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Without a doubt one of the most influential innovations of the past century (20th century that is) is the rise of home video. From the humble console black and white television to the elaborate home theaters we enjoy today, video virtually controls our lives. We are entertained and informed by this impressive media. Made in 1983 Videodrome came on the scene at the dawn of home video and provided a twisted world of the media not only being the message but controlling it. Max Renn (James Woods) manages a small time cable station in Toronto whose programming is centered on the more esoteric videos of sex and violence, sort of like Cinemax after midnight. To this end Max surfs the channels searching for pirate stations and comes across Videodrome. On the surface it is little more than a cross between game show and snuff flick. Intrigued, Max sets out to Pittsburg in search of the origins of the show. The show Videodrome is bleak almost beyond belief. A scantily clad young woman is chained to an electrified wall of clay and tortured. While most would be deeply disturbed by these images they enthrall Max to the point of obsession. One night he brings home a young woman who is a radio psychologist, Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry); she wants to watch a porno tape and winds up popping in Videodrome. She is immediately captivated and begins a strange series of SM behavior such as branding herself with a cigarette and cutting herself. Obviously, this is not a family film. Soon, Max finds himself in a vast conspiracy, one that provides the danger and thrills for the plot.

There are some films that to demand to be revisited periodically. Life goes on around you, your tastes understandably changes as you are exposed to the inevitable changing of times and for aficionado cinema, and ever-growing movies that have collectively altered how you perceive and charge film. Over the years I have discovered that there are several filmmakers that are best to be afforded this treatment; close to the helpful this is undoubtedly David Cronenberg. One point of commonality that is used throughout his entire oeuvre is his predilection for shocking visual images. While many filmmakers, mostly in the portion of the horror genre commonly referred to as ‘slasher flicks’, also have a heavy dependency on these jump cuts; images whose sole purpose is to make the audience react with a combination of shock and disgust. On a superficial level, it might appear that the Cronenberg is utilizing the exact same technique. So much of the imagery found in his films do indeed qualify as constructed with the purpose of eliciting a strong revolting feeling in the audience, it is deployed in such a very is to provide nuance and texture that is deeply embedded in the story’s plot. Significant demonstration David Cronenberg’s genius is a filmmaker is how he can utilize fundamentally the same technique as some burgeoning horror director for formal legitimate purpose. Feelings such as shock and revulsion expertly included in order to solidify what is become known as the Cronenberg trademark.

David Cronenberg has made his career by as a director of films that unflinchingly examine the interaction between the organic and the mechanical; the ultimate Clockwork orange. As often stated in the dialogue of his films "it’s all about the flesh", for Cronenberg the ultimate horror is the mechanical devices we devise becoming a physical part of us. Like his later film eXistenZ where gaming consoles are grafted into the player resulting in a direct link between the circuitry of the control of the nervous system of the human being. Within the context of this film, the organic body of the viewer directly interacts with the signals embedded in the Videodrome show and affects the organic nature of the viewer. Guns are grafted onto hands; openings develop in the viewer to accept tapes. For Cronenberg organic technology is the next great step in human development but it comes with a very high price. He reflects the emotional changes within his characters with gross malformed physical alterations. There are no boundaries with this director between perception and reality. He is also able to stand back from this warped world almost dispassionately, without any moral preferences. His use of lighting here is inspired. The film has a feel of a grungy flick, dim and dank. He pays attention to the little details and it all pays off. While Cronenberg is the type of directory relegated to cult status it comes down to you either will hate his work or be captivated by it.

The film pushes the limits to the point of good tastes and then crosses it without ever looking back. What is intriguing about the film is how it challenges every concept we have of what is real. Part conspiracy film, part thriller and mostly disgusting it takes the audience on a trip of a very warped imagination. As Max becomes deeper and deeper involved with the truth behind Videodrome he changes psychologically and those heinous changes are reflected in grime detail with his physical appearance. There is even a warning here about the growing dependence we as a society have with our gadgets. We happily turn much of our existence over to machines, each time losing a little of our organic self. This is a bleak technological dystopia, one where the devices we create go far and above the call in controlling us. What is presented here is not for the faint of heart. While there are subtle aspects to the plot the presentation is completely in your face.

