Director : David Cronenberg
Screenplay : David Cronenberg
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1983
Stars : James Woods (Max Renn), Sonja Smits (Bianca O'Blivion), Deborah Harry (Nicki Brand), Peter Dvorsky (Harlan), Les Carlson (Barry Convex), Jack Creley (Brian O'Blivion), Lynne Gorman (Masha), Julie Khaner (Bridey), Reiner Schwartz (Moses)
Writer/director David Cronenberg may be many things, but above all he is ambitious—wildly, exhilarating, sometimes frustratingly ambitious. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he built his career on a series of horror and science fiction thrillers that many tried to dismiss as simple sleaze largely because they were gory and often borderline repulsive.
Yet, that goriness is central to the philosophical and ideological obsessions that elevate his films above their B-movie premises. His fascination with the details of corporeality and reintegrating the Cartesian mind/body split led to such intriguing films as Shivers (1975), about fecal-like parasites that turn the placid denizens of a modernist apartment building into sexually ravenous zombies, and Rabid, in which he cast infamous porn star Marilyn Chambers as a woman whose plastic surgery operation following a motorcycle accident turns her into a bloodthirsty, though guilt-stricken vampire. Although many tried to dismiss these films and others as trash, they are not easily forgotten, as even a cursory examination shows that they are artful products of a fervid and probing imagination, packed to the hilt with underlying metaphors and social messages that give weight to what would be, in lesser hands, forgettable.
By the early 1980s, Cronenberg had made a name for himself in the industry and was considered one of the most promising sci-fi/horror auteurs. Thus, he embarked on what would be one of his most ambitious films to date, Videodrome, a twisted cautionary tale masquerading as a conspiracy thriller. Here, he attempted to meld not only his fascination with the connection between the body and the mind, but also with technology, namely then-nascent video technology. Despite getting deeply convoluted by the third act, probably the result of having to start production without a finished script, Videodrome successfully makes graphic the idea of the dwindling nature of human existence in a technologically driven modern society in which the human consciousness is quickly being replaced by global media.
The main target of Videodrome is television and video, the latter of which was first evolving into a major force when the movie was made. Cronenberg attempts to make the point that the sickness in our heads is both created and amplified by the filth we watch on-screen. Yet, the mediated world is, if not a reflection, at least a product of the human mind, thus closing the circle and eliminating any possibility of determining simple A-to-B causality. The only thing we can gather for sure is that humanity created media, but media is absorbing humanity, making the two impossible to separate.
Cronenberg, working with special effects maestro Rick Baker (who had just won the first make-up effects Oscar for his work on 1981’s An American Werewolf in London) makes this shockingly literal with such images as a television set that ripples and breathes like human flesh and a character who has pulsating videotapes inserted into a vagina-like wound in his torso. On a more subtle note, the difference between the real and the mediated is blurred with a character who literally exists only on videotape, yet is perceived as being just as “real” as anyone else.
James Woods stars as Max Renn, the opportunistic producer of Civic-TV, a small cable station that attempts to separate itself from the pack by programming graphic violence and soft-core sex features—basically the stuff no one else will show. Early in the film, he is invited onto a TV talk show, where he is forced to defend his programming practices from typical assaults that attempt to make simplistic casual connections between actual and mediated violence. When questioned about the effects of violence on television, Renn simply replies, “Better on TV than on the streets,” an off-handed quip that is more practiced sound bite than internalized ideology. Renn is not a crusader in any way; he’s just out to make a buck. Yet, his statement turns out to be ironic because what Videodrome eventually shows is that there is little difference between what is on the street and what is on the tube. Renn is fooling himself into believing that the visuals we digest have no effect on us or vice-versa.
In an early scene, he and his two partners are watching a new soft-core sex movie he purchased at a seedy motel from some Asian film producers. Renn, obviously bored with the soft lighting and sensual movements, says, “I want something that will break through. Something tough.” This is exactly what he gets when his video pirate, a bespectacled techno geek named Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), accidentally picks up a mysterious broadcast. The show, which Renn later discovers is called “Videodrome” and is filmed in Pittsburgh, is nothing more than graphic torture and murder in a single room with one camera.
While Renn thinks it is all great acting and special effects—exactly the kind of “tough” programming he’s looking for—there is the suggestion that it is, in fact, the real deal: a snuff film where people actually die before the camera. Renn, ever the cynic, doesn’t (or doesn’t want to) believe in the severity of the show, and instead fills himself up with the prospect that it’s “the next big thing” (one is forced to wonder, of course, what could possibly top it later on). His girlfriend, Nicki (Deborah Harry), a radio psychiatrist whom he met on the talk show, seems to think it’s the next big thing, as well. But, then again, she's a masochist who likes to have her ear pierced with a pin during sex and burns her own breast with a cigarette.
