Collecting Criterion – Videodrome (1983)


The Criterion Collection is notable for presenting and preserving some of the world’s most beautiful and life-affirming movies in it’s library.  But, at the same time, Criterion has also made an effort to preserve examples of the truly bizarre and grotesque from cinema’s history.  Apart from some classic B-movie horror films from Hollywood like 1958’s The Blob (Spine #91), there are other bizarre movies in the Criterion library like the Andy Warhol-produced Flesh for Frankenstein (#27), or the silent occult documentary Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Years (#134), as well as the works of avant-garde filmmakers like Luis Bunuel (#102 The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (#17 Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom).  While some of the most shocking and button-pushing films have come from international releases, where censorship standards are much looser, Criterion has also sought out some shocking movies that are come from closer to home.  Case in point, some are films from our neighbor to the north, Canada, and one of their most celebrated and challenging auteur filmmakers; David Cronenberg.  Cronenberg’s film career is an interesting one, considering that some of his movies have actually become mainstream hits (1986’s The Fly, 2005’s A History of Violence, and 2007’s Eastern Promises), but some of his earlier and more obscure films are worth a revisit too, and thankfully he has allowed Criterion the opportunities to give them the presentations they deserve.
One particular title of Cronenberg’s that has been given new life as a Criterion title is his sadly little seen psycho-sexual thriller, 1983’s Videodrome (#248).  Videodrome was one of Cronenberg’s most ambitious films in the early part of his career, riding high off the success of his previous thriller Scanners (1981).  The film featured a then rising-star James Woods in the lead, as well as Blondie lead singer and pop icon Deborah Harry as his love interest.  The film also featured some groundbreaking make-up effects that brought to life some of the film’s more shocking moments.  Unfortunately, the film didn’t click with audiences the same way that Scanners did, or for that matter, his follow-up success with The Fly.  Videodrome‘s lukewarm reception from critics and audiences may have had less to do with it’s gory elements, and more to do with it’s satire on the media and politics of the day.  The movie is a hard one to define simply, given the story-line’s heavy reliance on explaining how TV broadcasting works, but it’s a film that still sticks with you long after you’ve seen it.  In many ways, the movie has benefited from the passage of time, as many of the themes in the film are actually playing out more clearly in society today, and this is probably why the film has developed a devoted cult following over the years.  Criterion’s edition of Videodrome helps to carry Cronenberg’s vision into the new century with both a deserving restoration that quite literally will blow away your TV and a slew of extra features that really plunges the viewer right into the center of the madness behind the film.
The story itself is definitely a product of it’s time, and yet still very much ahead of it’s time, and very accurate in some of it’s predictions.  Max Renn (James Woods) is a sleazy cable TV programmer who is looking for the next big thing to draw in audiences to his channel, which caters to a very adult audience.  The problem is that by pushing the envelope with every new show, he has found that audiences have become desensitized and are no longer shocked by what has been putting on the air.  This leads to the discovery of a video tape called Videodrome.  Videodrome, on the surface, looks like a sado-masochistic snuff film, which even Max Renn finds uninteresting at first.  But, over time, he becomes hypnotized by the tape and watches it continuously over and over again.  He sends his girlfriend Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) to investigate the source of the tape, which she does willingly, but she soon disappears.  It’s not long before Max receives more Videodrome tapes, only this time with Nicki featured in them.  Max soon starts hallucinating as he watches, with bizarre things happening to him like a cavity opening up in his chest from which he pulls out a fleshy, blood drenched pistol.  Max tries to uncover what’s happening to him psychologically, what’s happened to Nicki, and the secrets behind Videodrome, which soon leads him into the depths of a deep-seeded political conspiracy.
It’ll be readily apparent that Videodrome is not for the casual viewer.  It can even be quite disturbing at times, particularly when Max starts becoming overwhelmed by the hallucinations that are plaguing his mind.  These scenes in particular are the standouts in the movie, and feature some of the film’s most impressive visual effects.  Made long before CGI would become the norm in film-making, every special effect in this movie had to be done with practical elements.  Some of those effects are still impressive today, like when Max’s TV screen starts to expand out and become almost malleable, which soon causes Max to rub his face into it (an image which Criterion uses for the box cover).  Also, the part where Max reaches into his own chest is another impressive effect, one of which I’m sure will make one or two viewers queasy upon seeing it.  What pleases me most is that Cronenberg’s vision is truly a unique one, and this movie probably more than any other manages to make those visions come to life in unforgettable ways.  Cronenberg definitely has an affinity for taking everyday things and giving them a grotesque and almost monstrous quality.  That is certainly true in the later parts of the movie when Max carries a gun around that seems to have been fused to his hand in a puss-riddled fleshy shell.  Again, some really sick stuff, but Cronenberg’s effects team did go all out and made this grotesque imagery something really special.
