Savant UK Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD Limited Edition Review


Videodrome

Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD
Arrow Video (UK)
1983 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 89 min. / Street Date August 17, 2015 / £28.17
Starring James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, Peter Dvorsky,
Leslie Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynne Gorman, Julie Khaner, Reiner Schwartz, David Bolt.
Cinematography Mark Irwin
Art Direction Carol Spier
Film Editor Ronald Sanders
Original Music Howard Shore
Written by David Cronenberg
Produced by Pierre David, Claude Héroux, Victor Solnicki
Directed by David Cronenberg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Long live the New Flesh!

When certain movies get re-issued with perhaps one extra feature added to the mix, web reviewers will start complaining about ‘double dipping.’ But the custom selection of extras offered by a number of disc companies are sometimes so good that a reissue becomes irresistible. Many Criterion releases qualify for this, of course. Over in England, Arrow Video has been putting out Region B discs of American movies that frequently better the available domestic versions. This David Cronenberg shocker was thoroughly covered in an expansive Criterion disc from 2010, yet Arrow has put together a highly desirable collection of new extras.

Movies have gotten far rougher and tougher in the last 32 years, yet 1983′s Videodrome still has what it takes to creep people out: genuine dangerous ideas. Its McLuhanesque, Ballardesque merging of man and media still provides real food for thought — it remains dangerously radical on the intellectual plane. Videodrome is also core science fiction. Writer-director David Cronenberg pioneered queasy body-horror Sci-fi, and with this effort he scores even higher as a purveyor of bizarre intellectual concepts. He introduces the first fully realized virtual reality world in a movie (forget Tron). Cronenberg ladles out more disturbing ideas than had ever seen the light of a movie granted major distribution: insidious technology, underground video, porn, violence, sado-masochism and snuff movies.

They’re all in the service of a concept that in maturity was light-years ahead of the competition. Readers of fare like Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch possibly felt right at home, but much of the mainstream 1983 audience was lost, lost, lost.

Cronenberg’s script begins with a man looking for new experiences, new sensations. Soft-core cable entrepreneur Max Renn (James Woods) is hot for edgy material. His tech assistant Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) succeeds in tapping into an illegal satellite transmission of an all-torture, all-murder TV signal called Videodrome. Max dispatches porn agent Masha (Lynne Gorman) to find it for his cable channel, and personally follows the trail to Bianca O’Blivion (Sonja Smits), the daughter of video cult visionary Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley). Techno-guru Brian seemingly exists only on videotape. Through the medium of TV he dispenses weird wisdom about a new age in which people will physically merge with the virtual video world. Max also becomes attracted to radio psychologist Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), a masochistic sensationalist who introduces him to mild S&M. When Nicki discovers Videodrome, her response is to immediately seek out the video horror show — because she wants to become a ‘contestant.’

David Cronenberg’s erratic string of exploitative shockers before Videodrome always had strong core ideas. Shivers and Rabid’s grandiose concepts overshadow their grindhouse content, going far beyond mere nudity and gore. Shivers is a gloss on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Scanners hit the commercial jackpot with a hybrid of Philip K. Dick’s expanded-consciousness worldview. Super-powered minds can invade other minds to control and destroy, but finer implications give way to chase scenes and exploding heads, surefire audience-pleasing material.  1

Videodrome recycles a sampling of Cronenberg-favored motifs: strange new body orifices, exploding bodies, technological conspiracies to transform mankind. This time around he adds the Dickian idea of altered reality. The Videodrome video signal is like Palmer Eldritch’s drug “Chew-Z”: we experience Max Renn’s disconcerting hallucinations as his mind is altered. Exploring new conceptual territory with his eyes wide open, Max becomes a classic surreal hero, much like Buñuel’s Archibaldo de La Cruz or Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. Cronenberg’s later revisionist re-think of the 1958 classic The Fly has the same transgressive hero. A transformation into a monster becomes a voyage of grotesque but miraculous possibilities. As he outgrows his human form Seth Brundle is forced to confront both mortality and the alien-ness of his own body. In Videodrome, a similar Quatermass-like process is changing Max Renn from the inside out. He too must learn to embrace an unknown future, that he calls ‘the New Flesh.’ Scientific progress blends with spirituality when the ultimate escape from ‘the old flesh’ becomes all too literal.

