Review Date: October 6, 2004
Released by: Criterion
Release date: 8/31/2004
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
It was with the resounding box office disappointment of Videodrome
that critics began to take David Cronenberg seriously. Up until that point, all of Cronenberg’s horror films had turned a tidy profit, and if young audiences are seeing these horror movies by the droves, then that must mean that the films are lacking in artistic merit. Videodrome
changed such slighting that critics had allotted Cronenberg, as each subsequent film of his would receive overwhelmingly positive accolades. With Cronenberg now Canada’s critical darling, Criterion saw fit to revisit Cronenberg’s meditation on the television with an all new DVD. Two discs long and full of supplements, Criterion’s Videodrome
no doubt delivers in terms of overall transfer and supplement quality, but how about the film? Adjust your critical antennae, and let’s channel through this release.
Max Renn (James Woods
) is a producer for Civic TV. Renn’s station specializes in the perverse. Soft core pornography, graphic violence and other such racy material are Civic TV’s specialty, giving viewers, as Renn says, “a harmless outlet for their fantasies and frustrations.” Renn’s latest program discovery may not be so harmless however. With the help of his techie friend Harlin (Peter Dvorsky
), Renn is able to pickup an anonymous broadcast from overseas. Called simply “Videodrome”, the show depicts a women being beaten and tortured in an electric chamber. “When does the plot begin?” Renn muses, “It doesn’t.” responds Harlin. What the two view is pure, unadulterated snuff footage, and Renn cannot stop watching.
In a local TV interview, Renn runs into Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry
). Immediately captivated by her seductive red dress, Renn asks her out for dinner. Brand obliges, and the two quickly end up back at his apartment. As they sit entranced with the television programming, Renn mentions his recent snuff find, and Brand is immediately interested. Brand herself is also into fetishistic torture, as she asks Renn to pierce her ears or as she burns herself with cigarette ends. As the two of them conclude their masochistic sexual desires, Brand informs Renn of her intent to audition for “Videodrome”.
With Brand gone, Renn falls into a further trance with the “Videodrome” programming, so much so that subjective and objective reality begin to merge. Renn sees Brand on television, and subsequently becomes one with the television. Indeed, the influence of the television begins to alter his physical makeup, as Renn grows a vaginal like VCR slit in his stomach. Through beta tapes, Renn can seemingly be controlled, whether it be by Harlan or by Barry Convex (Les Carlson
), the visionary behind “Videodrome”. Slowly, the separation between man and machine is blurred, as Renn is forced to contemplate a “new flesh”, a flesh where the television is the retina to the mind’s eye. Where skin becomes scanline, and the flesh has no boundaries.
represents a turning point in director David Cronenberg’s career. Cronenberg’s script for Videodrome
would be his last original screenplay until he retooled the same themes for his eXistenZ
in 1999. Videodrome
would also be Cronenberg’s last independently filmed production before moving through the studio system the following years with The Dead Zone
and The Fly
. Although Universal was involved in distribution, Videodrome
was still funded apart from Hollywood and creatively controlled by Cronenberg. As a result, the film should represent the apex of Cronenberg’s visionary creativity, where his themes are honed and his vision uncompromised. While the film doesn’t quite succeed at such a feat, it remains a powerfully prophetic film and certainly one of Cronenberg’s most challenging.
In its examination of television as an integrated technology, Videodrome
appropriates the themes of popular Canadian theorist, Marshall McLuhan. “The medium is the message,” McLuhan so influentially stated back in the sixties, and Videodrome
is less about the snuff program and more about the television itself, and how it can eventually become an extension of the body. As the viewer can change channels and tap into the programs that they want to see, the television becomes an external pleasure receptacle for the brain, able to offer sensual gratification, much like the tongue for taste or the reproductive organ for sexual pleasure. As an “outlet for fantasy”, the television becomes for Renn a masturbatory like appendage, where Renn can watch snuff or projected images of Nicki Brand whenever he so desires.
The television is developed throughout as the central character of the film, since even Brand’s introduction is cleverly filtered through the television. The shot begins with a shot on Renn, and slowly trucks over to a small monitor, where Brand’s face is being projected for the broadcast interview. Right from the start, Cronenberg establishes the sensuality of the television image, and posits the possibility that Brand may all just be a waveform conjecture by Renn’s psyche. As Renn’s vision slowly begins to pixelate and his stomach develop a vaginal slit, the power of the television is ultimately reinforced. Television has such a powerful effect on its viewers; it has the potential to render them passive, to metaphorically make them female, ready for the television to act upon them with programming or phallic guns and tapes.