The film is also interesting given the themes of it’s story.  In many ways, it actually predicted many things that came true in the years since it’s release.  Sure, the movie is dated a bit by the limits of technological advances known in it’s time, but some of the ideas behind the movie have held up well.  The idea of technology and media content leading individuals towards obsessive behavior is something that we have seen play out in our society over the years, and it’s a central idea within the plot of Videodrome.  With the internet giving us access to any kind of content we want, with very little in the way of restrictions, it becomes more likely that anyone can become consumed with the impulsion to obsess over certain things.  Not only that, but like the audiences that Max Renn is catering to with his channel, we are becoming more and more desensitized to what we see on the internet.  Likewise, when we obsessive over certain things, we become more susceptible to manipulation; whether it is by our political leaders or by those around us.  That’s what Videodrome ultimately leads up to with it’s messages, and it’s amazing to think that Cronenberg and his team were contemplating these larger ideas in a time long before anyone had even a notion of what was to come with the internet.  The idea that we become slaves to our lives in interactive media is probably the film’s most unsettling element and the one that continues to keep this film relevant so many years later.
A lot of credit should go to the cast for making this film work.  This may have been the point in James Woods career when he was beginning to be typecast in sleazy businessman roles (something which he has struggled to break out of ever since), but his performance as Max Renn is still a very strong one.  Woods perfectly captures the slow devolution of the character as he plunges deeper into madness.  You forget how good of a leading man he can be sometimes, and this movie gives him a starring role that perfectly fits his talents as an actor.  The film pretty much rests on his shoulders and he managers to carry it through, even when it moves into it’s truly bizarre moments.  Deborah Harry doesn’t have as much screen-time, but she’s used very effectively in the movie as well.  She’s particularly unsettling in those hallucinatory moments, and there’s a sensuousness to her performance that really makes her a standout.  Rarely do you see music icons feel completely comfortable in an acting role, but Deborah manages it very effectively, and not once will you feel like she’s out of place.  I also like the whole look of the movie as well.  This film definitely has an early 80’s schlocky style to it, reminiscent of slasher movies like Nightmare on Elms Street, but Cronenberg balances that out with some really interesting stylistic choices.  During some of the more sensual, hallucinatory scenes, the film starts to feel more like a film noir thriller.  Also, the actual design of the “Videodrome” seems inspired by the style of Stanley Kubrick, in terms of it’s set-up and lighting.  It all adds to a very interesting cinematic vision, one of which feels uniquely Cronenberg.
So, how good is the Criterion Collection’s edition of the movie.  First of all, the restoration of the movie is excellent.  The film is, of course, limited to the low-budget production that it is, and will not look as fresh and sharp as something that was made more recently, but for a 30 years old movie like this one, it looks outstanding on blu-ray.  The colors in particular, something that is particularly evident in Cronenberg’s style, really pops out in high-definition.  And for an early 80’s flick, the film elements have really held up well, especially in contrast with the VHS video playback that you see periodically in the movie. That alone shows you just how superior a good high-definition presentation is.  The extras also give us a detailed look at the movies making and it’s legacy.  You get two great audio commentaries; one from Cronenberg himself, and the other with stars James Woods and Deborah Harry.  There are also numerous making-of documentaries on the films special effects, a gallery of production materials and behind the scenes photos, as well as a short film called Camera which Cronenberg made specially for the Toronto Film Festival in 2000.  My favorite extra, however, is a feature called Fear on Film, which is a 26 minute round-table discussion with Cronenberg himself and some of his film-making peers; John Landis and John Carpenter.  Seeing these three iconic directors discussing their work and horror cinema in general together is a real treat, and well worth the price of the Criterion edition alone.
So, is this a Criterion title worthy of the brand.  As a cinematic achievement, I would absolutely say yes.  David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is an expertly crafted film that really holds together and has actually become more interesting as a story-line since when it first premiered.  Would I recommend it as part of your own Criterion collection.  That all depends on your own tastes.  Like I said before, Videodrome is not for everyone, and I’m sure that there will be more than one person who will be either grossed out by it, or will probably not get the meaning of it at all.  I for one found it to be a very interesting cinematic experience, and I would recommend the movie as at least a rental.  For many people, these kinds of movies are made for specific audiences, and Cronenberg’s films are still are an acquired taste for many people, much like the works of David Lynch.  One thing that I find interesting is that I actually prefer Cronenberg’s films to Lynch’s.  Both directors have made careers out of examining the grotesque and the bizarre in everyday life, but I feel like Lynch is more style over substance; again, it all comes down to cinematic tastes.  In the end, I highly praise the job that Criterion has done on this title, especially with the Fear on Film extra feature that accompanies it.  It’s a challenging piece of cinema, but one that I’m sure will help you admire the Cronenberg style and want to explore it deeper.  Just don’t give into it’s hallucinatory pull.
“Long Live the New Flesh.”