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Blu-ray Review: Videodrome – The Criterion Collection

For a number of years, for a movie to simply be part of The Criterion Collection has been a glowing review in and of itself.  Criterion has put out  laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays of some of the best films ever made, and has done so with excellent transfers, great special features, and a degree of caring that you don’t necessarily get from other companies.  Whether or not you particularly enjoy a film that is in The Criterion Collection is one thing, but almost universally they are films that require your consideration – if you were to build a list of must-see films, looking at what Criterion has released would be a great place to start.

Now being made available by Criterion on Blu-ray is the David Cronenberg classic, Videodrome.  Starring James Woods and Deborah Harry, this particular entry in The Criterion Collection certainly is one of those films not everyone will enjoy or even “get.”  It is still, however, a film well worth thinking about.

Released in 1983, Videodrome finds James Woods playing Max Renn, the operator of a small cable television station in Toronto.  The only way Renn can have his station survive, so he says, is by playing to man’s baser desires, namely showing lots of violent and/or sexual shows.  Always on the lookout for new and different things to put on the air, Renn runs across a show known as “Videodrome” which is nothing but the incredibly realistic-looking torture of individuals.

Renn is soon on the hunt for the makers of the show, but as the saying goes, finds more than he bargained for.  As the odd mix of humor, sex, and horror in the film progresses, Renn ends up having incredibly vivid hallucinations and transforming into a whole new person.  In perhaps the most memorable scene in the film, his girlfriend, Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), appears on Renn’s television.   After some caresses, the television tube bulges out with a close-up of Brand’s lips on them and Renn pushes his head into the screen just about as far as he can go.  For anyone who has seen the film, the image is unforgettable (and not coincidentally is also the still used on the Blu-ray’s cover), even more unforgettable than the changes which Renn undergoes as the film reaches its conclusion. 

To say more about what happens and the odd twists and turns the film makes would be to deprive anyone who hasn’t seen Videodrome of an incredible experience.  And, if you can stand watching some sadomasochism, what you’ll get with the film is a whole new way of looking at our world.

In Videodrome, Cronenberg is questioning our society, the way we perceive things, the way television is changing us, and how we relate to one another via the medium.  One of the more fascinating aspects of the film is the character of Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) and a mission he runs where he and his daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits), allow the less fortunate to watch television.  His idea is that “the television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye” and therefore part of the brain – that what people see occur on television is their reality.  The mission allows the poor to watch television so that they can reconnect with our society, reintegrate. 

The idea of television becoming more real than reality may not be original to Cronenberg, but is dealt with wisely in the film.  O’Blivion’s argument is, without a doubt, one that we have heard echoed in our society.  The notion that watching violent movies or playing violent videogames desensitizes us, blurs the line between what is real and what is not, and makes us more likely to hurt others is certainly one that has appeared on more one occasion over the past 25 years, and is an echo – or perhaps an outgrowth – of O’Blivion’s philosophy.

Videodrome contains a number of disturbing images, but on repeat viewings of the film it is the arguments and philosophies that some of the characters espouse that become truly disturbing.  It is a film which is effective on a number of levels, and one which can keep you up at night not only out of terror but because you just want to figure out what it all means.

Clearly the questions that Videodrome poses, the reality that the film postulates, have remained relevant from the time of its original release to now.  Perhaps it is because of that relevance that Criterion, updating their previous DVD release for Blu-ray, has changed so little.  The Blu-ray comes with two commentary tracks – one with Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin, and another with Woods and Harry.  Also included is Camera, a short made by Cronenberg in 2000.  There is also a fascinating roundtable discussion entitled “Fear on Film” which took place in 1982 with Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis, and Mick Garris.  Additionally, there are trailers, stills, and a promotional featurette made at the time of the film’s release.  Real fans of the film will be happy that the two of the shows within the film (“Samurai Dreams” and “Videodrome” itself) are also included as separate special features.  Perhaps though the highlight of the special features is the 2004 documentary by Michael Lennick (who did some of the effects work on the film) “Forging the New Flesh,” which is a half-hour discussion focusing on the film’s effects.  The piece does expand to a discussion of the filming in general, but mainly concerns itself with how the crew went about making some of the more memorable moments come to life.  There are also audio interviews with Lennick and Rick Baker (who worked on the film) where they further discuss working on the movie.  Lastly there is a booklet of essays on the film and Cronenberg included.  It’s all good stuff, but it also appears to be the exact same stuff that was released with the DVD Criterion Collection version six years ago.

In terms of the Blu-ray’s technical aspects, they are probably best noted as being good, but not great.  It is a high definition transfer and the track is free of dirt, grain, scratches, and other imperfections.  The level of detail is quite good in most of the scenes, facial close-ups in particular tend to look excellent.  There are however some shots which contain a noticeable increase in noise.  Most of the colors are distinctly muted, but rather than that being an issue with transfer, it is more the chosen palette of the film.  The sound is an uncompressed monaural (mono) soundtrack, and is actually very good.  It is completely free of crackles, hiss, and pops.  No, you won’t find yourself completely surrounded by the audio, but the film itself will manage to suck you into the story (and perhaps your television) all on its own.

I can’t suggest that Videodrome is for everyone, some of its subject matter and the depiction of said subject matter will make a segment of the audience distinctly uncomfortable.  It is, however, well worth one’s effort and offers viewers far more than the average horror film.

About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.

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