Indeed, the allure of the television drives Renn to contemplate entering a world of the new flesh. Television is interesting in that it can be both emotionally overpowering and disconnected simultaneously. The snuff tapes are able to entrance Renn because of its shocking subject matter, but at the same time viewing it is safe, because it is not reality, it is merely an image. Victims on screen are infallible, since they exist outside of a real world and only within a fabricated one within the cathode ray tube. It is because of this that that new flesh seems so appealing. It is widely said that an actor can live on well past his death through his characters on screen, and in many ways Cronenberg is using the same concept in proposing the technological evolution of man. In killing himself for the new flesh, Renn is very much destroying his physical remains in order to live on forever within the world of media.
Cronenberg really invites some interesting themes throughout Videodrome, but the overall impact is hampered by a loose and overly ambiguous narrative structure. It is widely discussed in the supplements as to how Cronenberg was forced to shoot his film without a finished script, and the end result is a number of interesting ideas unable to settle upon a concise and sensible conclusion. For all its technological explorations, the film remains much less focused than Rabid
or The Brood
Still, however puzzling Videodrome
may be, it nonetheless represents Cronenberg in the zenith of his artistic creativity, both in story and in style. The visuals, from organic televisions and protruding hands from the cathode ray tube to chest slits and tentacle-like guns are devilishly disturbing and perverse, representing some of the genre’s most memorable images. The story possesses all the intellectual flourishes of Cronenberg’s other works, able to build yet again on Cronenberg’s never ending fixation on outstretches of the body. Videodrome
works just as good today as it did 20 years ago, as our increasing fixation on the interactivity of the internet has made us all Max Renn’s in search of a purpose. The new flesh is cyberspace, and Cronenberg called it years before it ever had a name.
Criterion presents the film in a fresh 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and the image is a revelation. The only dirt, grain and scanlines visible are those on the actual televisions within the film. Criterion has done a wonderful job of cleaning the film up, as print blemishes are virtually nonexistent and the entire transfer is full of depth. When the gun comes out of the television, it really looks like it, thanks to minimal grain and sharp picture.
|Universal DVD||Criterion DVD|
Compared to Universal’s bare bones release, the transfer on this disc is much sharper. The Universal disc had high contrast, and as a result the image lacked a certain depth. The new transfer rectifies this problem, and it makes the characters seem much more lifelike. Criterion’s transfer is also slightly sharper and with less grain. The Universal disc is only single layer, while the Criterion is spread out over a dual layer DVD, and the extra data content results in a clearer and more detailed picture. Colors are also controlled better in the new release, as evidenced by the vivid greens in the plant compared with the muddier look of the Universal disc. Saturation is also more lifelike, as the previous disc looked a tad red. Criterion’s disc easily wins out, and even on its own this is a fantastic restoration of an important film, as per Criterion’s company line.
Criterion is all about preserving the artistic integrity of the film’s original exhibition, and as a result 5.1 remixes are basically a nonoccurrence on their discs. Videodrome
does not break that tradition, as it is presented in a standard mono track. The track sounds good and clean; no hisses or pops were heard on the soundtrack and dialogue was always clear. It won’t work out those surrounds, but it won’t detract away any from the picture either.
Criterion has prepared a number of excellent supplements for this release. The first disc contains two commentaries and Cronenberg’s recent short film, Camera
is basically an eight minute monologue with Les Carlson about aging and the power of cinema, and while you won’t find any phallic thorns or blood soaked fetuses, the film still remains distinctly Cronenbergian. It somewhat builds on the themes of Videodrome, and the idea that one can live on much longer than their physical life through the power of their recorded image. Camera
The first commentary is with David Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin, which has been edited together from two separate sittings. Both are very intellectual, and provide several very interesting facts about the production. The television interview where Renn comments on Brand’s red dress was actually taken from real events, the two tell us, as Cronenberg did something very similar on The Dini Petty show. Cronenberg also brings up some interesting information about James Woods, and how he had a paranoia that Universal would try to electrocute him if he put on the mask he had to wear in the film. As much as he remembers the production, Cronenberg is also routinely philosophical as he muses on such things as technology and how in today’s society it has taken over evolution. Although the track can seem a bit dry because the two speakers are never together, it is nonetheless another very strong Cronenberg commentary.
The next commentary is one with James Woods and Deborah Harry, which has also been edited together from separate sittings. Harry is a real energetic speaker, and she offers some insight on the film, like how the idea of a virtual reality character was basically unheard of in 1982 and how it was tough for audiences to deal with such a weird notion. Woods is equally as interesting, providing a lot of background on his character motivations, which helps to clear up some ambiguities in the film. Both Harry and Woods are entertaining without being as deep of thinkers as Cronenberg. Two solid commentaries.
Disc two is not quite as deep and intellectual as the first disc, as it remains mostly technical in nature. The biggest extra is a new featurette, the 30-minute “Forging The New Flesh” by video effects supervisor Michael Lennick. The featurette is culled together from new interviews and old, and demonstrates how several of the complex effects were executed. Particularly interesting is the construction of the television, which required several layers and the use of an organ to get the bloated effects of the television seen in the film. Interviews with Cronenberg, Woods, Lennick, Rick Baker and others are included, and the tone of the featurette is extremely dark for an extra of this kind.
