Videodrome

Videodrome


Color, 1983, 89m.
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, Les Carlson, Jack Creley, Peter Dvorsky
Arrow (Blu-ray& DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Universal (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1

VideodromeUnderground TV porn entrepreneur Max Renn (Woods) stumbles upon a covert signal depicting a woman being horribly tortured. Intrigued, he uses his connections to track down the origin of the program, dubbed "Videodrome," while becoming sexually involved with kinky social commentator Nicki Brand (Harry). Renn's partner, Harlan (Dvorsky), explains the signal originates from Pittsburgh, sending Nicki on a quest to appear on the program - which may or may not be real. Further exposure to the Videodrome signal results in nightmarish hallucinations and bodily transformations within Max, all possibly linked to a mysterious media critic named Brian O'Blivion (Creley) who only appears on a television screen. O'Blivion's icy daughter Bianca (Smits) also seems to be engaged in a strange battle of wills with conservative eye wear guru Barry Convex (Carlson), whose own insidious motives provide a key to the mystery of Videodrome.

Impossible to fully grasp with one viewing, David Cronenberg's Videodrome came as a massive shock to the horror community's system after it was shot in the magical year of 1982 and given a belated release date in North America in February the following year. A blend of media philosophy, S&M imagery, outrageous Rick Baker effects and Cronenbergian body manipulation, this is arguably the most difficult, extreme film ever released by a major studio. Obviously it gets a wholehearted recommendation here. At the time of its release, Cronenberg had garnered more positive reviews than many of his horror cohorts but was still being treated as something of a bastard stepchild by much of the film community. Scanners had broken through to somewhat mainstream acceptance thanks to the most shocking gore effect since Alien, but most North VideodromeAmerican viewers at least were largely oblivious to the rich, disturbing themes running through all of his films. Videodrome ruffled more than a few feathers at Universal (who was certainly gutsier than usual that year thanks to Cat People and Conan the Barbarian), and when the MPAA demanded cuts to its extreme sex and violence, the writing was on the wall. The film suffered even further when a studio exec with an aversion to sex toys demanded further cuts to the early "Samurai Dreams" sequence, resulting in a compromised edition virtually thrown away in theaters among more palatable fare like E.T.. However, its influence grew over the years thanks to its unrated release on videotape (a real rarity in those days and probably the second of its kind after Dressed to Kill), cable screenings, a growing cult following, and Cronenberg's Hollywood ascension thanks to The Fly. Of course, the themes of Videodrome have become more vitally important with each passing year thanks to the advent of the Internet (an artificial public consciousness if there ever was one), the modern news syndrome of bald-faced manipulation of social perception, and cinematic acceptance of multi-layered "postmodernism" in such offshoots as Fight Club and Being John Malkovich. What once seemed a hopelessly dense, oddball look at the dawning video age has proven to become a prophet of a new age (or a New Flesh if you will) with people almost inseparable from the computers and televisions with which they share most of their waking hours. Offering one of his career-best performances, Woods is perfect as the nervous, confused porn hound; meanwhile, in her limited screen time, Harry (looking stunning with auburn hair) easily matches him with an uninhibited, indelible performance complete with a ear-piercing and cigarette-burning scenes no viewer will ever forget. Most of Cronenberg's regular collaborators are present behind the camera and do exceptional work, with Howard Shore in particular unleashing a chilly, complex score that almost makes his work on Scanners sound reassuring.

