s on screen.
Fear On Film (25:40) – An archival round table discussion from 1982 featuring John Carpenter, John Landis, and David Cronenberg, moderated by Mick Garris. It was originally intended as a piece of marketing for Universal (Garris was working as a publicity specialist for the studio’s genre pictures at the time), since all of the directors were working on horror films for the studio at the time. It’s filled with a good amount of fluff, and the questions don’t really dissect the films at hand, instead providing generalizations about the genre. It’s great to see all these guys together, but there’s really nothing of note being discussed – a rather long discussion of the MPAA is kind of comical considering their stance of re-evaluating horror censorship as of late.
The Making Of Videodrome (7:49) – Shot by Mick Garris, this making-of is a pretty standard EPK, featuring short interview snippets of Woods, Harry, Cronenberg and Baker, along with some behind-the-scenes footage and film clips.