Videodrome Blu-ray Review
Hugely intellectual and composed of powerfully trigger-responsive imagery
“Death to Videodrome … and long live the New Flesh!”We are in something of a near future setting, a sort of day after tomorrow milieu that is very familiar, yet traversing a new radical set of collapsed ethics. Max Renn (James Woods) runs a seedy cable television channel, Channel 83, purveying porn and exploitation as cheaply and as nastily as it can. As shrewd as he is, Max is disenchanted with the state of the products that he is being forced to offer, and longs for something new and dangerous to put on his customers' screens. This is when he stumbles across the guerilla broadcasts of what looks like some illicit snuff channel. Called Videodrome, the show just presents death and torture without rhyme or reason, no plot, no “actors”, just unscripted pain, abuse and suffering. As appalling as this is, Max likes it. Convinced that it is the next big thing, he wants to obtain the show for his own channel and so he uses his network of contacts within the industry to glean more information about it, including his video engineer, Harlan, the person who first brought the imagery to Max's attention.The more that he digs up surrounding the production of Videodrome, the more sinister the whole appears to be. Presently, he starts to suffer frightening metaphysical hallucinations - a vaginal slit opens up in his stomach that is able to receive videocassettes instructing Max to commit barbaric acts - and after even more exposure to the show he begins to question exactly where and when reality ends and Videodrome takes over. Mysterious powers are at work – they may be corrupt, they may even be murderous, or they may actually be some form of hideously disguised counter-culture revolution. With close friends suddenly revealing themselves to be anything but who or what he thought they were, Max's world collapses into blood, mutating flesh and shocking death. Who is behind the Videodrome signal, and what is its connection to a media guru who goes by the name of Professor Brian O'Blivion and exists only as a vast collection of video recordings? Why is Videodrome so addictive and so dangerous. Has Max been chosen as the figurehead of an evolutionary rebellion hungry to render its followers to the onset of the “New Flesh”, or is he just slowly succumbing to a TV-signal created tumour?
Picture QualityCriterion's hi-def presentation of Videodrome carries the full approval of David Cronenberg and his cinematographer Mark Irwin, so you can rest assured that the AVC transfer of this 1.85:1 framed film is no slouch. For a start, the image looks pretty much unmolested by digital tinkering. Grain is still retained, the colours do not look boosted, contrast looks natural and smooth, and detail is unsharpened by any overtly artificial means, although a couple of those rear-ground skyscrapers have got some slight haloing. The image isn't what you would call three-dimensional, but there are still some nice moments that allow the dexterity of Irwin's camerawork to appear quite fluid and cinematic – Max fleeing the scene of his first assassinations through the backstreets, for example, or the undulating mouth-screen that he is seduced by. The transfer certainly seems faithful to me.
Print damage is still apparent on a couple of occasions, and there is some slightly flickering contrast issues during a very early sequence, when the shadows over on one side of the frame seem to flutter about and lose depth. But this is only to be expected and these elements are certainly present on the previous SD DVD edition from Criterion, and not something to worry about. Videodrome now offers up a lot more information in the picture. Detail is more acutely rendered, especially when it comes material texture and the splattery effects, all of which are now exhibited with a clarity that does, in all fairness, reveal the vintage of the technology at the same time. The fake arm that we see inserted into Max's stomach when James Woods stands up and tries to retrieve the gun from within his body now looks really rather poor. The colouring of the prosthetic and the shrunken size of the fake limb can't help but seem a touch more obvious than in previous prints. Likewise, the prosthetic chest and nipples and hair for Max during the close-up shots, which now look even more rubbery. But this is obviously nit-picking, folks, because the image is only doing what the hi-def process demands of it and with such increased resolution comes the odd pitfall for something that was once groundbreaking. The revolting mess of the churning tumours raging out of the bullets wounds of Max's big league assassination still look terrific, I should say, and only seem more splendidly “icky” with this transfer.
Colour is good and strong, though not dazzling. The primaries are bright and solid enough, but the film does have something of an earthy pallor to many scenes, despite Cronenberg's interest in vivid reds – Nicki Brand's dress, the copious blood, the rich red lips on the TV screen and the grotesque décor of the Videodrome chamber, itself. You'll notice that some of the posters on the walls at Channel 83, as well signs and advertising hoardings out on the street are more boldly rendered than previously. The weird fleshy pallor of the gun-hand extending from the TV screen is a touch more smoothly presented too. Skin tones are rough and waxen, though this is a side effect of the makeup of the times and the photography and lighting more so than any noise reduction going on. Background detail is not all that grand, but it is better than I have seen it before, with the tapes and knick-knacks in Max's slovenly apartment and the notes and scrawled signs and wires and whatnot in Harlan's pirate's den looking a touch cleaner and more revealing. Close-ups are definitely an improvement, with Woods' craggy, pockmarked face and Debbie Harry's hair and eyes scrubbed-up with more texture and detail. The Videodrome broadcasts, however, do not really look all that much better, to be honest.
