David Cronenberg – Videodrome (1983)

“Television is reality and reality is less than television.” Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) in Videodrome.

Max Renn (James Woods) runs a sleazy Toronto cable station that airs softcore porn and bizarre, violent entertainment. When a station techie begins receiving pirated signals of a disturbing sadomasochistic program called “Videodrome,” Renn decides that it would make the perfect addition to his line up. While appearing as a guest on a cable talk show, Renn meets relationship expert Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry). The two of them are immediately drawn to each other, both sharing a penchant for rough sex and, naturally, Betamax dupes of “Videodrome.” When it’s discovered that the pirated signal originates from somewhere in Pittsburgh, television producer Masha (Lynn Gorman) attempts to help Renn secure the rights for his station. She discovers that local television guru Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) is behind the violent show and that the behind-the-scenes machinations are of a deeply sinister and complex nature. Against Masha’s advice, Renn seeks out the elusive O’Blivion just as his obsession with the show begins to affect his own reality. Bizarre hallucinations melding his body and the video image begin to plague him. As a vast (yet increasingly personal) conspiracy behind “Videodrome” is slowly revealed, Renn begins a profoundly disturbing transformation into “the new flesh.”

David Cronenberg’s prescient mind-bender from 1983 was virtually ignored by both critics and audiences upon its initial release. Just on the cusp of the home video explosion of the mid ‘80’s, “Videodrome” not only anticipated the VCR revolution, but hit on such “new millennium” concepts as reality television, the world wide web and virtual reality years before they entered vernacular. However, it’s not difficult to understand why the film didn’t find an audience in its original run. Like many of his later films such as “eXistenZ” and “Crash,” “Videodrome” is difficult to classify; it’s not a horror film in the traditional sense and far too literate and complex for the exploitation market. Universal had no idea how to sell the film, even cutting a couple of vaguely misleading trailers catering directly to the MTV crowd. Though they can’t be faulted for promoting Debbie Harry’s involvement (considering Blondie’s appeal just as music videos were taking off), their ridiculous bait-and-switch tactic couldn’t have helped the word of mouth. Cronenberg’s unconventional narrative structure was also quite bold for the typical genre film at the time. His layered screenplay combined with the gruesome (and overtly sexual) effects work of Rick Baker no doubt turned off genre fans expecting a more conventional thriller. Aside from a few astute journalists, “Videodrome” was grossly misunderstood if not completely reviled. It wasn’t until “The Dead Zone,” released later that same year, that Cronenberg got the respect he deserved from the “legit” press. It’s ironic then that out of all of his early work, “Videodrome” is now considered to be his genre-breaking masterpiece.

Coming off the box-office success of “Scanners,” a great effects film, but lacking the dramatic edge that made “The Brood” such a great ride, Cronenberg was in the position to make any film he wanted. Using Canadian tax money (and additional funds from Universal), he created a film that combined the strengths of his two previous genre efforts. Groundbreaking effects work and solid acting merged in “Videodrome,” resulting in Cronenberg’s most adult film up to that time.

The dramatic thread is provided by flawed protagonist Renn, played with intense focus by James Woods. He imbues his seedy character with a surprising charm and intellect. Debbie Harry is equally strong as the love interest/mystery woman Nicki. The two share an surprisingly charged sexual chemistry… even when Harry is a mere video image. Their “love scene” involving a living, throbbing television set remains a wonderfully lurid set piece. The second billed Sonja Smits as Bianca O’Blivion is certainly striking and, according to Cronenberg, so good that her part was greatly expanded. But her role is easily the most forgettable aspect of the film. “Videodrome” is peopled with such interesting character actors, that it’s hard not to overlook her exposition-heavy femme fatale. Peter Dvorsky, Les Carlson and the wonderful Lynne Gorman all turn in appropriately Cronenbergian performances; reservedly manic yet convincing.

It’s impossible to discuss “Videodrome” without mentioning the groundbreaking special effects. Watching the film again after several years, the “in-camera” prosthetic creations are a revelation. Without the aid of computer graphics, the multi-talented Rick Baker and his team designed some of the most disturbing images ever caught on celluloid. The vagina/stomach, the expanding television “flesh screen” and the satisfyingly gruesome death of Barry Convex are unshakable moments in gonzo cinema. Released just a year after the Rob Bottin effects-heavy “The Thing,” “Videodrome’s” make up and appliances are just as unsettling and even more audacious than the John Carpenter thriller. Baker won an Academy Award for his work on “American Werewolf in London” and deservedly so, but the artistry involved in this overlooked gem deserved equal praise.

Videodrome has been meticulously restored, catalogued and critiqued in this stunning new 2-Disc set from The Criterion Collection. Included on disc 1 is a new digital transfer of the unrated cut. Technically the print is flawless and the restored image (in its original aspect ratio) illustrates just how great D.P. Mark Irwin is. Irwin also shot “The Brood” and “Scanners” for the director and his expert eye for both composition and light is clearly evident with this new presentation. The sound has been completely restored and the Dolby Digital enhancement is crystal clear. Howard Shore’s subtle electronic score has never sounded so vibrant. Two separate audio commentaries are included; one with the director and D.P. Irwin and one with actors Woods and Harry. Each track was recorded separately, which generally makes for unfocussed and often tedious exposition. The producers at Criterion, however, edited the four interviews with a near-flawless coherency. Both commentaries are essential for fans of the film, especially the one with the frighteningly articulate Cronenberg. Also on disc 1 is the 2000 short film “Camera” starring Videodrome’s Les Carlson. It was written and directed by Cronenberg and is an unusually poignant piece for the filmmaker. Disc 2 is filled with exhaustive “Videodrome” supplementals. “Forging the New Flesh” by filmmaker Michael Lennick is an interesting short on the make-up effects team with interviews of all the key players including Baker. There is also “Effects Men,” which is an audio interview with Baker and Lennick (who was the video effects supervisor for “Videodrome). For the ‘rabid” fans Criterion put together the great “Bootleg Video.” It contains the complete footage of “Samurai Dreams,” (the softcore Asian program seen briefly in the film) and 7 minutes of transmissions from the “pirated Videodrome.” Cronenberg shot all of the footage himself and again offers commentary. “Fear on Film” is a 26-minute round table discussion from 1982 featuring filmmakers Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis and Mick Garris. It’s an unexpected addition to the set and offers keen insight into the state of the horror genre at the time. Also included are several trailers, a by-the-numbers promotional featurette and an enormous still gallery section featuring hundreds of rare shots. A 40-page booklet offers a Village Voice essay from 1983 (updated by original author Carrie Rickey for this package). It also contains an exhaustive piece by Tim Lucas who had unlimited access to the filming back in 1981. Both articles are intelligent, well-researched examinations of the film and its influential creator.

True to the all the hype, “Videodrome” was a watershed film that continues to inspire science fiction and horror to this day. Daring and difficult and bravely surreal, it remains one of the best films in Cronenberg’s distinguished career. And this artful production by The Criterion Collection finally gives the film the proper respect it deserves. – Bradley Harding @ Monsters At Play

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Language:English
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