"I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation," director David Cronenberg has said. Those words will surprise absolutely no one who has seen any of his movies -- works that, in his own words, "make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face.
"Just because you're making a horror film doesn't mean you can't make an artful film."
Videodrome, released in 1983, is a meditation on violence, technology and a mass media that seems -- like so much of Cronenberg's work -- unhappily prescient. Originally titled Network of Blood, the film stars James Woods in all his half-lidded glory as Max Renn, an unctuous cable operator forever on the prowl for the next new edgy TV show. We're all meat with eyes in this world, and Max wants to capture and control his audience through a programming mix heavy on soft-core porn.
But in a typically twisty Cronenbergian fashion, Max himself is ensnared by a pirate television show. The zero-budget subject matter broadcast on the Videodrome satellite signal is brutal torture, and the flickering glimpses of electrified walls and naked flesh look like outtakes from Abu Ghraib.
But of course, it's also much more. Max's fascination with the program dominates his sex life and his professional life. He begins to suffer violent hallucinations that shatter the boundaries between television and reality.
Publisher: Criterion Collection
Format: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Release Date: Aug. 31, 2004
» New digital transfer on unrated version with restored image and sound
» Commentaries by director David Cronenberg, director of photography Mark Irwin and actors James Woods and Deborah Harry
» Camera, a short film starring Videodrome's Les Carlson, written and directed by David Cronenberg in 2000 as part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the Toronto Film Festival
» Farming the New Flesh, a new half-hour documentary featurette about the creation of Videodrome's landmark video and prosthetic makeup effects
» Samurai Dreams, the complete and unedited faux Japanese AV feature seen in the film
Soon even Max's own body seems to be infected -- he soon sports an elegantly gross, genital-like stomach slit ready to incorporate a Betamax tape. All around him, Videodrome victims fall prey to squirming, TV-induced brain tumors. It soon becomes clear that Max's destiny has been co-opted by the "media-industrial complex" in a carefully plotted conspiracy.
Supporting players include Max's self-destructive girlfriend Nikki Brand, whose habits include burning herself with cigarettes to make a point. (Pop star Deborah Harry, lead singer for the band Blondie, is a riveting redhead in this role). Equally important is the shadowy Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), the director of the Cathode Ray Mission that doles out television to the destitute. His character delivers portentous intonations such as: "Television is reality -- and reality is less than television."
The Criterion Collection's superlative two-disc set features insightful and funny commentaries by Woods and Harry. ( "I squeaked by," Harry says ruefully of her first major film performance, and in a lovely observation, describes her director as a "painter of the subconscious.")
Cronenberg and his director of photography, Mark Irwin, expound on the theories of media critic Marshall McLuhan -- an academic best known for his pronouncement that "the medium is the message." (McLuhan was a driving intellectual force at the University of Toronto when Cronenberg studied there.) The special-effects team jovially refers to Cronenberg's "ever-mutating vision," and those with strong stomachs will relish their war stories about blowing sheep entrails through a television set with an air cannon to achieve one prized effect.
Other extras are entertaining but less illuminating -- a 1981 chat between Cronenberg and fellow horror auteurs John Carpenter and John Landis reveals a surprisingly sweet-natured mutual admiration society. Also included are the films-within-the-film, such as those porn movies shown on Max's station -- and naturally, Videodrome itself.
Such curiosities don't benefit much from Irwin's laconic commentary. But the good folks at the Criterion Collection have been careful to assure viewers that "all vestiges of the Videodrome signal have been filtered out to assure tumor-free viewing." Thanks, guys.