Overall, a very good, very solid hi-def transfer that clearly improves over previous versions, although this is hardly an image that is going to set the world on fire. A strong 7 out of 10 from me, folks.
Sound QualityCriterion deliver Videodrome with its original mono mix, uncompressed via LPCM. Now, as fans will already know, you should not be put off by a Cronenberg film that only has mono sound, because even within this channel-restricted format, there is much thought and consideration to design. And Videodrome is very certainly proof of that. Even sans surround details and stereo dynamics, this is a surprisingly robust and vibrant mix that more than enriches the experience that the director has crafted.
There is depth to Howard Shore’s score, those sustained layers of electronics shimmering with the appropriate density and synthetic gleam, and the big final moments are suitably powerful and stirring. The angular and tonal effect of his music is well captured, the texture of his compositions coming over. Dialogue is never problematic and always clearly mixed. Action is handled reasonably well although this is not a bombastic audio display in terms of gunshots and body blows. We do get that one glorious explosion that has a little bit of heft to it, given the restrictions, and the iconic shower of guts from the TV has something of a meaty slappp! to it. Those cancer-bullets make a weird noise too, which, once again, is nicely promoted by the track. I have to tell you though, one Cronenberg effect that I am looking forward to hearing in lossless audio is that barnstorming head-explosion at the start of Scanners!
This a film that boasts a lot of squishy sound effects – the glooping of cancerous wounds, the stretching of metal tendrils from a gun and into the flesh of the arm and hand holding it, the sinking of a hand into a soft stomach cavity and, most impressive of all, perhaps, the sucking and breathing/sighing sounds as Max Renn pushes his face into the heaving mouth of Nicki Brand as it is projected from his TV screen – and the lossless mono mix does very well with supplying some vivid clarity and some supremely “sucky” presence to their presentation.
So while there is nothing too demanding asked of this LPCM track, there is little fault to be found. In fact, much like Criterion's earlier lossy mono mix for the great Robinson Crusoe On Mars (BD coming soon), there is a surprising amount of detail and activity contained within this limited audio track – so don't bemoan the fact that we didn't get a surround makeover. Considering the limitations of the source, this just about nudges up to a very pleasing 8 out of 10.
ExtrasCriterion have ported over all the existing supplemental features that made their DVD release of Videodrome so desirable. Once again, they package up the film in a mock Betamax videocassette box – although with the BD edition being altogether slimmer than the clunky old tape and the previous DVD's packaging, the illusion is somewhat shattered. (Tell you what, though, if you already have that standard edition, then you can just shove the BD inside that box, can't you? Just as I have done!)
The first commentary track has us in the company of the director and his cinematographer, Mark Irwin. Not so warm and fairly technical – as you would possibly suspect given that this is David Cronenberg we are talking about here – this is still a very worthwhile and entertaining chat-track. Cronenberg is honest about the look, the sound and the feel of his film, confessing that he is actually surprised by how well, technically, it still stands up after all these years. He doesn't like to rewatch his films, unless he “forced to” for the sake of a commentary such as this, but you can clearly tell how proud he is of a film that he was still writing as the production went along.
The second commentary track puts James Woods and Deborah Harry together again. Woods takes the lion’s share of the track and he is a wonderful raconteur of anecdote, memory and opinion regarding the film and David Cronenberg. His mouth can often run away with him, though, and he can make some slight errors because of his own boundless enthusiasm. For instance, he claims that Videodrome was a precursor to Blade Runner and that composer Howard Shore was very much in the Bernard Herrmann mode when he produced his score for Videodrome. Not in the least, James, I’m afraid. And the music for Psycho was nothing like this … and it certainly wasn’t synthetic either. But, these little thousand-words-a-minute slip-ups do not detract from a commentary that is fast, entertaining and informative. Woods does know his stuff and proves to be ardent fan of his director, as opposed to an actor who is just saying such things without any real commitment. Debbie Harry, on the other hand, is very focussed and precise about her involvement in the film and how she assumed the character of Nicki. She talks about her nudity and the S&M and the obsessive dark side of the role. Naturally she has less to spout about, but it is still great to hear her views on the movie.
