The Criterion Collection
Film Length: 89 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 (enhanced for 16:9)
Audio: DD 1.0 (192kbps)
Package: Two discs/double keepcase with an ingenious cover made to look like an old-fashioned videocassette and an outer box that looks like a cassette case.
Insert: Forty-page booklet containing both film and disc credits and three essays on the film.
I still remember the excitement of seeing the first ads for Videodrome in early 1983. At that point, I had only seen Scanners, but I was already hooked on Cronenberg’s unique vision (commonly, if misleadingly, known as “venereal horror”). The tagline for the film -- “First it controls your mind; then it destroys your body” -- promised something like Scanners: an epic battle involving some strange new scientific phenomenon that would be both shocking and exhilarating. I went to the film as soon as it opened (which turned out to be a good thing, because it didn’t stay around for long). Ninety minutes later, I walked out perplexed. I knew I’d seen something unique, but I wasn’t sure what the hell it was.
Today I consider Videodrome to be the very finest of Cronenberg’s “physical” films (as opposed to psychological thrillers like Dead Ringers or Spider). Yes, that’s right -- I rank Videodrome above Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, which was his most successful film in this country (and don’t get me wrong; it’s a great film in its own right). For all the cleverness of Cronenberg’s update, The Fly remains mired in its “scientists shouldn’t mess with nature” origins. Videodrome, by contrast, is entirely modern. It doesn’t fear technology; it’s simply interested in exploring the ramifications of a particular form of technology that is so thoroughly embedded in everyday existence that it can be considered a new sensory organ: television. In the oft-repeated words of Videodrome’s media expert Prof. Brian O’Blivion (not his real name, as he is quick to point out): “The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye.” In a sense, the entire film is contained in that line.
Videodrome is set in the pre-digital era before channels multiplied by the hundreds and cable was a major force. Max Renn (James Woods) operates a struggling TV channel that, to compete against major networks, runs more “adult” fare than can be found elsewhere on the TV dial. As the film opens, we follow Max as he meets with the producers of a soft-core Japanese porn series (“Samurai Dreams”) and appears on a local talk show to defend and promote his channel. Also appearing on the show are Prof. O’Blivion (on a TV monitor, the only way he will appear anywhere) and Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry, in her first film), a quack radio shrink. Nicki confesses to being overly stimulated by modern life, and she and Max feel an instant attraction. On their first date, Nicki rummages through the cassettes in Max’s apartment and finds something called Videodrome.
What is Videodrome? It’s a scrambled signal intercepted by Harlan, the video pirate whom Max employs to help him find new material. The short, snowy clips that Harlan intercepts show intensely realistic scenes of torture and murder, all confined to a single sinisterly red room and entirely devoid of plot and character. (“Brilliant!” Max exclaims. “There’s almost no production cost.”) Nicki finds Videodrome so compelling that soon she and Max are engaged in a piercing session (if you don’t like needles, don’t watch this scene). As the camera pulls back, Max and Nicki are suddenly revealed to be in the Videodrome room. Buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy . . .
From this point onward, it is impossible to say for certain what really happens in Videodrome. Max may or may not have been infected by a secret signal embedded in the Videodrome transmission. He may or may not have a brain tumor, as Professor O’Blivion tells him (or perhaps he doesn’t). He may or may not be having waking hallucinations in which videocassettes breathe, his TV console pulsates with life, veins and breath, and his stomach develops a giant quasi-vaginal slit into which a variety of objects (notably a gun and videotapes) are rudely thrust. He may or may not be the victim of a mysterious corporation called Spectacular Optical. The Videodrome conspiracy may or may not have kidnapped Nicki Brand, and may or may not have killed Max’s agent, Masha, whom he asks for help, and may or may not be planning to go public with Videodrome to infect millions. Max may or may not visit the Cathode Ray Mission run by Bianca O’Blivion, the professor’s daughter, where derelict souls sit in cubicles with television screens so that they can be plugged back into the world’s “mixing board”. And he may or may not be rescued by a resistance movement and sent out to destroy the Videodrome conspiracy, in the process taking gruesome revenge on those who he believes infected him.
To the very end, Cronenberg steadfastly refuses to give the audience any answers. Instead, he provides the perfect texture of a nightmare -- a familiar, realistic setting in which bizarre and unsettling phenomena simply erupt (and often as not, vanish just as abruptly). Despite the occasional political reference (“North America is getting soft”, says one of the Videodrome conspirators), the film depicts a battle between opposing forces only in the most superficial sense. Cronenberg’s real interest is in asking what it means to live much of one’s life through television, and he does so by imagining a scenario (or perhaps having Max imagine one) in which the body mutates into an extension of video technology. It’s entirely possible that Max, the pressured TV executive, is simply having an extended dream from which he will awaken after the film’s last shot. But there are other possibilities, and the film leaves you wondering what they might be.
Universal released a non-enhanced version of Videodrome in 1998. This new transfer for the Criterion release is a revelation. It’s not just the extra resolution from 16:9 enhancement. Black levels, contrast and levels of color differentiation have been tweaked to perfection so that all of the meticulous detail of Carol Spier’s production design is now visible. A key aspect of Videodrome is that it’s situated in a detailed, lived-in world, which makes Max’s hallucinations all the more disturbing. The Criterion transfer puts you into that world in a way that no previous home video version has managed. It lets you see all the clutter in Max’s apartment, all the equipment strewn about Harlan’s lab, all the ornate decor in Professor O’Blivion’s study.
