The enemy, as it seems it always has been, is within in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, but its violence, its gore, and its torrential mayhem is hard to miss. Influenced by the writings of Marshall McLuhan, this 1983 vision of the intermingling ideas and functions of technology, the mind and “the flesh” is, like a great deal of Cronenberg’s work, endlessly fascinated with decay, bodily fluids, wounds, and growths, all of which come to bear in one form or another on Max Renn (the great James Woods), a forager of outré entertainments at Civic TV, a sleazy alternative television network in Toronto he helped found; the station’s motto, “The One You Take to Bed with You,” is more ominous than goofy.
But where softcore pornography would effectively crawl up the ass of any major network exec and start biting as if it were its last meal, Renn is bored by shots of Asian women pleasuring themselves and congenial Roman orgies. He wants something more intense, tougher, and he thusly goes about roaming the airways with techno-pirate Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), who comes across the eponymous “show.” Set in a room with electrified clay walls and all manner of torture equipment, Videodrome offers snuff exploitation at bargain-bin prices and is a rather prophetic doppelgänger of the Saw series, though it has the added perversion of being highly sexualized and being performed by humans, not efficient, cold machines.
Renn is far too hypnotized and haunted by the images to think of their commercial potential, but is not above using it as cerebral lubricant when he takes radio therapist Nicky Brand (a very good Deborah Harry) home for the night. Brand encourages the S&M impulses that Videodrome awakens in Renn, allowing him to pierce her ears before she puts a lit cigarette out on her left breast. It excites both of them and before you know it, Renn hallucinates them fucking wildly on the sanguine set of Videodrome, which looks suspiciously uterine. A meeting with a colleague (Lynne Gorman) goes smoothly the next day but the hallucinations quickly start mounting and, er, climaxing when Renn gets freaky with his pulsating, vein-ridden television set and grows a vaginal opening in his stomach in which he loses his ever-phallic pistol.
That opening, however, also resembles a VHS or Betamax slot, technology that was still in high dispute when the film was released in 1983. The “global village” that McLuhan wrote about had suddenly reformed into a very private enterprise and experience in which information could be recorded and broadcasted in far more personal manners. It seems fitting, then, that McLuhan’s ghost appears here as Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a prophet who speaks only through videotapes and television screens. Following a meeting with the professor’s daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits), one of O’Blivion’s personalized video messages sends Renn’s television (read: subconscious) into the aforementioned orgasmic fits. It also prompts the emergence of Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson), one of the founders of Spectacular Optical, an eyewear company that manufactures missile defense systems for NATO and produces Videodrome.
Renn’s descent into madness is palpable and flabbergasting from the moment he sees Videodrome, thanks to Cronenberg’s refusal to stage or film the hallucinations differently than reality. So, by the time Renn becomes a pawn and soldier in a right-wing conspiracy and has grown a rotting pistol-arm, the viewer has either bought into Cronenberg’s complex future shock or has dismissed it as an overtly convoluted and absurd horror pageant. The latter opinion isn’t completely unreasonable, especially seeing as not all of Cronenberg’s ends line up. But a more important argument would be if all the ends have to or even should line up. Call it incoherent or pretentious, but one cannot help but be stunned by the forward-looking intelligence that the film is made with and consistently exudes. An allegorical miasma lit by deeply felt reactions to censorship, religion, video, sex, violence, and television, Videodrome should now be seen as the first fully realized work in what would become an incredible string of masterworks that were inventive and layered in form and dazzlingly cerebral in concept. (Not for nothing are they also typified by intensely physical and nuanced performances.)
“Long live the new flesh!” Renn repeats this battle cry more than once in Videodrome’s final quarter, championing technology’s shift from the theoretical to the physical; it is also referred to as a cancer and a tumor. Are breakthroughs in communication and viewership signs of evolution or devolution? What are the philosophies, if indeed there are any, behind those who invent these technologies? Similar questions were posed and were thankfully left unanswered in films as recent as David Fincher’s The Social Network and were partially reason for the film’s near-undisputed status as the best American film released this year. Perhaps by design, Videodrome never enjoyed such unanimous praise. Like its titular cassette, it was too ugly, too visceral, and too morally rambunctious to be accepted by the public. At least it was in 1983.
The Criterion Collection’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of David Cronenberg’s early masterwork is perhaps not the best thing Criterion has produced this year, but their lineage of quality remains safely intact. The dingy environs of Cronenberg’s Toronto have rarely seen this sort of clarity, with every wrinkle in every face and the texture of every shirt and jacket shown in startling detail. The colors, often muted or outright ugly, shine, black levels are nicely balanced, and the print is largely free of debris, flickers, and noise. The climactic scene at a Spectacular Optics convention is particularly arresting. The monaural soundtrack comes with expected deficiencies but Criterion has done negligible cleaning since their DVD release of this film. The dialogue is crisp and peerlessly mixes with Howard Shore’s haunting score. Atmosphere noise is also beautifully detailed.
Our cup runneth over! Let’s start with Cronenberg and Mark Irwin’s entertaining and insightful commentary track, replete with anecdotes about the production, cast, and distribution and thoughts on the film’s layered allegories. James Woods and Deborah Harry are similarly entertaining though not quite as insightful on a second commentary track. The special and makeup effects are given due credit in "Forging the New Flesh," a short documentary on the work of Rick Baker and the rest of the effects team, and Effects Men, an audio interview with Baker and video effects supervisor Michael Lennick. For Cronenberg die-hards, there’s both Camera, a fascinating short he made in 2000 with Leslie Carlson, and "Fear on Film," a discussion panel featuring Cronenberg waxing about violence and horror films with John Landis and John Carpenter. The "Bootleg Video" featurette compiles full-length Videodrome transmissions, as well as the Samurai Dreams series briefly seen early in the film, with optional commentary from Cronenberg, Irwin, and Lennick. Theatrical trailers, stills, and essays by Carrie Rickey, Tim Lucas, and Gary Indiana are also included.
Long Live the New Flesh!!!