In David Cronenberg's "Videodrome," Max Renn (James Woods), who runs a sleazy cable station, searches for something new to attract an audience. Bored with the same old soft-core porn, he seeks something cutting edge, something nobody has ever broadcast before, and one day he finds it; he finds Videodrome.
What is Videodrome (either the movie or the show in the movie)? To answer this question, I'm calling on my good friend Mark Steensland. Mark is an independent filmmaker, professor, and author. He's also a huge fan of both David Cronenberg and "Videodrome," and I can think of nobody better to describe this creepy, unique movie. I'll be back to discuss the extras. For now, I turn you over to Mark.
Few films were as far ahead of their time as the early work of Canadian director David Cronenberg. For a solid decade, from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, in films such as "Shivers", "Rabid", "The Brood" and "Scanners", he explored, in various guises, the danger of tampering with the flesh. So obsessed was he with these particular themes that he was dubbed the "King of Venereal Horror."
He seemed especially prescient when, in 1983, he delivered "Videodrome." "Videodrome" was, along with John Carpenter's "The Thing," part of an attempt by Universal Studios to reclaim its past glory as a producer of horror classics. As box office history tells us now, the results were disastrous. "Videodrome" lasted exactly one week, and barely cleared $2 million in domestic receipts. "The Thing" endured similar humiliation. Universal's new association with horror fizzled as quickly as it had been conceived, doused by the overwhelming response to Spielberg's own riff on alien invasion, "E.T." As with so many great works, however, initial rejection has fostered a newfound critical respect. Thankfully, Criterion has finally given "Videodrome the treatment it so richly deserves.
Originally titled "Network Of Blood," "Videodrome" traces small time cable TV exec Max Renn (James Woods) as he embarks on a quest to uncover the mystery behind a snuff TV show called, of course, Videodrome. His journey leads him to an assortment of curious characters including radio talk show personality Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry - yes, that's Blondie), satellite hacker Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), shadowy businessman Barry Convex (Les Carlson) and the unforgettable media prophet Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), a thinly veiled stand-in for media critic Marshal McLuhan.
As with other Cronenberg films, the basic thriller plot at the core is -- pardon the expression -- fleshed out with an assortment of ideas and images culled from modern French philosophy on the one hand, and Z-grade gore films on the other. The result is a potent mix that affects both mind and body in a way few films can.
What especially sets "Videodrome" apart, however, is that it achieves its particular horror through a strange kind of realism. Cronenberg films before "Videodrome" all require a standard willing suspension of disbelief to accept their science-fiction premises. "Videodrome," on the other hand, uses hallucinations to create a deeper sense of reality.
The early gags Cronenberg uses to set this technique up follow a typical and expected structure. For example, there's the scene in which Renn sees a videotape breathe and is so startled he drops it. When he picks it up again and examines it more closely, however, he discovers just a plain videotape. "Oh," we in the audience say, comfortable with this familiar cinematic device, "he's just seeing things." Only then does Cronenberg really drag us in. Like Max, we discover, too late, that we've been exposed to the dangerous Videodrome signal, and we soon are experiencing the same hallucinations he is. By the time the hallucinations become real, as O'Blivion promised they would, we are completely engulfed. Like Max, we can no longer tell reality from hallucination. The ending (which I won't reveal) came as such a shock to me when I first saw the film in 1983 that I honestly could not believe it was over. I sat in the theater, waiting for another image to appear. Needless to say, the impact sealed my appreciation of Cronenberg and set me on my own quest into media philosophy.
Whether he wanted to or not, Cronenberg predicted a generation obsessed with reality on television, and therefore unable to distinguish television from reality. We watch "Survivor" and "American Idol," and we talk about these shows as if they were real. Somehow we forget that just outside the frame of what we can see are lights, cameras, make-up people and editors. Like O'Blivion said, these hallucinations have become reality. Television has indeed become the retina of the mind's eye.
Cronenberg also predicted a generation in which violence and sex are indistinguishable. The sadistic fetishes on display in Videodrome, the show Max watches, seem positively tame when compared to what can be found on the internet today. Sadly, when I watch "Videodrome," I feel like Max when he saw Samurai Dreams (a soft-core porn program) and declared it "too soft."
How appropriate it is then, that "Videodrome" can now only be seen on television. I don't think even Cronenberg could have planned that. So be careful when you watch it. Pay particular attention to what O'Blivion says. Your life depends on it. And don't say I didn't warn you.
The DVD is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Criterion's newly restored high-definition digital transfer is another example of the company's exceptional work. The picture quality is crystal clear, with hardly a blemish in site. Even better, the picture looks fuzzy when it's supposed to; some scenes are meant to look like video.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. This has to be one of the richest, fullest mono tracks I've ever heard. The remastered soundtrack is pristine, and the sound effects and music are so rich and full, it's hard to believe it's not in stereo. The dialogue is all clear, and both sound effects and music are well-mixed. Optional English language subtitles support the audio.
The 2-disc special edition isn't as loaded as some Criterion releases, but there's still plenty for the "Videodrome" fan to enjoy.
There is, of course, the restored digital transfer which is accompanied by two commentary tracks, one by Cronenberg and another by D.P. Mark Irwin and leads James Woods and Deborah Harry.
Also on Disc One is a short film (6 min) called "Camera," directed by Cronenberg in 2000 and starring Les Carlson from "Videodrome." The movie is simple and you might wonder what the point is until the final, beautiful shot which explains it all.
The features on this disc are aimed mainly at horror fans.
Forging the New Flesh: A short documentary (27 min.) recorded in 2004 for Criterion. The documentary discusses the extensive special-effects work involved in "Videodrome." Featuring horror effects uber-guru Rick Baker and other top effects artists.
Effects Men: An audio interview with Rick Baker and video effects supervisor Michael Lennick.
Bootleg Video: This offers longer versions of some of the videos we see only glimpses of in "Videodrome." Samurai Dreams is the 5-minute version of a soft-core porn video. Videodrome footage shows about seven minutes worth of the torture/snuff we only see a bit off in the movie. Helmet Cam (5 min.) shows some moderately interesting test footage from the film.
Fear on Film: A 1982 television round-table discussion (26 min.) hosted by Mick Garris with an all-star panel of horror directors including John Landis, John Carpenter (back when he cared), and Cronenberg. Carpenter discusses "The Thing" while Cronenberg discusses "Videodrome." This is the best feature on Disc Two, and will be a real treat for horror buffs.
The disc also contains trailers, a short publicity "Making of" featurette and extensive marketing galleries and still photos.
It's also worth mentioning the great packaging on this collection. When I first got this one, I thought "Why did Criterion release a video?" The package looks like aVHS tape with the title "Videodrome" scrawled on the side in magic marker. Truly inspired design.
So what is Videodrome (the show)? Videodrome is an ultra-violent snuff film. Videodrome is a mass hallucination. Videodrome is a plot to take over the world. Videodrome isn't a tape that you play, it's a tape that plays you.
And now "Videodrome" (the movie) has changed form once again. Now it's on DVD. Do you want to take a chance and put it in your player? You should because, above all, "Videodrome" is one of the most influential science-fiction/horror films of the 1980s, and it's a movie you need to experience for yourself.
Long live the flesh!