Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Videodrome is core science fiction in which director David Cronenberg truly hit his pace as an
innovator of bizarre intellectual concepts. He not only introduced the first fully-realized virtual
reality world in a movie, he did it with more dangerous ideas than had ever seen the light of a movie
with major distribution: Insidious technology, underground video, porn, violence, sado-masochism
and snuff movies.
They're all in the service of a film concept that in its maturity was light-years ahead of the
competition. Readers of fare like Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
possibly felt right at home, but most of the 'normal' 1983 audience was lost, lost, lost.
Soft-core cable entrepreneur Max Renn (James Woods) is hot for new material. His assistant Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) manages to tap into an illegal satellite transmission of an all-torture, all-murder TV signal called Videodrome. Max dispatches porn agent Masha (Lynne Gorman) to find it for his cable channel, and follows the trail to Bianca O'Blivion (Sonja Smits), the daughter of video cult visionary Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley). This techno-guru seems to exist only on videotape, dispensing weird wisdom about a new world where people will physically merge with the virtual video world. Max also becomes attracted to radio psychologist Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), a masochistic sensationalist who introduces him to mild S&M. When she finds out about Videodrome, her response is to immediately seek out the video horrorshow - to become a 'contestant.'
David Cronenberg's erratic films before Videodrome were a hit 'n miss string of exploitative
shockers with strong core ideas. Shivers and Rabid had grandiose concepts that overshadowed
their grindhouse content: The powerful ideas made an impact far beyond mere nudity and gore. Shivers was
a gloss on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Scanners hit the jackpot with a commercial
hybrid of Philip K. Dick's expanded-consciousness worldview. Superpowered minds could invade other minds
to control and destroy, but finer implications gave way to chase scenes and exploding heads, surefire
audience-pleasing material. 1
Videodrome recycles previous Cronenberg ideas -- strange new body orifices, exploding bodies,
technological conspiracies to transform mankind - -and adds the Dickian idea of altered
reality. We experience Max Renn's disconcerting hallucinations as his mind is altered by
the Videodrome video signal. Max becomes the classic surreal hero of Buñuel, an Archibaldo de
La Cruz or Horrible Dr. Hichcock exploring new conceptual territory with his eyes wide open.
Cronenberg used this big theme to spectacularly transform the limited original concept of The Fly.
In his remake, a transformation into a monster becomes a voyage of grotesque but miraculous possibilities. Seth
Brundle confronts the mortality of the flesh and the
alien-ness of his own body as he outgrows his human form, keeping 'souvenirs' in his medicine
chest. Max Renn has been infected with a similar plague that is also changing him from the inside out, and
he too has to learn to embrace an unknown future he calls 'the new flesh.' Scientific progress blends
with spirituality when the ultimate escape from 'the old flesh' becomes all too obvious.
Cronenberg really hits his directing stride with Videodrome. For the first time his actors are
all top-rank. The effects don't overpower the story and the story doesn't rely on a chase to sustain
its thriller framework. The revelations are paced well and we accept some truly
weird happenings as matters of fact. A television is transformed into a veined and pulsing sexual
organ; Max Renn pulls an organic pistol from a vagina-like slit in his stomach. 2
James Woods proves himself perfectly suited to playing a basically sympathetic character that nevertheless
is a voyeur and softcore smut peddler. The little touches he gives the role become funnier on repeated
viewings. Deborah Harry makes a terrific early impact and then exits the film to become a virtual
presence, which probably sparked resentment among the Blondie fan-base who wanted her character
to stick around longer. Nicki Brand is one of the few convincing masochists in movies and makes the erotic
connection Cronenberg needs. A surreal heroine, she goes straight to the center of her obsession and never
Among the excellent supporting players is Lynne Gorman, who Cronenberg manages to make intriguing
just by allowing her to be a woman older than fifty with a sexual appetite. Cronenberg also introduces a comic
irony beyond his penchant for bizarre character names. At one point Max Renn tries on a pair of
dark-framed glasses and for a second 'transforms' into a substitute David Cronenberg. During an
escape in an alley, Renn passes workers moving a series of doors. Are they a visual pun for the 'doors' of
But what we remember the most are the bizarro instances where erotic and technological taboos
merge. Max Renn is able to have physical sex with a pair of lips on a television screen, and his
'stomach vagina' hides weapons and itself becomes a perverse weapon. For these illusions
Cronenberg creates visual representations that go a step beyond classical film surrealism, as we
share in the sensations of the surrealist adventurer. Some concepts aren't as well established. In one scene Renn's obscene gun-arm (shades of The Quatermass Xperiment) is meant to shoot not bullets but instant-growing cancerous tumors.
There's also the gross ending where Max Renn is shown the next step in his personal evolution by
a virtual Deborah Harry, who might as well be speaking to him from The Matrix. His crossover
is accomplished by imitating something he sees on television. Cronenberg's movie ideas in
these early films were way, way out there in the best possible meaning of the term. They're
always driven by a coherent interior logic.
Criterion's exhaustive special edition of Videodrome is clearly a labor of love. Veteran Criterion producer Karen Stetler is joined by Marc Walkow in the producer credits. The plentiful behind-the-scenes docus and galleries are mostly overseen by special effects maestro Michael Lennick, but are
secondary to the conceptual riches offered by the interviews, commentaries and essays. The literary
voices are Carrie Rickey, Gary Indiana and Tim Lucas, who was a frequent visitor to the film's Canadian
set. The commentators are Cronenberg, his cameraman Mark Irwin and his stars Woods and Harry. All
are verbally articulate about the film and their work in it. Disc one also has a short Cronenberg film from
Disc two has a very good docu about the makeup effects, utilizing lots of original video from the set. There
are also separate audio interviews with makeup effects men Rick Baker
and Lennick. A section called Bootleg Video includes the complete footage of Max Renn's softcore
Samurai Dreams cable show and seven uncut minutes of Videodrome torture sessions, including 'notorious'
material cut from the film. The stills and visual galleries are here, along with an original featurette. Topping it all off is a 1981 roundtable interview with Cronenberg and fellow directors John Carpenter and John Landis, at the time all involved in fantastic films. The least demonstrative of the three, Cronenberg seems the only one with "something to say."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: numerous. See above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 26, 2004
1. Reading The Three
Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch was for Savant a necessary prerequisite to fully understanding
this film. Videodrome throws so many verbal and visual concepts at us that without some sort
of preconditioning, it's too easy to reject them. I saw the film three times when new, and
this was the first time that I was receptive to its central fact: Spectacular Optics plans
to use Videodrome's signal to destroy "bad" citizens who want to see taboo visual content. Don't
they realize that that really means all of us?
2. In Alien it was hard to accept an alien creature that appeared
to be simultaneously made of organic materials and chrome steel. In Videodrome Renn's
organic melding with a steel gun is a kind of practical evolution, and his changing a man's hand into a
hand grenade (most of us don't recognize it as such) is like a gag from a Looney Tunes cartoon.
In The Fly, Seth Brundle becomes partially fused with his own invention, dragging steel the door
of his teleportation pod behind him like an albatross. Cronenberg wants to man to fuse with his inventions,
like the morbid car fetishists in Crash.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson