For all of my alleged worldliness, I had never seen Videodrome all the way through for whatever reason. Perhaps like the era, I remember what watching cutting-edge television was like in the early '80s being the kid of a pre-cable home, trying to watch cable that at the time was broadcast in scrambled video, trying to find something better to watch like the film's protagonist. But upon further examination, films like Videodrome and Network are films that would seem to have two similar messages despite telling very different stories.
Videodrome is written and directed by David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises), and follows Max Renn (James Woods, Surf's Up), the President and Programming head of Channel 83/CIVIC-TV in Toronto. Max's channel specializes in programs designed to titillate and offend in some cases, and with the help of a friend, he discovers an illegal satellite feed that shows men and women being beaten and tortured. Max gets very intrigued by this programming titled "Videodrome" and asks his friend to continue obtaining footage of it, in the hopes of broadcasting this footage on CIVIC-TV.
The more Max watches the programming though, he sees that it is distorting the lives of those he meets. He meets Nicki (Deborah Harry, Hairspray, but also working with the band Blondie at the time of the production) at a television interview where he is called upon to defend his programming. The two have a relationship and he finds out Nicki likes violent sex and is a sadomasochist or sorts, liking to be cut and burned during their encounter. Along with this influence over people, Videodrome apparently begins to and blur his perception of reality. He tries to seek out the other party from his interview, a mysterious man known only as Brian O'Blivion, and finds out that what goes on in Videodrome is very real. It's also part of a larger operation designed to eliminate those who gravitate to pornography and violence, so Max tries to escape Videodrome and his own demons in the process.
What Cronenberg does in Videodrome, in a uniquely Cronenberg-ian way, is helps show us the power that television and video had at the time of the film, but also the potential addictive powers that television possessed, even at the time the film. Be it either from videocassettes that Max puts into a vagina-like orifice into his stomach (at this point, it's worth the tangent to mention the outstanding work in this film from makeup effects wizard Rick Baker). Be it straight into his brain or in this method, Cronenberg seems to imply that the influences of television are almost primal, and with the way people discuss television shows these days, is he wrong?
Maybe a little more chillingly, what does it mean for those who have a grasp of the power of the message? When Max becomes more familiar with those who want to purge the world of undesirables who are attracted to media full of sex and/or violence, he's naturally a little resistant, even as it's discussed what their agenda is and what they what to accomplish. At first they can't be blamed, as Max likely sees them as an easy outlet for his uncertainty. When he first sees Videodrome he thinks they may help them, but as he learns more about the intentions of those responsible, he wants no part of it. The use of smaller cogs in the machine for a greater purpose sounds familiar in today's day and age.
And perhaps when comparing the level of programming that Network conveys about the future to how Videodrome delivers the content, the only real difference on the surface is the method that it's conveyed and received. The content only varies in the degree of extreme material, but the underlying message is the same, be it from Sidney Lumet or David Cronenberg. The desire to entertain and alternately offend is almost simultaneous and in both environment dangerous. Cronenberg just helps us see it in a way that we wouldn't realize otherwise. Now that I've finally seen it, I find myself thinking about how the "New Flesh" would live in today's day and age and what I can do to support it. The current system remains just as surreal, two decades after Cronenberg showed it to us.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Presented in 1.85:1 high-definition widescreen using the AVC codec, Videodrome has to look as it did when it first came out in theaters, meaning Criterion's done an excellent job with the disc. Some of the work done to age/degrade the video sources in the movie looks excellent, even recent if one didn't know the film was made three decades ago. Yet blacks look deep and consistent and skin tones are replicated accurately. There are moments of image softness that I noticed in the third act (and I presume there are others), but that's to be assumed considering the age of the material, and the drab and gray early 80s' are replicated faithfully. A great-looking disc, no doubt.
The PCM track accurately replicates the pre-stereo world of the era as best as it possibly can, and does it well. Dialogue sounds strong without bleeding into other channels, and while rear channel activity is sparse, it sounds clear and pretty immersive when called upon. In fact it's surprisingly immersive for a mono track, with Howard Shore's score coming through in the channels without hissing, popping or mosquito noise. In an anonymous way, it's easy to confuse this with a recent Blu-ray without concern, and that might be the best compliment to a pre-stereo title.
An apples to apples port from the 2004 standard definition version, which is fine because that's loaded as it is. The first commentary track (with Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin) is understated but chock full of information. Things like Cronenberg casting ideas and how Woods attacked the role are touched upon, along with some visual effects breakdowns, story concepts and scenes that didn't make the final cut. Well worth the time for fans of the film. About as much is the track with Woods and Harry. Each spends some time discussing how they got the role, their approach to the character and how they worked with Cronenberg. Woods is the more active character in the track and spends time discussing his work in this film compared to other directors and features, but otherwise this is pretty good, albeit not as good as the director track.
The rest of the material isn't too shabby. "Camera" (6:40) is a short which shows some children as they bring home a camera and start filming an old man, portrayed by Leslie Carlson, who was in Videodrome as Barry Convex. An interesting short to say the least. "Forging the New Flesh" (27:41) is the closest to a retrospective on the film, mainly focusing on the makeup and special effects. Featuring a mix of old and new footage with the crewmembers, Baker (and others) discuss their influences and how they were able to pull off some of the stuff in the film, and there's some production challenges recalled and test footage of how things were going. Interesting to be sure. "Effects Men" (19:28) is an audio interview with Baker and video effects supervisor Michael Lennick and covers some of the same ground as the previous piece, and includes a little more opinions on the film and cast. The "Bootleg Video" section includes the complete footage from "Samurai Dreams" (4:47), the film Max finds in the beginning. There's also the "Transmissions from Videodrome" (7:15) and test footage of the Helmet Cam (5:04), all of which include commentary by a mix of Cronenberg, Irwin or Lennick. The "Effects Visual Essay" (19:17) is an extended stills gallery of sorts, set to music from the film. "Fear on Film" (25:40) is a vintage roundtable segment with John Landis, John Carpenter and Cronenberg, all of whom were shooting films for Universal at the time (Landis' An American Werewolf in London, Carpenter's The Thing and Videodrome). They talk about influences, ordeals in getting the film shot, and butting heads with studios about ratings. Worth watching if you're a fan of any or all of those directors. The "Marketing" section includes three trailers and the "Making of Videodrome" (7:49), which is a vintage EPK. The "Gallery" section includes more stills, and the disc is nicely packaged in a case that looks like an old Betamax tape and includes a 36-page booklet with thoughts and opinions on the film's legacy.
Underneath the strange world Videodrome remains an effective message; that television's influence is pervasive in many facets of ours lives and it's those who indulge it and those who know what to do with that influence that remain dangerous. It's fascinating to finally see for this reviewer, and those who haven't gotten the Criterion SD should check this out. Those of you that have it already might be swayed to double-dip based on the audio and video for that matter. Either way, it's another strong release in the Criterion Blu-ray library.