Sleazy television executive Max Renn (James Woods), tired of peddling soft-core pornography and simulated violence on his tiny Toronto-based television network, stumbles upon a hyper-violent, sado-masochistic pirate transmission called Videodrome. Now Max finds he can’t stop watching it, and every time he does, the lines between the real and the visions within the nightmarish television show give way. And if television is reality, and reality is less than television, who’s to say what is really real anymore?
When you think of films set around that most revered time period of the early-80s, the ones that feel they encapsulate the gaudy pastel-coloured, shoulder-padded grim excesses of the decade, do you ever stop to consider David Cronenberg’s 1983 psychological science-fiction horror, Videodrome? Well you should, for whilst the undeniable charm of 1980s cinema was how fervently it revelled in its then-contemporary state of things, Videodrome is that rare beast that still maintains its frightening relevance.
The world of Videodrome is on one hand a discussion on the nature of the expanding role of television in the 1980s (a world of filth, moral degradation, violence and debauchery) and this, embodied in James Woods’ deranged struggle with his sanity, could be just that. However all you’d need to do is replace the TVs with iPhones and the ‘Cathode Ray Missions’ with Wi-Fi hotspots and the crippling addiction problems imagined by a Canadian horror director are as real as ever. It’s realisations like this that make Videodrome feel like a spiritual predecessor to Charlie Brooker’s seminal show Black Mirror, the only major difference between the two being the time in which they’re made and the former’s kamikaze descent into disturbing body horror.
Whilst Videodrome does contain some spectacular images (for instance, James Woods whipping a television playing a video of a woman in distress, a television exploding into a pile of guts, James Woods [again] sticking his head into a pliable, convulsing television screen, a character being eaten inside out by cancerous tumours, etc.), in this age of retina-slapping HD the practical effects-work dates about as poorly as you’d expect. However, and this must be stressed, the clearly-ropey nature of such effects doesn’t detract from the overall unsettling vibe of Videodrome. Reality is only what we make of it, after all.
As you may have guessed from the initial three paragraphs, Videodrome is a bit of an escalating concept, and if you wanted to sell what was happening you’d need a damn good actor to ground the whole thing, and this is where James Woods comes in. Now, I know James Woods best from “Once Upon A Time in America”, Hercules, that guest spot he did on The Simpsons and his role in series one of the totally-overlooked Ray Donovan, and out of all that the one thing I would never call Woods is ‘grounded’. That said, his gradual freefall from sleaze into madness is truly excellent, and to do so whilst wearing a glistening, fleshy gun-mitten and acting like there’s a vaginal fissure in your chest that people can insert videotapes into takes a kind of bravura I don’t think exists in cinema any more. Well done, James Woods.
The only real problems with Videodrome are ones which have always been a problem for it since release. The film’s plotting gets overcomplicated and nebulous right around the time that normality takes a unsolicited holiday through the nearest window, and whilst that might be seen as a directorial choice (given that if everything’s gone a bit wrong, what does the plot really matter now?) it may be overly confusing for many. The most glaring issue with Videodrome, though, has to be the rest of the cast. Whilst you may forgive a then-little-known director for filling his cast with unknowns and awkward-talkers, the prominent role of Nicki (played with next to no joie de vivre by Blondie’s Debbie Harry) feels like determined pandering. Then again, could the shonky way everybody but James Woods acts just be another side-effect of the hallucinations from watching Videodrome? I can’t tell if it’s lazy or the best get-out-of-jail-free mechanic ever invented for cinema. I mean, it worked for The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, didn’t it?
It’s also worth mentioning that this Blu-ray release comes with an extras disc that’s just teeming with David Cronenberg goodness. ‘Goodness’ in the sense there’s a lot to get your teeth into, but given that it’s Cronenberg, real teeth may have actually been used at some point in the compilation of said extras. It’s damn interesting to see just how Cronenberg pieces his deranged visions together, but just after watching Videodrome it came across as just a bit too much too soon.
Videodrome is without a doubt one of the most visually-arresting and imaginative forays into the effects of technological addiction in our modern world. It set a very high bar for all preceding technophobic fantasies and, understandably, not many have dared be as provocative or as unflinching in their depiction of a world consumed by morally reprehensible techno junkies. Its finer details may be stuck in the swamp of the 1980s, but its broad strokes bite harder than ever. It’s a cult classic deserved. All hail the new flesh.
- Original uncompressed mono audio tracks for all films
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for all films
- Limited Edition packaging, fully illustrated by Gilles Vranckx
- Limited Edition Exclusive Extras
VIDEODROME – BLU-RAY DISC 1 AND DVD DISC 2:
- Restored high-definition digital transfer of the unrated version, approved by director David Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin
- Audio commentary by Tim Lucas, the on-set correspondent for Cinefantastique Magazine and author of Videodrome: Studies in the Horror Film
- David Cronenberg and the Cinema of the Extreme – A documentary programme featuring interviews with Cronenberg, George A. Romero and Alex Cox on Cronenberg’s cinema, censorship and the horror genre
- Forging the New Flesh – A documentary programme by filmmaker Michael Lennick on Videodrome’s video and prosthetic make up effects
- Videoblivion: A brand new interview with cinematographer Mark Irwin
- A brand new interview with producer Pierre David
- AKA Jack Martin – Dennis Etchison, author of novelizations of Videodrome, Halloween, Halloween II and III and The Fog, discusses Videodrome and his observations of Cronenberg’s script
- The complete uncensored Samurai Dreams footage with additional Videodrome broadcasts with optional commentary by Michael Lennick
- Helmet Test and Betamax – Two featurettes by Michael Lennick on effects featured in the film
- Camera (2000) Cronenberg’s short film starring Videodrome’s Les Carlson
- Fear on Film: A round table discussion from 1982 with Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis and Mick Garris
- Promotional featurette with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Cronenberg, James Woods, Deborah Harry and Rick Baker
- Original theatrical trailer
DAVID CRONENBERG’S EARLY WORKS: BLU-RAY DISC 3 AND DVD DISC 4 [LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE]:
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of four Cronenberg films
- Transfer (1966) & From the Drain (1967), Cronenberg’s previously unavailable short films newly restored by the Toronto International Film Festival [7 & 12 mins]
- Stereo (1969) & Crimes of the Future (1970): Cronenberg’s early amateur feature films, shot in and around his university campus, prefigure his later work’s concerns with strange institutions (much like Videodrome’s Spectacular Optical) as well as male/female separation (Dead Ringers) and ESP (Scanners). Newly restored from original lab elements [65 & 70 mins]
- Transfer the Future – Author and critic Kim Newman discusses Cronenberg’s early works
COLLECTOR’S BOOKLET [LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE]
- An illustrated 100-page hardback book featuring new writing including 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, plus more, illustrated with original archive stills
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: James Woods, Debbie Harry
Release Date: 17th August 2015