Revolutionary, inspired and prophetic
Television is reality, and reality is less than televisionMax Renn owns a small, sleazy, cable station broadcasting soft-core porn to the masses, that is until he discovers a show called Videodrome; a broadcast that is nothing but torture and death. Max becomes infatuated with the idea, going from pillar to post to find out more and perhaps own the rights. But things are not what they seem for Max, soon he starts to hallucinate, and the deeper he delves the further into psychosis he sinks until he becomes a fiction of himself; part machine, part man, all ideas. Released in 1983 during the home video revolution, Cronenberg’s Videodrome struck a chord with all that saw it. Although not a huge hit upon its theatrical release, it found an audience, as it should, on home video and became a massive cult hit.There are plenty of ideas within the subtext of the film, some obvious, some not so, but everything that you come to fear is driven home in Cronenberg’s inimitable style. It is Videodrome that cemented the term ‘body-horror’ that has become so synonymous with the Canadian auteur. The film stars an on-form James Woods and, in her first major film role, the delicious Debbie Harry. The two share a peculiar on screen chemistry, with Woods pulling out all the stops in his descent into madness. Though it is perhaps the effects which are the real star of the show, prosthetics galore in stomach turning detail offend the eyes and the mind. Revolutionary, inspired and even now prophetic, Videodrome is all this and more.
Picture QualityThe disc presents a theatrically correct widescreen 1.85:1 1080p transfer using the AVC codec and is Region locked to B. The accompanying book explains that this is the same print that appears on the 2010 Criterion Blu-ray release (supervised by cinematographer Mark Irwin and approved by director David Cronenberg).
Detail is very good throughout, skin has decent enough texture and clothing has discernible weave, Max’s office is a delight with all the equipment looking as if you can switch it on yourself. The downside, of course, is that the once ground breaking special effects now have a slightly artificial look and makeup lines are now easier to define.
Colour is reasonably rich with all the primaries holding their own, though it is red that is the most ‘splashy’. The pallet is a tad dour, but this is intentional with earthy tones predominating; don’t expect bold vibrancy though, it’s not that type of feature nor is it of the modern variety. Skin tones are natural enough looking, though, once again, the effects are a tad pale.
The picture hails from the 2010 Criterion High Definition release
Brightness and contrast are set well to give a strong sense of depth to the frame, even though the film doesn’t really have much depth to begin with. Shadow detail is reasonable when required. There are instances of brightness/contrast flicker, especially towards the edges of the frame on occasion, highlighting the film's budget and age with no amount of restoration being able to fix.
Digitally there are no compression problems, though there might be a whiff of edge enhancement in places, but posterization and banding are absent. The original print has been cleaned up very well, but the occasional defect is still apparent, but the grain is still nicely apparent, and the whole thing has a nice organic look to it, free from any heavy handed digital tinkering. The fact that Arrow haven’t gone back to re-master shows just how good the work originally done by Criterion was.
Sound QualityJust the one track to choose from and it's the same as the one on the Criterion disc - English LPCM 1.0. Much like the video this is no slouch either, dialogue is clear and clean, sound very natural and is never lost in the mix. The many effects are suitably ‘gloopy’ and have a terrifically organic sound to them. Howard Shore’s score is very well rendered, nicely layered into the mix and adding much to the visuals without being over the top and shrill. Bass, by the source's very nature, is somewhat limited, but the sub does pad out the occasional effect (cancer bullets, explosions etc.). The track goes to reference without any issues; no hiss, distortions, pops or cracks. A top clean up for the track that delivers its information expertly.
Audio commentary - With Tim Lucas (on-set correspondent for Cinefantastique Magazine and author of Videodrome: Studies in the Horror Film) gives a fact packed track that is horribly scripted and a little dry, but nevertheless very entertaining from someone that was not involved with the film, but was actually there during its production.
Documentaries and Featurettes
Cinema of the Extreme – Is a nicely weighted documentary featuring interviews with Cronenberg, George A. Romero and Alex Cox on Cronenberg's contribution to cinema, the relationship with the censor and the horror genre in general, originally shown on the BBC.