Unlike most theatrically censored films, Videodrome has had the good fortune of remaining uncut in virtually every video incarnation; the extended fate of Barry Convex (one of Rick Baker's shining gross-out moments) is now only missing in action during the film's occasional runs on TV. Universal's first letterboxed, non-anamorphic DVD was a decent presentation but only featured a dire, badly animated trailer that could explain the film's initial nosedive at the box office. Criterion's deluxe, two-disc edition on DVD in 2004 offered a far more satisfying package, including a far superior new transfer (still mono as originally intended). However, the real treasure lies in their subsequent Blu-Ray edition from 2010 which packs the same extras onto one disc and features an even more impressive 1080p HD presentation that blows away Universal's archive print even on a big screen. The Blu-ray black levels are incredibly rich and detailed, while the mild, extremely fine and unobstrusive film grain looks natural and textured without interfering with the viewing enjoyment in any way. First up, the feature itself contains two exclusive commentary tracks. As usual Cronenberg is a thoughtful and insightful guide on the first track, accompanied by cinematographer Mark Irwin, in which the basics of the film's creation and production are covered. Don't expect any hard and solid interpretations of the film's meaning, however; Cronenberg intentionally leaves much of his creative process mysterious and unspoken in the process. As usual with director vs. actor commentaries, the second track with Woods and Harry (recorded separately) focuses more on the characters and artistic flourishes within the film; Woods admires many of the quirky art direction choices (including Bianca's medieval-themed office) and offers some interesting political and psychological readings of the film, while Harry approaches the film more from a painterly, surrealist-oriented perspective and doles out a few memorable appraisals of her coworkers ("He's an intense person, ol' Jimmy Woods... He's not a typical pretty boy; he's also very sexy").

VideodromeVideo extras are plentiful and should keep fans coming back repeatedly after each viewing of the film. A 2000 Cronenberg short film, "Camera," was created as one of the commissioned "Preludes" celebrating the Toronto Film Festival's 25th Anniversary. Carlson takes center stage here, delivering a fascinating and sometimes chilling monologue about the parasitic qualities of cameras while a group of youngsters prepare to film him. Shot on video except for a sudden, appropriate shift to 35mm at the end, it's a haunting six minutes that raises as many questions as it answers. Special effects supervisor Michael Lennick delivers a solid 27-minute documentary, "Forging the New Flesh," in which he and other effects workers (including Baker) recall the making of the film accompanied by fantastic video footage of the crew at work on the film. There's also an amusing, extended Christmas Eve anecdote that lends a whole new level of appreciation to the gut-busting final moments of the film. "Effects Men" offers audio recollections by Baker and Lennick about the various complicated assignments within the film, divided into four easy-to-digest chunks. "Bootleg Video" features three unedited looks at video content within the film, unedited and featuring previously unseen footage: "Samurai Dreams" (complete with a soft sex scene at the end), "Transmissions from Videodrome" (which is rather difficult to watch divorced from the film's context and lends credence to the claim that Emanuelle in America was one of Cronenberg's inspirations), and "Helmet-Cam Test," a series of alternate versions of Renn's first experience inside the glowing helmet. All feature commentaries involving various combinations of Cronenberg, Irwin, and Lennick, plus the priceless disclaimer, "All vestiges of the Videodrome signal have been filtered out to ensure tumor-free viewing." Horror fans will jump for joy upon seeing "Fear on Film," a half-hour roundtable discussion apparently designed as a promotional tool by Universal. Three directors on Uni projects - Cronenberg, John Carpenter, and John Landis - sit with future director Mick Garris for a discussion of the horror genres, the ratings system, censorship, and the appeal of fear. It's a wonderful time capsule and reveals how little has changed in the industry over the past decades. The marketing section features three trailers (one fairly good, the other two variations on that awful animated version), "The Making of Videodrome" (Garris' 1982 behind-the-scenes promotional short featuring interviews with Cronenbeg and Woods plus plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, some of which trickled into "Forging the New Flesh"), a marketing gallery of posters and lobby cards, and an array of publicity stills. VideodromeThen flex your remote fingers for another separate stills gallery section divided into "Special Effects" and "Cast and Crew," featuring an incredible barrage of photos (many from Tim and Donna Lucas) covering every possible aspect of the film. No less generous is the disc's packaging (identical for the Blu-Ray and DVD, except the former is slimmer), including a wonderful sleeve design best left unspoiled here. The thick booklet enclosure features three essays: "Make Mine Cronenberg" by Carrie Rickey (updating her Village Voice piece from 1983), Tim Lucas' "Medium Cruel: Reflections of Videodrome" (a very thorough discussion of his own observations on the set during filming and afterwards), and "That Slithery Sense of Unreality" by Gary Indiana, a more symbolic reading.