The other significant extra is a 1982 panel interview between Cronenberg, John Carpenter and John Landis entitled “Fear on Film”. The 26-minute extra is even better than the effects documentary, as three of the decades most influential genre filmmakers sound off on various aspects of their films. Censorship is a major topic, as Cronenberg talks of how it is a subjective criteria, and how it should never be something that should be trusted. Coming from Canada though, where government censorship at the time could destroy his films, Cronenberg is quick to say that the MPAA is the lesser of evils. Cronenberg dominates the interview with his deep musings, as Carpenter and Landis kind of just sit in awe of all of Cronenberg’s insight. Landis is quite funny and very quick to complement Cronenberg on his body of films. It is a great half-hour of footage, and certainly the most interesting on the disc.
“Effects Men” is another supplement on the technical aspects of the production, organized as a 20-minute audio essay with four chapters. Both Michael Lennick and Rick Baker sound off on how they became involved in the film, what they think of Cronenberg as a filmmaker and how they approached the groundbreaking effects work on the picture. There is some overlap between this and the documentary, and those on a schedule may just want to bypass this for the video content on the disc.
More interesting is the “Bootleg Video” supplement, which includes three of the shorts that were seen within the film. The most entertaining is the “Samurai Dreams” soft-core porn that Cronenberg shot for the film, and it is presented in its 6-minute entirety. It is silent, but has commentary on two separate tracks. The first commentary is again with Cronenberg and Irwin, and it is mainly about Cronenberg talking about censorship and how this short caused him plenty of grief with the MPAA and Universal. Lennick is on track two, and he talks about what it was like having to deal with the responsibility of shooting all these extra shorts on tape. Lennick also provides commentary for the “Helmet-Cam” and “Transmissions from Videodrome” footage, which are both really interesting clips. the Helmet-Cam footage is various trial runs of the point of view shots used in the film when Renn applies the helmet, done several times with a number of primitive digital effect overlays. The Transmissions clip are all the torture footage from the film brought together in this 7-minute clip. Scenes that did not make the televisions in the film are also shown. This entire bootleg section provides a number of good shorts that help to flesh out the entire television world that Renn becomes so entrenched in within Videodrome.
The second disc is rounded off by a number of promotional materials. First off is three truly bizarre promotional trailers, and seeing them leaves no doubt as to why the film tanked at the box office. They are very experimental in nature, with the last two being done almost entirely with an Atari. The first is more routine, but still makes the film seem much weirder than it actually is. An eight minute making-of is also included, and most of the footage from it was used again in “Forging the New Flesh”. Publicity stills are also included, and there are several shots from deleted scenes not shown within the film. There is a scene where Renn talks to Brand over the telephone through the television (how is that for an abuse of technology) and more lovemaking between the two characters. A marketing gallery rounds off the promotional materials, with plenty of shots of posters, lobby cards and ad slicks from the film. A couple still galleries are included in another section on the disc, but it is more or less the same thing as the publicity stills.
Discussion of this disc cannot conclude without mention of the wonderful job Criterion has done on the presentation of this disc. The menus on both discs are very effective at establishing the dark and ominous technological mood of the film. Both menus are basically distorted shots of color bars with some of the “Videodrome” footage spliced within. Better than the menus however, is the wonderful packaging. The film is housed in a very strong cardboard slipcase, and the actual DVD case itself is outfitted to look just like the betacam tape that enters Max Renn’s stomach later in the film. Written on the tape are the words “Long Live The New Flesh”, and “Videodrome” is also even hand written on the spine. No packaging, save maybe for Blue Underground’s Snuff
packaging, has been so simple and effective. Criterion has done a great job with this film on DVD, and the packaging is just the icing on the cake.
is not an easy film to watch, but it is full of interesting conjectures on the future of television and society, realized with disturbed vision by David Cronenberg. While it may be scatterbrained, it nonetheless remains a challenging and visually innovative work. The DVD is great on all levels, with crisp video, expansive supplements over two discs and packaging to die for. Long live Criterion Collection, and here’s hoping they do more collaborations with David Cronenberg in the future.
Movie - A-
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B
Supplements - A
- Running Time - 1 hour 29 minutes
- Rated R
- 2 Discs
- Chapter Stops
- English Mono
- English subtitles
- Audio Commentary with David Cronenberg and Mark Irwin
- Audio Commentary with James Woods and Deborah Harry
- Camera short film
- "Forging the New Flesh" effects featurette
- "Effects Men" audio interviews
- "Fear on Film" panel interview with David Cronenberg, John Landis and John Carpenter
- "Bootleg Videos" with optional commentary
- "The Making of Videodrome" featurette
- Theatrical trailers