—Max Renn in Videodrome
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
A sterling example of David Cronenberg's signature mindfuck style of weird cinema, 1983's Videodrome is one of those films that tends to elude you regardless of how many times you watch it. It's the type of trippy fright flick that confounds you even as it pulls you relentlessly forward with its disturbing imagery and gross-out watchability. At film's end, you're likely to rub your noggin and frown and wonder whether you've endured a waking nightmare during a great portion of Videodrome's running time. Is the film a bloody indictment of the effects of television violence? Or is it more likely a Cronenbergian comment on the increasingly organic relationship between man and media, between flesh and technology, between the mind and the machine? It's likely a bit of all those things, and even today, I'm a bit bewildered by the prospect of summing up this film in a few short paragraphs.
Jaded Max Renn (James Woods) heads up a tiny, independent cable TV station that specializes in edgy softcore erotica and disturbing violence. Max is always on the lookout for the next piece of provocative sleaze, hunting the airwaves with his technical assistant Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) and searching the globe with the help of video freelancers like Masha (Lynne Gorman). When, with the help of Harlan, he stumbles on a fuzzy broadcast of something called Videodrome, which seems to feature graphic depictions of torture and murder, Max believes he's found something significant, the type of aggressively offensive video that's perfect for his station. As he pitches forward into his investigation of Videodrome's origin, he becomes involved with self-help maven Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), and we find, as their relationship develops, that both share sadomasochistic desires that feed directly into Videodrome's allure. After Nicki disappears on her own quest to find Videodrome, Max finds himself experiencing increasingly bizarre hallucinations involving his stomach and his TV. By the time he meets Videodrome's Barry Convex (Les Carlson) and the elusive Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creely), Max is at the epicenter of a horrifying dreamscape, under the sway of some kind of video-borne mind control. That's Videodrome in a nutshell, and yet there's no way to adequately convey the way this film burrows under your surface and leaves you feeling as mind-altered as poor Max.
It's also difficult to determine at what point in Videodrome's baffling plot trajectory that its events become merely fragments of Max's fractured mind. It's a slow descent into an alternate pseudo-reality in which a huge console TV bloats with life and folds Max into a moaning, gasping, sexual embrace…in which Max's abdomen cleaves into a vagina-like orifice that will accept firearms and Betamax tapes at its sucking whim…and in which characters come and go, dead or alive, within the dream reality of Videodrome. Soon, Max is himself a biotechnical weapon infused with malicious intent, and you're reminded of Cronenberg's eXistenZ, the 1999 film in which the director returned to story duties for the first time since—you guessed it—Videodrome. The two films make for a striking double feature, offering up twin stories of bizarre hallucinatory mindscapes and body-obsessed horror, and they might represent the most powerful manifestations of Cronenberg's statement on the sway of the mind and the flesh.
You're left puzzled by the outward events of Videodrome, and yet you feel an almost visceral charge resulting from the onslaught of eroticized video-and technology-based imagery. These are truly images from out of your weirdest nightmares, made all the better by the fact that they're all practical effects rather than today's distanced CG imagery. These effects ooze with fleshy realism, and you can almost smell their wet messiness. These effects, combined with the film's zealous statements about media violence and technoflesh, start your synapses firing, and you begin searching for meaning in the muck. You start thinking about what you're watching on cable, and you start wondering fearfully about what's going on in the minds of your children when you catch glimpses of their zombified stares in front of the TV. And you think, Maybe it's too late. Maybe we're already under the influence of the very thing Cronenberg foreshadowed with that Beta-tape-in-James-Woods'-guts thing. Jokes aside, Videodrome remains a remarkably prescient endeavor, particularly to those of us writing and reading this review—yeah, you, you purveyor and obsessor of video-based media.
The actors do an admirable job of bringing all this weirdness to pulsing life. Woods is oddly mesmerizing as Renn, our protagonist, and even as the things happening to him get more and more outrageous, we're there with him for every moment, eager participants in his psychotic predicament. Harry is a little awkward in one of her first acting roles, but there's no denying her masochistic allure. The bit players all share that weirdly stilted Cronenberg vibe, which feeds into the director's peculiar oddities. Maybe it's a Canada thing.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Criterion presents Videodrome in a beautiful anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. This is really a gorgeous effort that belies the film's 21 years. Boasting a filmlike depth, the transfer offers a supreme level of detail, reaching into backgrounds. Sharpness is out of this world. The film's color palette is very accurately translated, with no bleeding or smearing. Everything is quite stable. I noticed some fairly significant source grain in a few outdoor shots, but nothing to get too uptight about. It's a remarkably clean print. Through a digital-restoration process, a lot of debris has been removed from the source print, but occasional dirt specks are in evidence here and there. Blacks are inky. This is an extremely satisfying presentation.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 1.0 mono presentation accurately translates Videodrome's original audio track. Obviously, it's a center-focused affair, offering no engagement from the sides, but the fidelity is very much intact. It also offers a surprisingly effective low end, particularly in Howard Shore's moody, electronic score. Dialog is clear and accurate, if a tad over-processed in a few scenes. Criterion has done an admirable job cleaning up hiss and other imperfections while retaining the track's fidelity. Overall, this is an amazing presentation considering its mono source.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Special mention must be made here about the disc's cover art, which, behind a fairly nondescript slipcover, resembles a Betamax tape, along with a sticker fastened to the front, proclaiming, "Long Live the Flesh!" The art carries around to the back, showing the tape's spine and spindles.