After a slow start in his earlier thrillers, Cronenberg hits his directing stride with Videodrome. For the first time his actors are all top-rank and optimally cast. The effects don’t overpower the story, which doesn’t rely on a chase to sustain a commercial thriller framework. The revelations are well paced, helping us to absorb some truly weird happenings. A television is transformed into a veined and pulsing sexual organ; Max Renn pulls an organic pistol from a vagina-like slit in his stomach.  2 In essence, Cronenberg shows man using medical and media technology to explore a new world. But in every case taking the voyage means being transformed, mentally, physically and spiritually. Only the initial steps are voluntary. Max Renn is on a slippery slope from the moment he takes those first few steps — there’s no going back. He’s an explorer in an unknown world, like the Shrinking Man.

James Woods proves perfectly suited to playing a sympathetic character who nevertheless is a voyeur and smut peddler. Ordinary soft-core attractions don’t do anything for him. The little touches he gives the role become funnier on repeated viewings. Deborah Harry’s Nicki Brand makes a convincing masochist and generates the erotic connection Cronenberg needs. A surreal heroine, Nicki goes straight to the center of her obsession and never looks back. Her early exit to become a virtual presence probably sparked resentment among the fan-base that wanted a flesh & blood Blondie to stick around longer, and indeed, a perfect Videodrome would want to chart her ‘explorations,’ too.

Among the excellent supporting players is Lynne Gorman, who Cronenberg manages to make intriguing just by allowing a woman older than fifty to have a sexual appetite without being humiliated for it. Cronenberg plays with light comic irony as well. At one point Max Renn tries on a pair of dark-framed glasses and for a second ‘transforms’ into a substitute David Cronenberg. During an escape through an alley, Renn passes workers moving a series of doors. Are they a visual pun for the ‘doors’ of consciousness?

But what we most remember are the bizarre instances where erotic and technological taboos merge. Max Renn is able to have physical sex with a pair of lips on a television screen. His ‘stomach vagina’ can hide a weapon. Cronenberg’s illusions go a step beyond classical film surrealism, as we share the subjective sensations of the surrealist adventurer. Some concepts aren’t as well established. In one scene Renn’s obscene gun-arm (shades of The Quatermass Xperiment) is meant to shoot not bullets but instant-growing cancerous tumors.

There’s also the gross ending where a virtual Deborah Harry shows Max Renn the next step in his personal evolution. Nikki might as well be speaking to Max from within The Matrix. His crossover is accomplished by imitating something he sees on television. Cronenberg’s ideas in these early films were ‘way, way out there’ in the best possible meaning of the term. They’re always driven by a coherent interior logic.

Arrow Video’s Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD of Videodrome has a clean transfer of a truly brilliant movie — and brilliant not merely because intelligent and challenging sci-fi has become so rare. Cronenberg makes the horror exploitation genre communicate ideas difficult to get across in doctoral papers about the media-scape. The movie is billed as a ‘restored HD unrated version,’ which as far as I can tell is identical to earlier video versions. Bits were added back in almost as soon as the movie hit home video, long ago.

A comparison with the earlier Criterion disc sees several of its extras ported over. Director and actor commentaries have not been retained; they’re probably Criterion-specific. Arrow did find an interesting 20-minute piece on Cronenberrg for Brit TV called David Cronenberg & the Cinema of the Extreme. Cronenberg gives concise descriptions of his theories, while directors George Romero and (a very animated) Alex Cox actually talk about the need for some form of rating system. The always refreshing Cox energetically slams the movie Se7en as reprehensible trash, a surprise that had me jumping up in approval. I’m probably a prude, but there’s a difference between compellingly disturbing ideas, and empty exploitation.

Most of the other extras are familiar — a Cronenberg short subject from 2000, Michael Lennick’s clever and impressive features about the special effects. Videodrome seems to have had an unlimited number of un-filmed but fully-worked out visual effect hallucinations, some of which we see in BTS footage, as temp video displays or make-ups under construction. Alternate scenes for TV are here, along with Samurai Dreams, etc.. I still like the 1981 roundtable interview with Cronenberg and fellow directors John Carpenter and John Landis. At the time all were making fantastic films. The least demonstrative of the three, Cronenberg seems the only one with “something to say.” The host is a young, bright Mick Garris of the Masters of Horror cable series.