Forging the New Flesh - A previously available documentary by Michael Lennick which centres on the film’s video and prosthetic make up effects and which contains frank interviews with the crew responsible for them.
Fear on Film - A round table discussion from 1982 with Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis and Mick Garris that promises much more than it delivers.
Samurai Dreams footage – The uncensored ‘softcore’ tape from the beginning of the film, playable only with commentary by Michael Lennick.
Helmet Camera Test - Featurette with commentary by Michael Lennick on testing the video digital effects featured in the film
Why Betamax? – Brief look at why the film utilises Betamax tapes instead of the commercially successfully VHS – clue: it’s all in the size.
Promotional featurette – Does contain behind-the-scenes footage & interviews with Cronenberg, James Woods, Deborah Harry and Rick Baker, but is nothing more than fluff.
Interviews – All brand new for this release.
Videoblivion – Revealing 25 minute interview with cinematographer Mark Irwin as he discusses his early life, influences, education and entry into the film business as well as the film and subsequent works.
Interview with executive producer Pierre David – Similar vein to the above, though half the time.
AKA Jack Martin – Author Dennis Etchison (novelizations of Videodrome and The Fog) discusses the film and his own observations of Cronenberg's script.
Camera - Cronenberg's short film starring Videodrome's Les Carlson
Pirated Signals: Lost Broadcast – Deleted scenes that were added to the TV version.
Exclusive to Limited Edition - four of Cronenberg’s early films
Transfer & From the Drain – Cronenberg's previously unavailable short films newly restored by the Toronto International Film Festival; very ‘student’ in nature.
Stereo & Crimes of the Future – Cronenberg's early amateur feature films, shot in and around his university campus, prefiguring his later work's concerns with strange institutions as well as male/female separation and ESP. Stereo was previously restored by Criterion, but Crimes has been extensively re-mastered from original lab elements by Arrow. Both are a little weird and stark but do show his emerging talent.
Transfers of the Future – Kim Newman discusses Cronenberg's early works in a short-for-this-release feature; entertaining companion piece that encompasses early ideas and the genesis of 70’s horror directors including Romero, Carpenter and Cronenberg.
A 100-page hardback book – Featuring new writings from Justin Humphreys on Videodrome in a modern context, Brad Stevens on the alternate versions, Caelum Vatnsdal on Cronenberg's early works, extracts from Cronenberg on Cronenberg featuring Cronenberg's reminiscences of getting started in filmmaking and shooting all the films in this collection and Tim Lucas remembers Michael Lennick all illustrated with original archive stills and is a terrific read and accompaniment.
Blu-ray VerdictAlthough released during the home video boom in 1983, Videodrome, amazingly wasn’t the instant hit that many thought it might be; indeed it took its VHS release before it found its market – quietly rightly, as the film predicts, in the home. Full to the brim with exciting, evocative and elaborate ideas tackling voyeurism, pornography, S&M, self-abuse and death-sex, Cronenberg was certainly more overt with his messages this time around and cemented the ‘body-horror’ tag permanently. With gross out prosthetics taking centre stage, Rick Baker nearly out does himself and it was only budgetary and timing restraints that prevented even more gloop on the screen.
As to the story: as Max Renn (played will full intensity by James Woods) delves further into the mysterious Videodrome program, which is nothing but torture and death, he sinks further into psychosis and hallucinatory mayhem as his body transforms into a bio-mechanical weapon driving him to commit heinous crimes, may be what most people remember but the sum of its parts is so much more as Cronenberg explores his prophetic ideas.
The fact that the film remains relevant, perhaps more so, today is a testament to Cronenberg’s intelligent ideas and this makes the film so eminently watchable.
As a Blu-ray set Arrow have once again pulled out all the stops for this spectacular limited edition release. The picture and sound hail from the 2010 Criterion Blu-ray release; both are excellent, the picture is faithful, vibrant with strong blacks, while the sound is clear, precise and rich. There are a plethora of extra features and although many have been seen before, included are a number of exclusives just for the release. The inclusion of Cronenberg’s early films is a real coup; all four have been cleaned up for high definition presentation and all look remarkable. An excellent set all round.
You can buy Videodrome on Blu-ray here
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