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Savant Blu-ray Review

Criterion 248
1983 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 89 min. / Street Date December 7, 2010 / 39.95
Starring James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, Peter Dvorsky, Leslie Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynne Gorman, Julie Khaner, Reiner Schwartz, David Bolt
Cinematography Mark Irwin
Art Direction Carol Spier
Film Editor Ronald Sanders
Original Music Howard Shore
Written by David Cronenberg
Produced by Pierre David, Claude Héroux, Victor Solnicki
Directed by David Cronenberg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Despite the fact that movies have gotten rougher and tougher, 1983's Videodrome still has what it takes to creep people out. Even better, David Cronenberg's ideas about a McLuhanesque, Ballardesque merging of man and media still provide real food for thought. Criterion's 2004 DVD release appointed the edgy thriller with a number of great extras. They're all back in this sharp new Blu-ray reconfiguration.

Videodrome is core science fiction. Writer-director David Cronenberg had pioneered queasy body-horror Sci-fi, and with this effort he truly hit his pace as an purveyor of bizarre intellectual concepts. He not only introduced the first fully realized virtual reality world in a movie (forget Tron), he did it with more dangerous ideas than had ever seen the light of a movie granted major distribution: insidious technology, underground video, porn, violence, sado-masochism and snuff movies.

They're all in the service of a concept that in 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.

Cronenberg's script begins with a man looking for new experiences. Soft-core cable entrepreneur Max Renn (James Woods) is hot for edgy material. His tech 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 (Sonja Smits), the daughter of video cult visionary Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley). Seemingly existing only on videotape, techno-guru Brian dispenses weird wisdom about a new age in which 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 hit 'n' miss string of exploitative shockers before Videodrome always had strong core ideas. Shivers and Rabid's grandiose concepts overshadow their grindhouse content, going far beyond mere nudity and gore. Shivers is a gloss on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Scanners hits the jackpot with a commercial hybrid of Philip K. Dick's expanded-consciousness worldview. Superpowered minds can invade other minds to control and destroy, but finer implications give way to chase scenes and exploding heads, surefire audience-pleasing material.  1

Videodrome recycles a few Cronenberg ideas -- strange new body orifices, exploding bodies, technological conspiracies to transform mankind -- and adds the Dickian idea of altered reality. The Videodrome video signal is like Dick's drug "Chew-Z": we experience Max Renn's disconcerting hallucinations as his mind is altered. Exploring new conceptual territory with his eyes wide open, Max becomes the classic surreal hero of Buñuel, an Archibaldo de La Cruz or The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. Cronenberg used this theme to alter the original concept of The Fly. In his remake, a transformation into a monster becomes a voyage of grotesque but miraculous possibilities. As he outgrows his human form Seth Brundle is forced to confront both mortality and the alien-ness of his own body. A similar plague is changing Max Renn from the inside out, and he too must 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 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 well paced, helping us to accept some truly weird happenings. 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 perfectly suited to playing a 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's Nicki Brand makes a convincing masochist and generates the erotic connection Cronenberg needs. Her early exit to become a virtual presence probably sparked resentment among the fan-base that wanted a flesh & blood Blondie to stick around longer. A surreal heroine, Nicki never looks back as she goes straight to the center of her obsession.

Among the excellent supporting players is Lynne Gorman, who Cronenberg manages to make intriguing just by allowing her to have a sexual appetite even though she's older than fifty. Cronenberg plays with light comic irony, too. 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 consciousness?

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. His 'stomach vagina' can hide a weapon. Cronenberg's illusions go a step beyond classical film surrealism, as we share the subjective 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 Blu-ray special edition of Videodrome looks better than original Universal prints from 1983. reconstructs the extras from the older disc. Marc Walkow joins veteran Criterion producer Karen Stetler in the disc credits. Overseen by special effects maestro Michael Lennick are plentiful behind-the-scenes docus and galleries, accompanied by 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 their contributions to the film. Also included is a Cronenberg short subject from 2000.

Another docu covers 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 cable show Samurai Dreams and seven uncut minutes of Videodrome torture sessions, including 'notorious' material not seen in the film. Topping it all off is a 1981 roundtable interview with Cronenberg and fellow directors John Carpenter and John Landis. At the time all were 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, Videodrome Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: plenty, see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 4, 2010

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

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 the changing of a man's hand into a hand grenade is like a gag from a Looney Tunes cartoon. In The Fly, Seth Brundle becomes partially fused with his own invention, dragging the steel door of his teleportation pod behind him like an albatross. Cronenberg sees man fusing with his inventions, like the morbid car fetishists in Crash.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

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