A David Cronenberg production is rather easy to pick out in a line up. Even when taking his most recent, more dramatic works into account — 'Spider,' 'A History of Violence,' 'Eastern Promises' — there's always a distinctive, unmatched voice and method to identify them as Cronenberg pictures. His films display strange states of unreality which feel engrossingly familiar to our sense of reality. Worlds similar and even with a basis to our own but so deep in the outer fringes of normalcy that the spectacle couldn't possibly have any connection to us. But that's where the horror and chills come in, because the stories are oddly about us. Or more specifically, about the state of modernity and human civilization, portraying realities we choose to ignore or wish didn't existence.
Arguably his most easily recognized effort, 'Videodrome' depicts these thematic elements using dismal, grotesque visuals which blur the line between reality and illusion. Max Renn (James Woods) is a seedy and lewd television producer of a local Toronto UHF channel, who doesn't see any harm in the station's lurid broadcasts. This plays as a sort of irony and oxymoron to the narrative since much of the film uses gruesome, graphic, and obscene phantasmagoria for delivering its ideas. Rick Baker ('The Wolfman') is the talented mastermind behind the disturbing special effects, and even by today's standards, they're phenomenal. Cronenberg uses this imagery not only to shock his audience, but to reveal a deep, subconscious correlation between the body and the outside world.
Many of Cronenberg's previous films are concerned with the human body and pathology — mutations caused by outside living organisms, amalgamating psychological fears with physical anxieties. With 'Videodrome,' the invading parasite is technology, its power to influence one's perception of reality and its incorporation with human evolution. In his incessant search for programming that pushes the boundaries of acceptability, Max discovers a pirate signal that satisfies his desires, and we quickly find him caught in a surreal, hallucinatory downward spiral of depravity. His natural ability to distinguish between truths and falsehoods erodes. And we also have difficulty figuring out if it's all in his head, the result of a mental breakdown, or if it's really happening to him.
And with a name like Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), which sounds far too much like an erotic stage name at a burlesque show, the film has us wondering if she, too, is a figment of his imagination since she never came into the picture until after Max found "Videodrome." Her presence every time on screen almost seems indicative of a breakdown to our natural instincts — sexuality, human interaction, communication. She could also be an innate fantasy brought to the forefront by the shadowy covert figures that created the pirate signal and invade his mind. His only hope for salvation is with a mission run by Bianca O'Blivion (Sonja Smits) called The Cathode Ray, a name hinting at more than its face value. "Long live the new flesh" becomes the slogan of a revolution Max had no idea even existed.
Revisiting 'Videodrome' nearly thirty years later, it's amazing to see just how prophetic Cronenberg's surreal vision of technology and the body actually is. Today, the reality show genre is a contradictory concept that occupies the majority of television programming. The internet, as the electronic superhighway of viral information, has become an all-encompassing entity that we can carry with us everywhere we go. Most of our daily interaction and communication is now performed with us gazing into a pixilated screen. Certain broadcast stations rely on sensationalism and misleading information to attract viewers and alter opinions, similar to Max uncovering a conspiracy that wants and uses him for spreading an ideology that intends to eliminate the undesirables of society.
David Cronenberg's 'Videodrome' is a fantastical, explicit portrayal of techno-terror from an excellent filmmaker who carefully combines the visually grotesque with intelligent insight. While it lives on as a favorite of the body-horror genre amongst cult enthusiasts, the film offers a great deal more beyond its shocking, graphic display of society, a unique and chaotic vision of modernity.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Videodrome' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #248) on a Region A-locked, BD50 disc. It's housed in their standard clear keepcase and cardboard slipcover that features a scene from the movie on the front. Personally, I love the cover art as it makes the keepcase look like a Betamax cassette tape. Accompanying the disc is a 36-page booklet with color pictures of the film and the production. It features three excellent essays very much worth reading for fans. The first two are "Make Mine Cronenberg" by Carrie Rickey and "Medium Cruel: Reflections of Videodrome" by Tim Lucas. The last one is "That Slithery Sense of Unreality" by Gary Indiana. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
'Videodrome' comes to Blu-ray with a first-class 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode and presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. According the booklet inside, the transfer was created with the approval of cinematographer Mark Irwin and David Cronenberg and taken from a 35mm interpositive using some mild digital noise reduction to clean up the picture. The results, I'm happy to report, are outstanding, magnificent for a nearly 30-year-old movie, easily outclassing previous incarnations for home consumption.
The video shows terrific clarity and resolution with spot-on, nicely-balanced contrast levels, making visible the smallest details in the far-distance. Whether we're inside Max's confining apartment or the strange, makeshift cubicles of The Cathode Ray Mission, fine lines are distinct and crystal clear with amazing and revealing textural definition in facial complexions and clothing. The color palette is deliberately on the grimier, somewhat dreary side, but primaries are energetic and vibrant throughout. Blacks could be a bit stronger with a couple scenes where they slightly dip, but they're not disappointing and rendered accurately for most of the presentation. Shadow delineation in low-lit interiors is surprising and fantastic. The image also displays a consistent, fine layer of grain, giving it an appreciable and attractive film-like quality.
Considering its age, 'Videodrome' comes to Blu-ray with a remarkable, even superb presentation cult fans will love.
The 80s body-horror classic also arrives with an excellent uncompressed PCM mono track. The dialogue-driven design offers plenty of subtle, slushy sounds which grossly complement the shocking visuals. While vocalization is distinct and perfectly balanced, mild ambient, background effects are clear and precise from beginning to end. The entire mix exhibits discernible clarity and detail without distortion, and Howard Shore's score keeps things greatly engaging and exciting. The soundstage possesses a marvelous acoustical presence and fidelity that feels wide and welcoming. Although it lacks any impressive moments of deep, intense bass, the lower frequencies are still in attendance and effective for adding some depth to certain scenes. All in all, this is a terrific high-rez track for a cult favorite from David Cronenberg.
'Videodrome' arrives with a strong assortment of bonus features that mirror its DVD counterpart. It's a great set of supplements for fans to enjoy while newcomers get a closer look at the making of Cronenberg's surreal vision.
Starring James Woods and Deborah Harry, 'Videodrome' is a bizarre and weirdly graphic sci-fi trip into the hallucinations of a perverse television producer. David Cronenberg directs this surreal vision of a nightmarish reality where technology and natural human instincts converge and transform into "the new flesh." The Blu-ray edition of the 80s cult classic comes with excellent picture quality and a terrific audio presentation. Although they mirror the same assortment found on its DVD counterpart, the bonus features are also a great set for viewers to learn more about the making of the film and it visual effects. Overall, The Criterion Collection brings 'Videodrome' to Blu-ray with marvelous results.