Disc 1 contains a few special features that are very much worth your time. First up is a Commentary by Director David Cronenberg and Cinematographer Mark Irwin. If you're familiar with Cronenberg's commentary tracks, you know the kind of low-key, soft-spoken, witty, focused, intellectual conversation he provides, and he doesn't disappoint here. He's the dominant force in this edited-together, scene-specific track, and he talks about everything from the inspiration of Canada's City TV cable outlet to the woes of censorship to casting both the leads and some Canadian lesser-knowns to his basic storytelling philosophies. This is a wonderful listen if you're a fan of Cronenberg, and will enrich the experience of this very strange film for anybody who gives it a listen. I particularly enjoyed when he pointed out his own cameo and when he characterized Woods as "paranoid." Irwin chimes in from time to time to speak about the experience of working with Cronenberg and to talk about the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of lensing the film.
The similarly edited-together, screen-specific Commentary by James Woods and Deborah Harry is, on the surface, a more lively discussion, thanks to the somewhat manic presence of Woods, who comes across as rapid-fire and extremely knowledgeable about film in general, as well as philosophy and literature. He really tries to get at the heart of Videodrome's meaning. It's no wonder that Cronenberg, in his commentary, brings up the fact that Woods is a Mensa graduate. Woods dominates the track with articulate, intelligent interjections, exploding from occasional moments of silence into a flurry of words and quiet laughter. Harry is a more soft-spoken commentator, focusing more on the experience of getting cast and shooting the film. But she also has some articulate thoughts about the meaning of the film. I got a kick out of Woods' discussion of the way the ending of the film was achieved, through a few reshoots and a collaborative effort with Cronenberg.
Rounding out Disc 1 is Camera, a 6-minute Cronenberg-directed short film that was part of a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival. Starring Les Carlson (who plays Barry Convex in Videodrome, the film is a meditation on mortality.
Over on Disc 2, you get the 28-minute Forging the New Flesh, an all-new documentary created by Videodrome's special video effects supervisor, Michael Lennick (who proves to be quite a presence on Disc 2's supplements). This is essentially about the creation of the film's makeup and video effects. Lennick is our whispery narrator for the proceedings, which also include interview contributions from physical effects supervisor Frank Carere, makeup effects crewman Bill Sturgeon, makeup effects supervisor Rick Baker (this was the film that followed An American Werewolf in London for Baker), and location manager David Coatsworth. The doc also includes 1981 interviews with Cronenberg and Woods, but I would have liked to see them in new interviews. The progression of the doc shifts focus from Baker to Cronenberg to a few of the achieved effects, including the living, breathing TV and the flying guts. It's a minor effort but very much worth watching. I would have preferred a more in-depth look at the larger ideas behind Videodrome, but the commentaries accomplish a lot of that on Disc 1.
Effects Men is a series of audio interviews with Rick Baker and Michael Lennick, in which the two men talk at length about working with Cronenberg and Woods, and about their careers in general. The discussion is broken up into four segments: The Golden Age, James Woods, Collaboration, and David's Stories.
Bootleg Video presents the full-length, unedited versions of TV sequences that we see only excerpts of in the film. We get the full 5-minute Samurai Dreams sequence, a soft-porn short involving a Japanese geisha and a dildo. You can choose between three audio tracks: the original silent track, commentary by Cronenberg (in which he again decries censorship), and commentary by Irwin and Lennick (who last about 3 minutes and focus on shooting and lighting on video). We also get the 7-minute Transmissions from Videodrome, about half a dozen segments of snuff video accompanied by Irwin/Lennick commentary, in which the two men discuss the reality of the shoot, calling it "phenomenally uncomfortable for the actors." Finally, the 5-minute Helmet-Cam Test is test footage put together as various ways we might see Max's point-of-view inside the Videodrome helmet. Lennick is our commentator for about 3 minutes as we view the variously altered footage, which involved increasing levels of video distortion.
In Fear on Film, we get a 1981 round-table interview between David Cronenberg, John Landis, and John Carpenter, moderated by a young Mick Garris (who would go on to direct some okay Stephen King adaptations for TV). I was looking forward to this feature more than any other on the disc, frankly, because it was filmed in the midst of a horror-film renaissance. Landis had just completed his greatest work, An American Werewolf in London, and Carpenter was just about to release his version of The Thing to an unsuspecting public. Cronenberg was there to push Videodrome, but he was also fresh off Scanners. Unfortunately, the conversation is rather bland. Garris asks some probing questions, but none of the directors really looks like he really wants to be there, particularly Carpenter, who looks downright bored. I hoped for a more involving discussion.
Finally, in the Marketing section, the disc offers three Videodrome trailers—a full-frame teaser and two nonanamorphic-widescreen trailers, one of which is a weird, psychedelic thing produced almost entirely on a Commodore 64 machine. There's also the standard EPK The Making of Videodrome (directed by Garris), which has minor contributions from Woods, Cronenberg, Harry, and Baker and offers some interesting behind-the-scenes footage. There's some overlap here with the new features above. You also get a Marketing Gallery and Publicity Stills.
Up to Criterion standards, the included booklet is a wonderful archive of Videodrome criticism.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Criterion hits one out of the park—shall we say, out of the mind?—with Videodrome. This is a lovingly packaged and presented film experience, complete with uncommonly fine video and audio and stimulating extras. Cronenberg fans will find this set an absolute must, and all others should at least consider a blind buy of one of the director's very best works.