David Cronenberg is a director whose work I’m not as familiar with as I’d like. I’ve seen a fair few of his films, but largely when I was a teenager, so I can’t remember much about them other than the more famous scenes. I’ve not seen a couple of his classics at all in fact and only just got around to seeing his take on The Fly last year. In terms of his later work, I keep missing most of that too. The latest of his films I’ve seen is A History of Violence, which came out ten years ago.
So I’ve been keen to delve into Cronenberg’s career properly now that I’m a more experienced film lover and Arrow answered my call by releasing a ridiculously extensive 4 disc set of Videodrome. It’s one of the films I’d not seen for about 15 years, so was on my list of titles to watch.
It’s hard to sum up the plot of Videodrome as it’s quite a surreal film, particularly in the second half, and part of the pleasure of watching it is getting caught up in its nightmarish world. The first half seems more straight forward though, tricking the audience into thinking they know what they’re signing up for.
James Woods plays Max Renn, a TV executive working for Civic-TV, a cable channel that shows seedy low-rate programmes and films. Max is getting tired of the usual softcore crap that he peddles though. He thinks audiences want harder and more extreme entertainment and thinks he’s found it when a techie associate manages to access a mysterious broadcast called Videodrome. Basically just a series of violent torture scenes, the show grabs hold of Max and won’t let him go. After he gets more obsessed with it, he starts to experience hallucinations and gets drawn ever further into a twisted, bizarre world of sex, violence and television.
It sounds like a fairly straightforward narrative on paper, but as the film moves on Max becomes physically and mentally warped and more ideas are thrown up. A number of plot elements are left open at the end too. Many questions are asked, but the film refuses to answer them all, instead letting you get swallowed up in the nightmare, becoming as obsessed with the disturbing world created as Max is with the Videodrome broadcasts. There are some fascinating thoughts brought up. In the beginning the film feels like a fairly clear discussion on censorship, but by the end many more rabbit holes are opened.
The script has a number of highly quotable, often blackly funny lines such as “I just can’t cope with the freaky stuff” and “see you in Pittsburgh”. Some of the dialogue hints at ideas being toyed with too, such as “Got a hangover?” “I stayed up late watching TV” suggesting TV is like a drug; addictive and damaging.
As a vision of the future, the film isn’t quite bang on the money, but it’s not far off. Mainstream entertainment is incredibly sanitised these days, with fewer and fewer blockbusters pitching for any rating beyond 12A/PG13, so it may not seem that audiences are craving harder material to get their kicks. The internet however has opened the door to any depth of depravity and the popularity and vastness of this dark underbelly to the online world is phenomenal. So, although the technology on display is dated, the vision of what future audiences crave (albeit it secretly) is prescient.
Most of the special effects have held up too. Cronenberg and his effects team, featuring the great Rick Baker, craft some jaw dropping sequences. Aided by Mark Irwin’s excellent cinematography, there are some incredibly striking visuals in the film that burn their way onto your retinas. From the pulsating flesh TV to the video slot that opens up in Max’s stomach, the film is full of squirm inducing, incredibly vivid imagery that stands out even amongst Cronenberg’s famously icky career.
The ending is a little abrupt perhaps and feels unsatisfactory because of the various unanswered questions. However, the fact that the film doesn’t tie things up neatly helps it really stay with you and worm its way into the dark recesses of your mind. It’s a bold, surreal nightmare that is not easily forgotten.
Videodrome is out on 17th August in the UK in a Limited Edition 4-disc Dual Format Blu-ray + DVD, released by Arrow Video. As is to be expected from Arrow, the picture and sound quality is fantastic.
