Videodrome (1983)
By: Mr Intolerance on March 10, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Criterion Collection (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0 Mono. English (FHI) Subtitles.
The Movie

Director: David
Actors: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky, Les Carlson, Jack Creley
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Country: Canada

Max Renn (James Woods) is a seedy, sleazy small-time cable TV producer on the lookout for the next big exploitative thing to carve away a market share from the big league networks. Also, he's doing it out of personal interest – it's what he likes to watch: hard-core violence and soft-core porn. When he and some fellow execs are watching a potential new program (which begins with a nubile young Japanese girl and a massive wooden dildo) Max states, "It's soft…there's something too…soft about it. I'm looking for something that'll break through, y'know – something…tough." Be careful what you wish for…

One of Renn's technical boffins, Harlan, comes across a signal from what they originally think is Malaysia (we later find out it's Pittsburgh – and be damned if I could get George Romero outta my mind) for a show called "Videodrome" – snuff TV effectively – victims (usually female) being brutally tortured for no readily apparent reason – no sense of narrative whatsoever, but a series of images that brutalise and otherwise lacerate the viewers – and not just their conscious mind and sense of aesthetics, but the very core of their mind, their being. How? Watch it and see, you dumb schmucks. Renn becomes obsessed with the show – even to the point of it entering into his sex-life - trying to find a link to it, with an eye to showing it on his channel, the inappropriately named Civic TV. It kind of reminds me of the bit in Cannibal Holocaust where the female TV exec tells Professor Munroe that the audience enjoy having their senses raped. In a similar way, Renn wants to find his niche in the world of the telly-box, something the major league networks will ever be able to equal, only things are never that easy, and especially not in a David Cronenberg film.

Enter: Nikki Brand (played by Blondie sauce-pot Deborah Harry), a "radio personality" (host of the Emotional Rescue Program, a pretty bogus, it seems to me, pop-psychology/self-help program – the kind of which our media is currently clogged with) who becomes Renn's lover, and is introduced to Videodrome through him. It's interesting on a metaphoric level that as a radio personality, her downfall comes via television (I have that dreadful early 80s pop toon in my head – "Video Killed the Radio Star" – don't look at that as a spoiler – I can't tell you what happens to Nicki, because Cronenberg never explicitly tells me). And here we see one of Cronenberg's weak points: dialogue. While as an ideas man he's A #1, transmitting those ideas is an occasionally clumsy process, to whit, stated flatly by Nicki on a TV talk show: "I live in highly excited state of over-stimulation" – what fucker talks like that?

On the same talk show is media prophet Professor Brian O'Blivion – the virtual nature of whose existence is made rapidly apparent to us, giving his voice and ideas greater weight. An interesting point he raises is that while admitting his name is his "TV name", he announces that soon we will all have our "special names" – maybe not necessarily true for TV, but definitely true for the internet (for example, look at the name of the person who's writing this review – I've constructed a persona and a demeanour to allow me freedom of communication in this medium, and one that's a reflection of my own personality, but writ large). Cronenberg as prophet himself? Perhaps, although he flatly denies it in the commentary track. 

Nicki becomes interested in Videodrome too, but from a totally sexual standpoint, introducing Max into a mildly sado-masochistic relationship that soon gets way out of hand, and not in the way you think. Nicki goes "on assignment" to Pittsburgh, home of Videodrome and when we see her again, and again, it's not in the way you're expecting – she thinks having Max shoving needles through her earlobes – not a pleasurable viewing experience, even in a post August Underground world - and stubbing a cigarette out on her titty has her prepared to be a "contestant" on a show where people are flogged to death with a cat o' nine tails and have electrodes attached to their genitals. It's a tribute to Cronenberg's skill as a director that his scenes of the old ultra-violence still shock and jar the viewer today as much as they did nearly twenty-five years ago – the weird thing is that when you watch the isolated footage of the Videodrome raw feed on the special features disc (less than 10 minutes of the torture footage with a brief commentary track by DP Mark Irwin and effects guy Michael Lennick), it loses its much of its power to shock and dismay – but within Videodrome itself, it's a cold, visceral nightmare on film, akin to the snuff footage in Emanuelle in America, the apocryphal source for the inspiration to the Videodrome footage – it's certainly never mentioned on these discs.

