December 15, 2004
Videodrome (1983) is a rare horror film that is as smart and thought-provoking as it is scary and gory. Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg was fresh from the success of Scanners (1981) and this film would continue his fascination with blurring the boundaries between man and technology. Universal previously released this movie on a bare-bones DVD. The folks at Criterion have now given it their deluxe treatment with a beautiful transfer of the uncut version and an impressive collection of extras for fans to enjoy.
Max Renn (Woods) is the unscrupulous president of a small, cable TV station that appeals to the lowest common denominator. While on the lookout for something “that’ll break through,” he stumbles across a violent, pirate broadcast of an anonymous woman being tortured. Intrigued, he has his technician, Harlan (Dvorsky), use their satellite technology to find and record more of these illicit broadcasts—known as Videodrome.
While defending the unsavory aspects of his TV station on a local talk show, Max meets and shamelessly hits on Nicki (Harry), a beautiful woman who hosts a self-help radio program. She publicly criticizes his station but when they go out on a date, she reveals a kinky side to her personality. While having sex, she has Max perform several sadomasochistic acts on her while watching the Videodrome tape. Nicki ends up being Max’s entry into the world of Videodrome as the boundaries between his reality and what he sees on television begin to blur. Is it live or is it Videodrome?
What is most striking about Videodrome is how ahead of its time it was in anticipating people’s fascination and access to the illegal and the forbidden. Max’s obsession with the obtaining and broadcasting of twisted, sexual fantasies has now become even more prevalent with the widespread proliferation of the Internet. Cronenberg’s film also anticipates the notoriety of snuff films like the Faces of Death tapes of the 1980s. Like the Videodrome transmissions, they supposedly showed real deaths and acts of torture (it was later revealed to be staged footage).
There is some truly disturbing, uniquely Cronenbergian imagery on display in this movie—pulsating video-tapes and, of course, the infamous living, breathing television that threatens to absorb Max. The television transforms into a throbbing, sexual object that seduces him. It is media philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, “The medium is the message,” represented visually.
Videodrome also continues Cronenberg’s pre-occupation with secret organizations that operate beyond the boundaries of what is socially acceptable and permitted. They work towards a greater goal that involves the next step in human evolution. In the case of this film, it is the merging of man and technology as one character, Professor Brian O’Blivion (Creley), exists entirely on video. In fact, he comes across as very McLuhan-esque figure with such proclamations as, “The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye.”
James Woods, not usually associated with horror films (Cat’s Eye being a notable exception), is well-cast as the sleazy Max Renn. He brings his usual intensity to the role and yet manages to make his disreputable broadcaster somewhat sympathetic—especially once his life gets progressively weirder. Deborah Harry is also quite good as the mysterious and very uninhibited Nicki. She is Max’s guide through the looking glass as it were.
In keeping with Criterion’s excellent attention to detail, the two DVDs are packaged in a case designed like one of the notorious Videodrome cassettes. All of the DVD menus are designed like pirate broadcasts. It is a nice touch that enhances the experience of watching the movie.
There is a 40-page booklet that features three essays. The first, by Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey, traces Cronenberg’s career from his low-budget horror roots with Shivers (1975) to his current status art house fave with Spider (2004). There is also an exhaustive essay on the making of Videodrome by Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas, and Gary Indiana rounds things out with his thoughts on the movie.
The first disc features two audio commentaries. The first is by director David Cronenberg and the film’s director of photography, Mark Irwin. Cronenberg mentions that Max Renn’s Civic TV was inspired by Toronto TV station, CityTV (that has the distinction of being the first North American basic cable station to show a softcore porn movie). Cronenberg points out what footage was cut by the censors and discusses his views on censorship. This is a fascinating, thoughtful track as both men speak eloquently about their craft and the movie itself.
The second commentary is by actors James Woods and Deborah Harry. Woods, always the animated talker, not surprisingly dominates this track with his insight and entertaining comments. Initially, he was given only the first 70 pages of the script but was a fan of Cronenberg’s previous film, Scanners, and decided to do the movie. Harry says that she got the role based on her work with the rock group Blondie and that her mysterious, sexy quality was perfect for Nicki. Woods is a very engaging speaker with a wry sense of humour and makes this commentary well worth a listen.
Rounding out this disc is a six-minute short film directed by Cronenberg, entitled “Camera.” It stars Les Carlson as a veteran actor being interviewed while several children set up film equipment. He states firmly that “photography is death” and talks about a dream in which watching a movie made him age.
The second disc starts off with a superb 27-minute documentary called “Forging the New Flesh.” It was created specifically for this DVD by the film’s video effects supervisor, Michael Lennick, and examines how the incredible make-up and visual effects were achieved. There is some good on-the-set footage and vintage interviews with Cronenberg and Woods.
“Effects Men” is an audio interview with legendary make-up artist Rick Baker and Michael Lennick. Baker talks about how the early ‘80s was the golden age for make-up effects as people were willing to try anything. He also talks about how, initially, he wasn’t even sure that the effects Cronenberg wanted could be done!
A real treat for die hard fans is “Bootleg Video,” which features the unedited footage for the faux softcore porn film, “Samurai Dreams,” that Max buys at the beginning of the movie. There is also seven minutes of footage shot for the Videodrome transmissions. Optional commentary by Cronenberg, Irwin and Lennick is available for these segments. The director revisits his hatred of censorship and recounts several battles he had over Videodrome.
“Fear on Film” is a 26-minute round table discussion with ‘80s horror film auteurs, John Landis (American Werewolf in London), John Carpenter (The Thing) and Cronenberg. At the time of this interview, they were all making movies for Universal and talk about their films while touching upon topics like violence in movies, censorship and the cathartic nature of horror films. This is a wonderful extra for anyone who grew up watching horror films in the ‘80s.
There is a “Marketing” section that features vintage trailers, a Making Of featurette, stills and posters used to promote the movie.
And finally, there is an extensive stills gallery with effects photos and production stills taken by Tim and Donna Lucas who were writing an article on the movie for Cinefantastique at the time.
Videodrome arguably best represents Cronenberg’s on-going obsession with the merging of man and technology, flesh and electricity. In this respect, it was very influential as evident with the same kind of ominous presence and effects of electricity as in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992).