As for special features, Arrow have outdone even their own great reputation. Here’s the list:
VIDEODROME – BLU-RAY DISC 1 + 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 & the Cinema of the Extreme – A documentary 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 by filmmaker Michael Lennik on Videodrome’s video and prosthetic make up effects
– Videoblivion – Brand new interview with cinematographer Mark Irwin
– Brand new interview with executive producer Pierre David
– AKA Jack Martin – Dennis Etchison, author of novelizations of Videodrome 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 Lennik
– Helmet Test and Betamax – Two featurettes by Michael Lennik on effects featured in the film
– Camera, 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
– Deleted scenes from the TV version
– Promotional featurette with behind-the-scenes footage & interviews with Cronenberg, James Woods, Deborah Harry and Rick Baker
– Original theatrical trailer
DAVID CRONENBERG’S EARLY WORKS: BLU-RAY DISC 3 + DVD DISC 4 [LTD EDITION EXCLUSIVE]
– High Definition Blu-ray & Standard Definition DVD presentation of four Cronenberg films
– Transfer & From the Drain, Cronenberg’s previously unavailable short films newly restored by the Toronto International Film Festival
– Stereo & Crimes of the Future – Cronenberg’s early amateur feature films, shot in and around his university campus. Newly restored from original lab elements
– Transfer the Future Author & critic Kim Newman discusses Cronenberg’s early works
COLLECTOR’S BOOKLET [LTD EDITION EXCLUSIVE]
A 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
It’s a phenomenal collection of features. I haven’t quite watched every single one yet, but I’ve worked through most of them. I won’t go into great depth on everything or I’ll be writing all night, but I’ll point out a few elements that stood out. I thought the David Cronenberg & the Cinema of the Extreme documentary was particularly good. The interviews are intelligent and insightful. It’s not just a love-in for the work of Cronenberg, there are some genuinely interesting debates on censorship and other topics. Alex Cox’s slagging off of Se7en was surprising though. The retro promotional featurette is pretty decent too, although quite brief.
Fear on Film is fantastic, with three of the greatest horror directors sat together chatting about their work, their influences and the state of the industry at the time. It’s as fun as it is informative, with plenty of anecdotes and witty remarks siding with the interesting behind the scenes comments.
The commentary is very good too. After listening to a few of his commentaries, Tim Lucas is becoming one of my favourite academic chat trackers. It usually sounds as though he’s reading from a script (and probably is, or at least very detailed notes), but his commentaries are so phenomenally well researched they always make for fascinating listening.
From the interviews, the piece with Mark Irwin is the standout. He gives a wonderfully rich interview, with detailed technical descriptions of his approach to lighting the film siding with his personal career history, his thoughts on Videodrome as well as a couple of fun anecdotes. It’s a perfect interview and should be shown to all feature compilers before they chuck together the usual arse-kissing fluff.
The deleted scenes are more substantial than usual, running for around 25 minutes. They’re taken from the various versions of the film screened on syndicated TV. Interestingly the director-approved cut we get of Videodrome is shorter than some screened. The differences are discussed in the book. Unfortunately I didn’t download the PDF of the book in time to get a copy of that to read, but I’m sure it’s fantastic by the look of the description.
The early works discs will be a big sell to some. I hate to say it, but I watched Stereo and barely made it through though. It feels very much like a student piece, throwing philosophical ideas at the audience without crafting a watchable film to go around them. I really struggled to sit through it. It looks good, with Cronenberg making great use of his university location, but it’s incredibly tedious. Next to nothing happens through its hour running time, there’s certainly no notable narrative. It’s totally silent, other than a sporadic, academic voice-over, which doesn’t help. I hated the film so much I couldn’t bear to watch Crimes of the Future. I’d read on another blog that it’s slightly more structured than Stereo, but won’t win over those that weren’t a fan of that previous film, so I took that as a piece of good advice.
Even if the early work did little for me, I can’t praise this set enough. Arrow have always been at the top of their game alongside Eureka and Criterion, but this is fantastic even for them. I’d thoroughly recommend it to fans of Cronenberg and the film, even if you’ve got it in a previous version.
* Please note, the images used here are not indicative to the picture quality on the Blu-Ray.