I was especially curious to listen to Arrow’s featured exclusive extra, the promised Tim Lucas commentary. It doesn’t disappoint. Cronenberg synthesized a lot of radical thought into a consistently coherent series of film fantasies; that he tapped Lucas to report from the set convinces me that he deemed the young fan writer capable of grasping what was going on. There are a lot of edgy abstract ideas to consider, many of them unsuited for discussion in People magazine. The show is an invitation to ponder the convergence of humans and technology, and how we use ‘media gratification delivery systems’ to gratify our sex fantasies.

I usually listen to the first twenty minutes of a commentary, skip around a bit and then listen to the end. Just as with the recent Blood and Black Lace, this commentary was too illuminating to set aside. Lucas spends only a little time on his on-set experience and instead gives us even more detailed analysis and insight of every thing and everybody we see on screen. His thoughts are well organized and the connections he makes to possible influences deepen our interest rather than dissipate it. His personal extrapolations are also engaging. I think Videodrome will persist as a great work of futurism. I know for certain that I haven’t grasped its full importance. Lucas’s comments ring true, especially his observation that contemporary culture is in a Cronenberg-predicted transformation: we are indeed being absorbed by our technology. Heck, all the evidence suggests that Mr. Lucas is a real person, but his many social media communications he has also become an eerie disembodied virtual person. All hail the new Facebook Flesh.

A second pair of Blu-ray and DVD discs contains four early Cronenberg films, all beautifully restored. The medical student-turned filmmaker has an awkward beginning distinguished from ‘normal’ film students only in that the philosophical speeches indicate he has ‘something to say,’ even if he hasn’t found the ways to express himself in film. Considering the depth of his later feature work, this should be an encouragement to all aspiring filmmakers that haven’t yet reached a command of camera grammar. The third and fourth pictures are more professional efforts that make use of a few actors, and modernistic buildings to impart a futuristic look. Stereo is the one really accomplished work here; I gave my thoughts on it in a review for Criterion’s 2014 release of Scanners. The color Crimes of the Future is more of the same but less compelling overall. Ronald Mlodzik (Adrian Tripod) returns as the main character, who still dresses like Peter Cook’s devil from Bedazzled. A final scene becomes really queasy, with just a suggestion that Cronenberg is adding child molestation to his themes of sex and death.

The second disc’s added films are accompanied by a welcome essay-featurette with Kim Newman, who has plenty of bright comments to offer about the direction of horror in the ’70s and Cronenberg’s individualized approach. In these early films he was an eccentric ‘with something to say.’ When his thoughts found full expression in films like Videodrome, it turned out to be well worth the wait.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Videodrome Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Tim Lucas, David Cronenberg & the Cinema of the Extreme with Cronenberg, George A. Romero and Alex Cox; Forging the New Flesh — Michael Lennick effects docu; featurette Videoblivion, new piece with Mark Irwin; new interview with producer Pierre David; featurette AKA Jack Martin with author of novelizations; complete uncensored Samurai Dreams with commentary by Michael Lennick; Helmet Test and Betamax effects featurettes; short film Camera by Cronenberg; Fear on Film 1982 round table discussion with Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis and Mick Garris; TV version deleted scenes; promotional featuretes, trailer. DISC 2: David Cronenberg’s earlier works. Shorts Transfer and From the Drain; features Stereo and Crimes of the Future; Kim Newman featurette interpreting earlier films. 100-page illustrated collector booklet (not submitted for review) with essays by Justin Humphreys, Brad Stevens, Caelum Vatnsdal’ plus extracts from Cronenberg on Cronenberg.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Two Blu-ray and two DVD discs with book in (box?)
Reviewed: August 19, 2015

Footnotes:

1. Reading Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch was for Savant a necessary prerequisite to fully understanding this film. Videodrome throws so many verbal and visual concepts at us that without some sort of preconditioning, it’s too easy to reject them. I saw the film three times when new, and this was the first time that I was receptive to its central fact: Spectacular Optics plans to use Videodrome’s signal to destroy “bad” citizens who want to see taboo visual content. Don’t they realize that that really means all of us?

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2. In Alien it was difficult to accept a creature that appeared to be simultaneously made of organic materials and chrome steel. In Videodrome Renn’s organic melding with a steel gun is a kind of practical evolution, and the changing of a man’s hand into a hand grenade is like a gag from a Looney Tunes cartoon. In The Fly, Seth Brundle becomes partially fused with his own invention. He drags the steel door of his teleportation pod behind him, like an albatross. Cronenberg sees man fusing with his inventions, as do the morbid car wreck fetishists in Crash.

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Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson

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