It would be logical to assume that the Criterion edition would be the last word on the subject, but the UK branch of Arrow Films managed to catapult over it handily in 2015 with an elaborate four-disc, limited edition (3,000 unit) set containing two Blu-rays and two DVDs mirroring each other's content (apart from the 1080p presentation of the feature and the new extras on the Blu-rays). Incredibly, it turned out to be one of the company's hottest-selling titles and ran out of inventory by the end of its first day on the streets, so keep your eyes peeled for copies floating around. The first disc contains the feature from the same excellent Universal master, virtually identical in every way with a fine LPCM mono track and optional English subtitles. Significantly, the previous commentaries are replaced here with a new one by Tim Lucas, who expands tremendously on his past writing about his experience with the production and offers a fascinating, detailed verbal journal of sorts covering the film's creative approach to narrative and production tangles that turned a potentially hazardous collision of ideas into a durable work of cinematic art. Also included on the first disc are the usual theatrical trailers, a solid 1997 BBC doc on Cronenberg's cinema called "Cinema of the Extreme" (clocking at 22 minutes featuring interviews with the director himself and George A. Romero and Alex Cox, among others), a 28-minute look at the evolution of the film's eye-popping makeup effects focusing on special effects supervisor Michael Lennick entitled "Forging the New Flesh" (28 mins. with additional participants including Woods and Baker), Carried over from the previous release are "Fear on Film" discussion, the "Samurai Dreams" unedited reel and "Helmet Camera Test" sample (with new commentary by Lennick), and the vintage featurette, while some other new goodies include a short interview with Lennick called "Why Betamax?" about the film's choice in home video format, a new Arrow-conducted interview with cinematographer Mark Irwin for nearly half an hour covering his work on this and other Cronenberg projects like The Fly, an 11-minute chat with producer Pierre David about his Cronenberg period with another angle on the glory days of Canadian genre filmmaking, and a cool 17-minute piece with Dennis Etchison, who explains his first reactions to the evolving script that he had to shape into a movie tie-in novel, a bigger challenge than some of his past assignments like The Fog. As many Cronenberg fans are aware, A&E once ran an alternate, bastardized "TV safe" cut of Videodrome that drastically recuts many sections of the film while adding scraps of footage from the cutting room floor, all assembled without Cronenberg's knowledge or approval. Not surprisingly, that version is ignored entirely on the Criterion release in order to get a Cronenberg signature of approval on the cover sticker, but fortunately the Arrow release has no such restrictions. For the first time ever on home video, "Pirated Signals: The Lost Broadcast" assembles the 26 minutes of alternate and additional footage ranging from the newly-created opening and closing credits (with very early '80s paintings as backgrounds) to a far more detailed explanation for the helmet's development and an entirely different, much more exposition-heavy limo ride with Nicki appearing in person instead of O'Blivion on a TV screen. Fascinating stuff and a must for fans of the film who'd like a few more clues about what it all means.

Moving on to disc two, author and critic Kim Newman chats for 17 minutes about the vintage Cronenberg era in "Transfer the Future," while the director's early work gets a major spotlight with a selection of his early short films in sterling HD presentations. The elusive 1966 short "Transfer" is a welcome title here presented in a restoration mounted by the Toronto International Film Festival, followed by the next year's "From the Drain" and the far more readily available "Stereo" (1969) and "Crimes of the Future" (1970), the latter in a new 4K restoration that blows away prior home video versions. Also included is an extensive, very attractive hardbound book with profuse illustrations and essays by Justin Humphreys, Brad Stevens, Caelum Vatnsdal, and relevant snippets from the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg. All in all, it's a stupendous package and one of the best Cronenberg editions to date.

Updated review on August 20, 2015.