If the transfer has any drawback, it’s that clarity is not always a friend to Rick Baker’s make-up effects. They’re still disturbing, but this transfer is good enough to make you aware of some of the trickery. On the plus side, what is probably the film’s most famous image -- Max’s TV console coming to life -- looks better than it ever has.
I saw no edge enhancement on my 65” calibrated monitor, and the only grain is what should be there in a film-like transfer. This is a first-rate job.
I’m not someone who downgrades audio tracks just because they’re mono. A good mono track, with broad frequency response, no distortion and a well-designed mix can be quite effective, and this one is a very good track. Bass extension is solid, which is a must for Howard Shore’s atmospheric score, and dialogue is always clear. I was pleased to see that Criterion’s engineers had set the Dolby Digital dialnorm to neutral, which I wish more engineers would do, and I also appreciated that the track is DD 1.0, so that all of the bits are devoted to a single track instead of being split between duplicate mono tracks. Highest marks.
(Note: I played this track, as I play all mono tracks, through a Lexicon MC-8 processor. What Lexicon calls “5.1 mono logic” directs most of the sound to the center speaker, but uses the left and right mains and the surrounds to create a sense of space. The goal is to replicate in a home theater the effect of hearing a single sound source in a large auditorium, and to my ears Lexicon does a great job. Your mileage may vary, depending on your equipment and its capabilities.)
Commentaries. Criterion has provided two commentary tracks. The first contains alternating comments from Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin. Cronenberg covers a wide range of topics, including his inspirations for the film, the challenge of making a film without a complete script, working with the actors, and working with Universal on what became his first studio release. Irwin's comments are, as one might expect, more technical, covering such things as film stocks, shutter speeds and lighting strategies (Deborah Harry proved to be a challenge!).
The second commentary track contains alternating comments from Woods and Harry, with Woods by far the dominant presence and the more interesting of the two. Woods is chatty and charming; he's also eloquent on the stresses of working with elaborate makeup effects, and he tells a great story about his refusal to perform one scene while standing in a pool of water.
Camera. A six-minute short created by Cronenberg for the 2000 Toronto Film Festival and starring Les Carlson, who also appears in Videodrome. An unsettling little exercise in which an aging actor is pressed into service by a crew composed entirely of children.
Videodrome: Forging the New Flesh (app. 27:30). This is a new documentary by Michael Lennick, who was in charge of special video effects for the film. It focuses on the effects work, mixing both archival footage and new interviews with such key participants as makeup artist and monster specialist Rick Baker.
Effects Men (app. 20:00). Audio only. Additional comments by Lennick and Baker.
Bootleg Video. These are various video segments, some of which appear in excerpts on TVs and monitors during the film. Included are Samurai Dreams (4:45), the soft-core “miniseries” that Max considers buying (w/optional commentary by Cronenberg reflecting on the MPAA or by Lennick on various technical issues); Transmissions from Videodrome (7:14), the complete torture scenes that Max watches on pirated transmissions, from which (according to the program notes) the deadly Videodrome signal has been removed for the DVD (w/commentary by Irwin and Lennick); and Helmet Cam Test (5:03), a demo reel that Lennick prepared for Cronenberg to consider various options for the scene in which one of Max’s hallucinations is recorded (w/optional commentary by Lennick).
Fear on Film (25:40). This is a real gem. It’s a 1982 roundtable discussion hosted by Mick Garris with Cronenberg, John Carpenter (who was then working on The Thing) and John Landis. They discuss their current projects, talk about what scares them in theaters, and share their experiences with the MPAA.
Marketing. There are three trailers, one in full screen, the others in 1.85 non-enhanced widescreen. The two trailers with animation and Blondie-like music suggest just how desperate the marketing department must have been to find a hook to advertise a film to anyone but a confirmed Cronenberg fan. There’s also The Making of Videodrome (7:49), a 1982 short produced for the Universal Studios PR department featuring interviews with Cronenberg, Woods and Harry; a Marketing Gallery featuring one-sheets, lobby cards and similar material; a Publicity Stills section that is of particular interest because it includes stills for scenes that were not included in the final film; and a Stills Gallery featuring previously unpublished onset photos by Tim Lucas, who was the only journalist that Cronenberg allowed on set.
As a meditation on our relation to television, Videodrome is a masterpiece. Like any great artist, Cronenberg asks questions and leaves the answers to us. One of the many virtues of Criterion’s extensive supplements is that they give real insight into how carefully Cronenberg constructed Videodrome to remain open-ended, repeatedly rejecting story elements that might have made it into a “puzzle” movie, where the goal is to sort out what really happened. Because the film so artfully preserves its ambiguities, it has held up well even as the technology depicted in the film has come to look dated and even quaint. Criterion has performed another valuable service to movie lovers by making this cult classic available in such an estimable presentation.
Final final Thoughts:
My thanks to the HTF reviewers and especially Herb Kane for allowing me to join them for this review. And I thought moderating was hard work!