It turns out that “Videodrome” is much more than just snuff films. When Renn begins hallucinating after watching the program, he seeks out a Marshall McLuhan-esque media guru named Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley) who may be behind it all. Eventually, the movie shows little difference between what is going on in Renn’s mind and what is his reality. In fact, as he uncovers a vast conspiracy theory surrounding the true purpose of the “Videodrome” signal, his mind becomes his mediated reality; he literally turns into McLuhan’s “media landscape.”
Soon, Renn has been turned into a programmed assassin and is screaming, “Long live the new flesh!,” the metaphorical implications of which clearly reflect Cronenberg’s melding of the mind, the body, and the video, although what it all means is left somewhat ambiguous. Cronenberg has been accused in the past of being a deeply reactionary filmmaker whose body-horror films are meant to make us fear and loathe our own flesh. But, Videodrome seems to suggest that it is the nefarious potential of technology that we should truly fear. In this case, the medium truly is the message.
|Videodrome Criterion Collection Director-Approved Special Edition DVD Set|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 31, 2004|
|While Videodrome has been available on DVD for several years in a barebones, nonanamorphic disc from Universal, Criterion has given it the richly deserved two-disc special edition treatment, starting with a brand-new high-definition anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks absolutely fantastic. Sharp and clean with vibrant colors, strong detail, and excellent black levels and shadow detail, this film has never looked so good on home video. More importantly, though, Criterion has given us the film for the first time in its uncut version, which restores a few shots that had to be trimmed to secure an R-rating. It doesn’t drastically alter the film’s narrative or tone, but it does allow us to see Cronenberg’s vision in its most complete form.|
|The original monaural soundtrack comes through clean and clear.|
|Criterion has previously lavished some of their best work on Cronenberg’s films (see their editions of Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch), and this two-disc, director-approved special edition of Videodrome continues the trend. |
The first disc includes two informative, full-length commentaries, the first by Cronenberg and cinematographer Bill Irwin and the second by stars James Wood and Deborah Harry. This disc also includes Camera, an interesting short film written and directed by Cronenberg in 2000 for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto Film Festival. (This means that, with the inclusion of Stereo  and Crime of the Future  on Blue Underground’s Fast Company  DVD, virtually all of his works are now readily available on video.)
The second disc is packed with an excellent array of supplements, both new and old. Forging the New Flesh is a new half-hour documentary directed by Michael Lennick, who was the special video effects supervisor on Videodrome. It includes a wealth of new interviews with people like physical effects supervisor Frank Carere and make-up effects supervisor Rick Baker, along with bits from 1981 interviews with Cronenberg, Baker, and James Woods. There is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, as much of the doc focuses on the movie’s various effects. For even more information on that front, the disc also includes “Effects Men,” an extended audio interview with Baker and Lennick.
The “Bootleg Video” section includes the entirety of Samurai Dreams, the soft-core Japanese porn film seen briefly in the movie (it only runs five or six minutes), as well as seven minutes of unedited (thus, rather graphic) “Videodrome transmission,” some of which was never used in the finished movie. Also included here is a demo reel of various video effects Lennick experimented with to portray Renn’s point-of-view shots when he puts on the recording helmet near the end of the movie (not surprisingly, most of these are pretty cheesy, looking like bad early music videos).
“Fear on Film” is a 26-minute roundtable discussion shot in 1982 as a promotional bit for Universal. It is hosted by Mick Garris (who has since become a director, though not a very good one), and the participants are Cronenberg, John Carpenter, and John Landis, all of whom were working on horror movies for Universal at that time. It starts off rather slowly and awkwardly, but once the participants get going, it turns into a fascinating dissection of the role of horror movies in the modern movie industry. Carpenter is by far the most reserved of the group, with Cronenberg is the most intellectual and Landis is just the loudest.
The disc also includes quite a bit of marketing materials, including three rather awful theatrical trailers, a 1982 making-of featurette, a marketing stills gallery of posters, lobby cards, and video art, a gallery of cast and crew photographs, and a gallery of production stills, many of which are of scenes not present in the final cut. (On a side note, some Cronenberg fans will surely be mad that the film’s many and well-known deleted scenes are not included on this special edition, nor is the film’s alternate television edit. To be fair, Criterion made every effort to include this material, but Cronenberg nixed it.) And, for all the special effect fans, there is an enormous stills gallery of behind-the-scenes shots of the various make-up FX.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Universal Pictures