Videodrome (1983)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Mono 2.0
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

Long before the Internet made staring at screens an “interactive” experience, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome envisioned a time when we would not only look at television, but television would look right back at us. Videodrome’s Marshall McLuhan-inspired vision of a global village subverted by sinister forces remains as timely and powerful as ever, and is still inspiring many other paranoid horror films. A director with a gift for nightmarish, iconic images that burrow straight to the viewer’s subconscious, Cronenberg outdoes himself here with several eye-openers: a television set that literally breathes; a videocassette being plunged inside a human stomach; a man’s head entirely engulfed inside a womb-like television screen.

James Woods is perfectly cast as the sleazy but oddly charming Max Renn, a cable TV station president on the hunt for cutting-edge programming that will, in his words, “break through. Something … tough.” He gets more than he bargained for when one of his techno-nerd minions comes across a pirate broadcast of a sickeningly violent (and very real) torture show called Videodrome. Feeling that he might be on the verge of discovering a brave new world in home entertainment, Renn begins to search for the mysterious origins of the program. In doing so, his repeated exposure to the malevolent Videodrome signal causes him to lose his bearings on reality. He soon plunges into a world of frightening hallucinations, sadomasochistic sex games and Orwellian right-wing conspiracy.

The people at Criterion Collection have lavished this underrated and prescient film with their usual stellar attention to detail. Mark Irwin, ASC, CSC’s imaginative cinematography (one of his six collaborations with Cronenberg) is rendered with superb sharpness and clarity, nicely saturated colors (well-displayed in one beautiful but disturbing scene of a man and women making love, lit only by the red hues of a television screen), perfect blacks and a near-total absence of noise and age artifacts.

Of the package’s cornucopia of supplementary material, AC readers should head first to a joint audio commentary by Cronenberg and Irwin (though each of them was recorded separately). Cronenberg expounds on a concern that runs through all of his films:  the supplanting of organic human development by technology, which “has taken the human body in places that evolution on its own could not take it. It’s no longer the environment that affects changes in the human body — it’s our minds and our technology that are doing it.” Irwin, for his part, provides many of the commentary’s technical insights on filmmaking, but he also concisely explains why Cronenberg’s conceptually wild films remain so accessible. “David’s anything but conventional, yet he is able to tell a story [clearly] with pictures,” he asserts. “The more eloquent the story, the less the need for wild and crazy pictures. A lot of people have been seduced by camera movement and irrelevant action for no apparent reason — the MTV method. What he taught me as a filmmaker is what I now judge other filmmakers by.” This less-is-more aesthetic also explains why Max Renn’s hallucinations in the film are so bracing: Cronenberg and Irwin film them matter-of-factly, with no discernible stylistic distinction from scenes taking place in reality.

An extra audio option features an equally insightful second commentary by the ever-garrulous Woods and fellow cast member Deborah Harry, while Cronenberg’s 2000 short film Camera, starring Videodrome’s Les Carlson and photographed primarily on digital video by Andre Pienaar, CSC, SASC, provides a claustrophobic and grimly amusing comment on the filmmaking process.

A second disc of special features should offer fresh Videodrome analysis to even the most devoted Cronenberg completists. Included in their entirety are the risqué video clips fleetingly seen on television monitors by Max Renn in the film, with a clever note from the DVD producers that “all vestiges of the Videodrome signal have been filtered out to ensure tumor-free viewing.” Cronenberg, Irwin and special video effects supervisor Michael Lennick all offer audio commentary for the ingeniously crude vignettes, which were shot on low-res videotape (still a novelty back then) and intended to mimic the raw look of low-budget porn and “snuff” films.

Also among the supplements is Forging the New Flesh, a brand-new 30-minute documentary given first-person insight by Lennick. This piece takes an in-depth look at Videodrome’s groundbreaking pre-CGI effects, in particular the masterly prosthetic makeup work done by Rick Baker and his gung-ho team. One example: to achieve the image of Max Renn’s head engulfed in his television set (featured on the DVD’s box art), the effects team used a film clip shot off a TV screen, which was then rear-projected through an inflatable airtight chamber made out of rubber-based dental dam.

Additional offerings on the second disc are Effects Men, new audio reminiscences on Videodrome by Baker and Lennick; Fear on Film, an interesting 26-minute roundtable discussion from 1982 on horror filmmaking, featuring Cronenberg, John Landis and John Carpenter, and moderated by future filmmaker Mick Garris; original theatrical trailers and promotional material, including some rare behind-the-scenes footage from the set; and a plentiful stills gallery. An enclosed 40-page booklet contains thoughtful essays on Videodrome by film critic Carrie Rickey, critic/publisher Tim Lucas and novelist Gary Indiana. The icing on the cake is the cleverly designed keepcase, which resembles a vintage Betamax cassette from the film’s pre-DVD era.

— Chris Pizzello

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.