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The Criterion Collection presents
"I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation."
DVD ReviewOne of the persistent themes of David Cronenberg's films is the horrific nature of flesh. In this classic expression of that notion, Cronenberg takes a step farther and combines the flesh of human life with the electronic (anticipating the Matrix films by many years) to posit the mystical creation of a New Flesh. But this world of modern life, thoroughly dominated if not controlled by television, comes with a very significant cost.
Max Renn (James Woods) is in charge of Channel 83, a low-rent cable station that specializes in pirated softcore porn and similar titillations. With the help of tech Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), Max intercepts satellite broadcasts for free material to broadcast. One of the pirated items, however, is the program Videodrome, which consists of nothing but torture and murder in a red room. Fascinated by this apparently genuine snuff and S&M, Max decides to delve deeper into the world of Videodrome, while getting romantically involved with cultural critic Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), who seems to have not only an unhealthy fascination with the program, but a highly perverse streak of her own. As Max gets close to the source, he uncovers a truly horrific political conspiracy that transforms him both mentally and physically.
While it's nothing novel to suggest that television is taking over our lives, Videodrome takes this concept to entirely new lengths. Not only does the Videodrome program exercise an unhealthy fascination, but it provides the key to literal mind control, given horrific personification through the insertion of videocassettes (remember those?) directly into a slit in the viewer's abdomen. At the same time, the flesh becomes a literal weapon, with guns that shoot not bullets but cancerous projectiles, fusing with the hand and arm into a wired, fleshy mass. The result is both thought-provoking and stomach-turning. The S&M sequences, both in the film and the Videodrome sequences, are often quite appalling and only for the hardiest viewers. But they're not just there for our entertainment; they have a deeper meaning in the political world that Max finds himself tangled up in. The brutal dehumanization is an irresistible temptation to susceptible individuals, making them suitable and disposable subjects of Videodrome and its masters.
Woods gives an intriguing and low-key lead performance that credibly demonstrates an evolution from money-grubbing to curiosity to obsession to possession. Deborah Harry (better known as the lead singer of the New Wave group Blondie) smolders with a perverse sensuality that burns off the screen. The supporting cast is all very good, giving a suitably bland, businesslike character to the thoroughly nasty proceedings. While the effects (from a pre-CGI era) aren't all convincing (most notably a corpse exploding from cancers within), they do work for the most part.
To a certain extent, Videodrome defies genre categorization. Though it has its horrific moments, it's also a political thriller and political satire, with significant social comedy and a snarky tone (such as the Cathode Ray Mission for television addicts). The disturbing imagery (including breathing, dripping videocassettes, among other ghastly visuals) makes it hard to categorize it anywhere else. But it's certainly not a cheap monster movie or a slasher flick; Cronenberg aims for, and successfully hits, a much more visceral and unforgettable target.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture looks terrific. The source print has been thoroughly cleaned up so that hardly a single flaw is perceptible. No significant artifacting is visible, color appears to be accurate, and black levels are deep without losing shadow detail. Very nice all the way round.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The original 1.0 mono is provided. It seems to be fairly clean for a low-budget film such as this one. Howard Shore's electronics-based score has good impact (though not overpowering) and decent range. Dialogue is quite clear throughout. This isn't a demo track but it is an accurate representation of the audio.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) director David Cronenberg and D.P. Mark Irwin and 2) James Woods and Deborah Harry
Packaging: Double alpha
Layers Switch: 00h:54m:36s
The second disc is stuffed as well. A 27m:36s documentary on the makeup and special effects, with makeup wizard Rick Baker, looks at how the various practical effects were accomplished. This documentary goes into greater detail than such programs usually go, since there are more interesting effects to discuss. There's also an audio essay running 19m:26s by the same participants, but not rehashing the same information. The three video segments briefly glimpsed in the film, including the Videodrome programs themselves, are provided.
Two period pieces are included as well. Fear on Film is an interesting 1982 roundtable among Cronenberg, John Landis, and John Carpenter about what makes a horror movie effective and discussing their then-current projects. Carpenter even shows a scene from The Thing that never made it into the finished film. A 1982 "making-of" is the usual little fluff piece, but it's useful for its behind-the-scenes content. Three trailers, one full-frame and one nonanamorphic widescreen, show how Universal, clearly mystified, tried to sell this film. The rest of the disc is filled with a massive library of marketing materials, stills and rare photos. The accompanying booklet contains a lengthy essay by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog magazine, who was on the set of the film, plus two briefer critical analyses by Carrie Rickey and Gary Indiana. It's almost overwhelming in both quantity and quality. Criterion wraps the whole package in a clever case design that mimics a Betamax tape, another in Criterion's recent trend of inspired designs.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsNot for the faint-hearted, but definitely one of Cronenberg's best, given a deluxe treatment that is excellent on all counts.
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