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VIDEODROME
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  James Woods, Deborah Harry, Jack Creley
Director:  David Cronenberg
Audio:  PCM Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  89 Minutes
Release Date: 
December 7, 2010

“What’s this ‘Videodrome’?”

“Torture.  Murder.”

“Sounds great.”

“It ain’t exactly sex.”

“Says who?”

Film ***

David Cronenberg must have had some kind of prophetic vision when he made Videodrome in 1983.  At the time, the idea of broadcasting real torture and murder as public spectacle seemed intriguing but far too bleak to be true.  Yet look at what passes for filmed entertainment today:  reality shows where people put themselves through horrible and humiliating situations for a few fleeting moments of fame, or programs depicting the violent results of real police chases, or even a documentary that shows actual slowed down footage of the kids being shot up at Columbine.  Once upon a time, civilized society would have been railed against that as unacceptable exploitation of the worst kind.  But in our day and age, the film embarrassingly won an Oscar.

Maybe like his strange Marshall McLuhan like character Professor Frank O’Blivion (Creley), Cronenberg was somehow tuned into the future of video entertainment.  If what we see on the tube today has truly taken the place of once great shows like The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, All in the Family or others, who’s to say whether we’re really one step away from Videodrome?

Max Renn (Woods) is the somewhat sleazy director of a local cable station, Channel 83 Civic TV.  Since he can’t compete economically with bigger networks, his idea is to instead show things that they can’t.  His little station therefore beams out things soft core porn and other kinds of underground entertainment.

He’s looking for the one show that will really push the envelope and put his channel over the top, and the answer just might be Videodrome.  Picked up by his electronics guy with a descrambler, Max finds a show that offers very realistic depictions of sadistic torture and murder, and nothing else.  He wants more.

Max is intrigued, but his new love interest Nicki Brand (Harry) is even more so.  She’s a talk show host who helps the distressed, but underneath her normal exterior is the kind of woman who can respond to the depictions of Videodrome in a deep, disturbing way.  She even expresses an interest in being on the program.

But is there more to the show than meets the eye?  Max is eventually told that what he’s seeing is real…snuff TV!  He doesn’t believe it, but there are even more pressing matters…namely, why is having strange and unsettling visions all of a sudden?  And what’s with that growing rash on his stomach?

Television has become the great one-sided communicator.  We stare at it for hours at a time, but when we do, we are only engaged in monologue, not dialogue.  Professor O’Blivion had recognized it to the point where he hadn’t carried on a conversation in 20 years.  If he wanted to speak to someone, he made a videotape and sent it to him or her.  Now, Videodrome is speaking to Max Renn in ways he never could have dreamed possible, and soon, someone who might have eventually created a show like Survivor is being re-created himself in the image of a new god called television.

This film was Cronenberg’s follow-up to the successful Scanners, and has grown in reputation over the years as a bona fide cult classic.  It’s a typical Cronenberg offering in that it disturbs both viscerally and subconsciously; bizarre and grotesque images play out in front of you while nudging you to think about bigger and deeper patterns of the nature of our world.  Cronenberg has always seen the evolution of man and the evolution of technology as almost inseparable, and his movies frequently depict graphic images of man and machine becoming one, but perhaps never so strenuously as in Videodrome.  The “new flesh” becomes what is worth fighting and dying for…but does it represent a flesh that has broken free from the technology that has bound it, or one that has finally dissolved into complete harmony with it?

Questions are asked, and not all of them are fully answered, which is why I think Cronenberg’s films tend to achieve cult status.  More than twenty years after the fact, people are still puzzling over Videodrome.  Only now, they’re also marveling over how in tune with the future it really turned out to be.

Video ****

The 80s are a consistently problematic decade for film preservation, but leave it to Criterion to be the exception.  Videodrome is a marvelous treat in high definition.  The colors are natural looking, the images and details are sharp and crisp, and there is a wonderful cleanness to it all.  I'm kind of hoping they get to bring out this treatment for their out-of-print Dead Ringers.  Terrific job!

Audio ***

The original mono is intact here, but uncompressed, and surprisingly dynamic, clean and effective.  It manages to make a single channel sound quite immersive.  Dialogue is well-rendered against the beds of music and effects.  This is one of the best one-channel mixes I've heard, and goes to show how Blu-ray can make even low-tech seem high-tech.

Features ****

I want to start in on this two disc set in a place I rarely begin with: the packaging.  The first thing I noticed about this Blu-ray was just that; it’s designed to look like an old Betamax tape in a slip cover, with a handwritten “Videodrome” label on the side.  Slip the case out of its sleeve, and the illusion continues:  it’s completely designed to look like a videotape.  Pop it open to find the disc and an excellent 40 page booklet.

It kicks off with two fantastic commentary tracks.  One is by David Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin, the other is by actors James Woods and Deborah Harry (all recorded separately, but seamlessly edited together).  I particularly enjoyed the latter; I’ve been a big fan of James Woods for a long time and have never had the chance to hear him speaking so off the cuff about a film.  His humor and insights were a plus, combined with Ms, Harry’s recollections about her first major movie role.  The first commentary gives more background and technical insights, along with Cronenberg reflecting on his many struggles with Canadian censorship over the years.

There is also the original documentary “Forging the New Flesh”, focusing mostly on the film’s effects, make up and style, and featuring among others new interview footage with the legendary Rick Baker.  There is a new audio only interview with Baker and video effects supervisor Michael Lennick.  A section called “Bootleg Video” shows the full uncut clips that were filmed for “Samurai Dreams” and Videodrome, with commentary.  “Fear on Film” is a 1982 roundtable discussion with David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and John Landis on the then current status of horror movies…a real treat.

Rounding out are three trailers, a promotional featurette, stills galleries with hundreds of rare behind the scenes and publicity photos, and some extremely cool menu screens.

BONUS TRIVIA:  One of the earliest Videodrome trailers was actually largely done with a classic Commodore 64 computer!

Summary:

Videodrome is vintage David Cronenberg…insightful, surreal, grotesque and unsettling.  He may reach for the gag reflex once or twice, but only on his way to the inner workings of your mind.  With terrifically remastered video and audio and a superb plethora of extras, this Blu-ray issue represents one of the finest overall home video presentations of a Cronenberg film to date.

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