We get a sharp juxtaposition between acceptable depictions of sexuality (a belly-dancer in a restaurant) and Max and Nicki's subversive masochistic Videodrome-inspired relationship – why does society deem one good and the other bad, is the question Cronenberg seemed to be asking not only here in 1983, but in every film he made before and since, from Shivers in, up to and including 2005's A History of Violence, with Viggo Mortensen's wife dressing up in a teenager's cheerleading uniform – with society's sexualising of teenagers seeming to be deemed acceptable (look at teenage female fashion sense and the headline's of young women's magazines and tell me I'm lying; to paraphrase from BBC sitcom Coupling about mags like Cosmo: "A hundred pages of why men are rubbish, then an article about why you should wake him up with a blow job!"), while their actually doing the deed being branded a no-no (say, the banning and general condemnation of Ken Park), being attacked as well as the hypocrisy lying behind it – a society that allows a bunch of trailer trash hos like the Pussycat Dolls to be role-models to teenage girls is not a world I want to be part of, thank you very much. Much the same here – Cronenberg seems to be calling into question the idea of what is aberrant sexual behaviour. Aberrant to whom? By whose conditions? If the media presents us with a picture of what might be traditionally called 'wrong' (as in the Videodrome footage), are we equally wrong to indulge in such pleasures, and what right do the media have to judge us on those pleasures, having foisted them upon us in the first place? I'll totally fuckin' bet there were a lot of anally curious couples who walked home from seeing Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, with the conversation heading towards, "Darling, have you ever thought about trying it the other way?" But society will still see arse-sex as an aberrant filthy thing – yet how many art-house critics will defend that film as high art? If TV, or the media generally, tells us something, how often does the average Joe in the street actively question it?

"Because it has something that you don't have Max, it has a philosophy, and that is what makes it dangerous." Amen to that – Videodrome does indeed possess a philosophy, and that is something that will make anything a dangerous, potentially evil, cultish and brainwashing force, despite how ridiculous the initial concept behind it might seem at first – look at Jonestown, the Manson Family, the Nazis – all with their own twisted versions of philosophy, all initially ludicrous, all ultimately lethal.

Rick Baker's eye-popping special effects deserve a shout-out this point – the bio-mechanics being even sleazier than H.R. Giger – the living TV set, Max's unique way of carrying a side-arm – not to mention what eventually quite literally becomes a hand-grenade – his fusion with the gun, the living, breathing videotapes, this is Cronenberg's fascination with body-horror in flashing twenty foot high neon letters, brought to us in horrific detail by Baker's visual flair, as well as through Cronenberg's directorial genius.

Another onionskin layer to the story arrives in the form of seemingly congenial Barry Convex (Cronenberg should never be allowed to name his own characters…), purveyor of fine eyeglasses to the masses. He wants to help Max with his Videodrome hallucinations – or maybe he's turning Max into some kind of a Videodrome terrorist for the public good – your call. When the conspiracy theory stuff turns up in the last third of the film, it gets even weirder and more difficult to decipher than it was before.

That's all you're getting from me at the risk of any further spoilers, plot-wise – you really need to see this film, if you haven't already, and this version in particular, and you don't need or even want me to lead you through it by the hand – your experience of Videodrome is going to be different to mine anyway.

What's real here, and what's hallucination? Fucked if I know. The subjective nature of the film is brought into sharp relief once we really fall into Renn's "psychosis" for want of a better word. You take out of it what you see in it. Once Max goes AWOL, we get differing layers of reality, and as far as one ultimate truth – sorry, pal, I can't help ya. But then again, that's one of the reasons why I like this film so much – I totally hate directors who lead you by the nose (Oliver Stone would be a good example of what not to do), Cronenberg leaves vast areas of grey for the audience to make up their own minds in, and that is why he is still a truly transgressive director today, leaving meaning to the individual, rather than beating you over the fucking head with it – practically subversive, given Hollywood's current standards.

One of the things I find totally hilarious about this film, is that back in the day, it would have been eagerly sought out by the gore-hound set for its gruesome (yet extremely effective) Rick Baker effects – and that is exactly the kind of audience who would totally miss out on the message Cronenberg was trying to convey – the kind of person who watched Scanners only to see if there were more exploding heads. As a kid – which I was when this came out, 11 to be precise – I would never have comprehended this film; I'm glad I came to it (and this version, specifically) as an adult.