We can take a look at how the audacious special makeup effects were created in the 27-minute documentary from the film's Video Effects Supervisor Michael Lennick, Forging The New Flesh. Coupled with some nicely judicious on-set and contemporary behind the scenes footage, we get to meet the fx crew as they reminisce about the trials and challenges of devising “handguns”, the bodily eruptions of the cancer-bullets, stomach slits and, especially, the revolutionary work that went into giving sexy life to a television set. Rick Baker and his team provide plenty of frank memories, some (revolving around the use of real pig guts from a nearby abattoir) not so fondly recalled. This is a great and well-structured piece that delivers lots of interest and worth and a whole new background to a vital aspect of the film's visual power.
There is also a separate audio interview with Rick Baker and Michael Lennick going under the title of Effects Men.
The roundtable discussion, hosted by Mick Garris, should be the stuff of fanboy dreams. However, whilst it is great to see such cult heavyweights as John Landis, John Carpenter and, the main man of the release, David Cronenberg. all sitting together to discuss the state of the horror film, as it was back then, and their various interpretations of the form, the conversation lacks structure and depth. Quite why Landis is there, with only hokey Schlock and American Werewolf to his credit at the time, is beyond me. Carpenter seems ill-at-ease and somewhat reluctant, almost resentful. But at least Cronenberg, fittingly enough, attempts some form of cerebral standpoint as the set-up addresses censorship, the ratings of their films and the current state of special effects. There was an infinitely better roundtable discussion a couple of years later, in which Clive Barker and my neighbour, horror author Ramsey Campbell, took part, alongside these guys and others – though since it was broadcast on TV that one time it has never, to my knowledge, surfaced since on any format. My original recording of the programme, on Betamax suitably enough, is still intact … although I have nothing to play it on!
For true Videodromites, the extras also include a section called Bootleg Video which offers us the complete footage that Cronenberg filmed for his playful soft-porn series Samurai Dreams, the sex show that Max Renn and his associates at Channel 83 are seen perusing near the start, as well as seven minutes of unedited transmissions from Videodrome, itself, which all come with commentary tracks from Cronenberg, Lennick and Irwin.
As well as David Cronenberg's short film Camera (2000) commissioned by the Toronto International Film Festival, a Stills Gallery featuring behind-the-scenes production photos and various interpretations of the film's poster, this entertaining selection of supplements is rounded off with original theatrical trailers and a vintage promotional featurette.
And then there is Criterion's customary booklet of essays on the film and its maker, with contributions from writers Carrie Rickey, Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas and Gary Indiana.
In all, this is a terrific package that goes some way to unravelling the mysteries and warped lunacy of Videodrome. Fans will be pleased that nothing has been missed off the label's already excellent SD DVD release, although the more devout fans may still wish that something new had been added to the pot.
VerdictVideodrome is the turning point in David Cronenberg's back-catalogue, the moment when he broke the Canadian barrier and his own unique visionary excess became more marketable for the masses. This was, of course, all part of the point for a film that acted like a vivisection of media manipulation and sought to investigate the outer realms of imagery as a political weapon, as a tool of desire and as a clarion call to the rebellious nature of the imagination.
James Woods is excellent as the mind-warped pawn that is Max Renn. His wacky partners-in-crime – Debbie Harry, Peter Dvorsky, Jack Creley and Lynne Gorman - and he are fantastically aided and abetted by Rick Baker's highly unusual and visually potent special effects. Steven Spielberg had made the family television something to fear in Poltergeist, but David Cronenberg revealed that the goggle-box was something infinitely more powerful and sinister than a mere conduit to another dimension. The “handgun”, the “hand-grenade”, the stomach/vaginal videocassette loader and the sensual paramour of an undulating TV-cum-seductress are all images that have gone down in the culture of horror and fantasy cinema as true revelations of the artistry of “body horror”. Videodrome came out during the Zeitgeist of the trend, sitting alongside An American Werewolf, The Howling, The Thing, Re-Animator, Society and, of course, The Fly as testament to the unbridled creativity that has long been forgotten with the advent of CG.
Videodrome is a short, sharp shocker that is now even more effective and more powerful than it ever was before. Criterion's marvellous Blu-ray release offers a smart and faithful transfer and some terrific extra features that dive freely beneath the mask of the New Flesh.
Cronenberg at his most mind-bending.
Long Live The New Flesh!
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £24.77