There are few actors that ever plied their craft in the way that James Woods has. He has the ability to take any role and twist it into something strangely wonderful. From his vampire killing priest to drug addicted thief he blossoms in roles that permit him an opportunity to challenge the audience’s notions of his characters. Here he takes a sleazy character like Max and permits a native intelligence to shine through. Max is a multi-dimensional person caught up in the most bizarre circumstances. No one does bizarre like James Woods. Possessing a look and mannerisms of the everyday guy, the audience can relate on an emotional level to this character, required to pull you into the strange events that unfold. While this film is a showcase for the talents of Mister Woods, there is an excellent supporting cast. At the top of these actors is Debby Harry. While she began her career as a singer for Blondie, one of the best New York CBGB bands ever, here she shows she can take on a complex acting gig. While some seem to feel that her performance here is wooden, I felt that this fit perfectly with her role as a radio shrink. She comes across as a person that listens to the problems of others until she is drained emotionally to the point where pain and pleasure have to mix for her to feel alive.

This is the special edition treatment fans of the film and the director have been waiting for. This is a member of the laudable Criterion Collection; those serious about the artistry of cinema can be assured that what presented in this disc is as close as possible to the original vision of the filmmaker. First, this is the unrated edit of the film with the scenes that where cut to avoid the dreaded X or NC-17 rating. The video is presented in a freshly restored digital transfer, albeit the anamorphic 1:85 anamorphic, the best possible in the DVD format. The picture reveals every gory detail in full glory. Some may be disappointed that the audio track is Dolby Digital mono, ignoring the potential for 5.1 surround sound. This is the soundtrack that was originally made for the film under the auspices of David Cronenberg. Most modern AV receivers have some preset programs to alter the perceived ambience of the sound field. After some experimentation I found that using the presets that emulate a small venue or club most closely brings you into the experience of watching this film and art house theater in Greenwich Village, precisely the type of field I first watched this movie. The newer Blu-ray Criterion release does replace the anamorphic video with an uncompressed mastering and the Dolby soundtrack with a PCM Mono mix.

I was delighted and well-informed by the Audio commentaries by director David Cronenberg, actors James Woods and Deborah Harry, and director of photography Mark Irwin. They were interesting as well as informative. Also included is Camera, a short film for the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, a thirty minute documentary, The New Flesh detailing the elaborate makeup and prosthetics used in the film and an extensive round table discussion titled Fear on Film featuring David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis, and Mick Garris. This cult favorite is not for everyone but is a must have for Cronenberg fans everywhere. As part of the Criterion Collection not only do you get the presentation of the movie as close to the filmmaker’s vision as possible but a full gamut of extras to bring you into the creative process behind this extraordinary film.

bulletTwo audio commentaries: David Cronenberg and director of photography Mark Irwin, and actors James Woods and Deborah Harry
bulletCamera (2000), a short film starring Videodrome's Les Carlson, written and directed by Cronenberg
bulletForging the New Flesh, a new half-hour documentary featurette by filmmaker Michael Lennick about the creation of Videodrome's video and prosthetic makeup effects
bulletEffects Men, a new audio interview with special makeup effects creator Baker and video effects supervisor Lennick
bulletBootleg Video: the complete footage of Samurai Dreams and seven minutes of transmissions from "Videodrome," presented in their original, unedited form with filmmaker commentary
bulletFear on Film, a 26-minute roundtable discussion from 1982 between filmmakers Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis, and Mick Garris
bulletOriginal theatrical trailers and promotional featurette
bulletStills galleries featuring hundreds of rare behind-the-scenes production photos, special effects makeup tests, and publicity photos

Posted 07/28/04                03/23/2015

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