James Woods' edgy, nervy, intense performance is more than a part of what sells this film, his utter bewilderment to the changes going on around and within him mirrored on his terribly expressive face – Woods is most definitely, like Christopher Walken, Jon Voight or Harvey Keitel, an actor's actor, not traditional "leading man" material, just an excellent actor who a good director will get an amazing performance from. I don't think he got any better than this, and I've see him act in some very fine films (Salvador springs pretty readily to mind). In the director's commentary, Cronenberg repeatedly discusses Woods' paranoia during the shoot (even to the point where Woods wouldn't put on Convex's video-helmet for fear of being electrocuted, despite the fact that it was modelled for him by one of the producers, wearing the fully operational helmet, standing in a pool of water, totally unharmed – whenever you see Max Renn in the helmet, it's actually David Cronenberg, not James Woods) and if that's true, it aided the filming of Videodrome, giving Woods an uneasy edge – I really can't picture anyone else playing this role, like Peter Weller as RoboCop, or Rutger Hauer as John Ryder in The Hitcher, or Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, Woods owns this role.
The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer looks amazing. For someone who's only ever seen the cut Australian release, this was a real fucking eye-opener. Cronenberg's films need to be seen in this context – uncut, uncensored and just as the director intended – and with a clear as crystal transfer. This makes the R4 release look like an atrocity.
Videodrome sounds as good as it looks. Coming at you in it's original mono form, Criterion have done exactly what you'd expect – presented you with gold.
Extra Features
The packaging for one is outstanding, making the big ole digipak the film comes in look like a seedy Betamax dupe of the Videodrome program. A nice bit of work, that, although I've come to expect nothing less from Criterion, having experienced their versions of Haxan, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Clean, Shaven. Besides that, it's an embarrassment of riches – there are two commentary tracks, one with director David Cronenberg and DP Mark Irwin (the better of the two in my opinion – Cronenberg is a pretty candid speaker – although it does make me laugh when he refers to James Woods as "Jimmy", like he's a little boy), the other with stars James Woods and Deborah Harry (okay, but not as cool). My only problem with the commentaries is that they appear to have been recorded solo – that is, with the Cronenberg/Irwin track, they weren't there at the same time, ditto the Woods/Harry track. So the whole thing seems a bit fake to me, a bit forced – there needs to be a moderator in these situations; it keeps things more lively, and more natural.

There's also a 6 minute short film Cronenberg made for the Toronto Film Festival in 2000 called "Camera", starring Videodrome's Les Carlson (Barry Convex). On the second disc, the fun really begins for the completist. Okay, first there's a featurette called "Forging the New Flesh" – a documentary about the creations of the film's prosthetic effects, an audio interview with effects guys Rick Baker and Michael Lennick, the complete footage of the Japanese soft-core porn loop "Samurai Dreams", with commentary by either Cronenberg, DP Irwin, or video effects supervisor Michael Lennick, depending on which track you choose to listen to. There's 7 minutes of unedited transmissions of the Videodrome raw feed (some of which never made it into the final cut of the film), with commentary by Irwin and Lennick, various versions of the effects seen through the helmet Convex gives Renn to wear to record his hallucinations, with commentary by Lennick,  a 26 minute discussion of modern (at the time) horror, between Cronenberg, John Landis and John Carpenter, moderated by Mick Garris (he of Masters of Horror fame – actually worthwhile watching, although the most horrifying thing about it is the clothes these motherfuckers are wearing – were they allowed to dress themselves, for fuck's sake – I've never seen such a collection of bad blazers, slacks and sweaters!), original trailers (some of which are fucking horrible and do the film a tremendous dis-service) and promotional featurette and a pretty impressive gallery of behind-the-scenes, promo, production and special effects test shots. On top of that there is a 40 page booklet (40 fucking pages!) with a whole mess of essays – by Carrie Rickey, Tim Lucas (if you don't know who he is, I'm going home) and Gary Indiana – well worth your time and effort. Criterion are gods when it comes to this kind of completist stuff.
The Verdict
Cronenberg's masterpiece, in my mind, if a little flawed. Yes, it's original and brilliant and a piece of satire probably too sophisticated for the great unwashed, but it's also a little too arch and pretentious at the same time, something problematic that Cronenberg's never really lost – eg: some of the outrageously named characters named for their quirks or what they stand for, a la Everyman and other such medieval morality plays (Nicki Brand, for example – Nicki for the nicks Max finds on her body and Brand for the cigarette burns she inflicts on herself, and presumably Max inflicts upon her, after viewing the Videodrome loops, according to Cronenberg. Convex's name was an all-too-obvious choice, and as for Brian O'Blivion – talk about driving the point home…). However these little problems aside, it's still a directorial tour-de-force from a creative genius who's never shied away from controversy and a truly visionary provocation of his audience. After watching this, I can never watch the cut Region 4 copy ever again – to experience the full brutalising power of Videodrome, it needs to be seen in its raw form; a bleeding, ugly and ultimately shocking experience.
Movie Score
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