(A.k.a. ZONE KILLER)
Max Renn (James Woods) is the unscrupulous programmer of a small satellite TV station. He's an immoral cad who only cares about bringing in viewing figures - and he believes the way to do that is to feed the audience's craving for salacious sex and violence.
Alas, his regular client, elderly Masha (Lynne Gorman), delivers him nothing but increasingly soft erotica. It doesn't even stir him, let alone his prospective audience. He's delighted, then, when assistant Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) picks up a signal from an unknown source broadcasting a no-budget show called "Videodrome". In it, contestants appear to be beaten and abused for real in a single padded cell setting. "It's genius", Max exclaims.
Becoming obsessed with locating the origins of the signal, Max is amazed to discover that the show is not being filmed in the East like he'd first thought, but is actually coming straight out of Pittsburgh. He determines to find out who's behind the transmissions.
In the meantime, Max has starting dating radio talk DJ Nicki (Deborah Harry). She's a feisty blonde with a few kinky interests of her own: she's not above stubbing cigarettes out on her breasts for kicks, for example. Max shows her a tape of "Videodrome" and she instantly becomes intrigued ... much to her lover's consternation, she wants desperately to appear as a "contestant" on the show. As Nicki goes missing, presumably in pursuit of her new ambition, Max begins to develop curious hallucinations and - more disconcertingly - a vagina-like cavity starts to appear in his stomach. Seeking the truth behind his new discovery, he learns more than he bargained for when Masha uses her shady contacts to put him in touch with the brains behind "Videodrome", where he's exposed to the posthumous videotape recordings of late media mogul Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley) ...
I don't expect visitors to SexGoreMutants require much of a synopsis. VIDEODROME is a film I imagine all are familiar with. Indeed, it most likely features on "favourite film" lists of most visitors to this site. Certainly, it's one of my favourite films.
David Cronenberg, for me, made his best films when directing from his own original scripts. With VIDEODROME, the marriage between his original, thought-provoking body horror concepts and fluid direction is at its finest. Superb casting ensures that the clinical detachment of previous films is overcome, Woods' renowned intensity ensuring the audience become engrossed in the fate of what is essentially a despicable character. Harry is surprisingly good, at once a victim and a femme fatale, holding her own alongside the smouldering, ever-watchable Woods. Supporting players are uniformly strong, enabling Cronenberg's screenplay to engage on a higher emotional level than many of his other early sci-fi films managed.
Pacing is perfect, the drip-feed of weirdness expertly measured as the blurring of nightmare and reality become ever more profound. As events grow increasingly surreal, so too do Rick Baker's brilliant, innovative special effects become more and more grisly.
Combining all of the above with superbly timeless production design, Howard Shore's ambient electronic score and some of the most iconic imagery seen within the genre (Max producing a gun from the gash in his stomach; Nicki's mouth giving him "head" via a TV screen), VIDEODROME is one of those films where all the elements converge to produce one memorable scene after another.
What's more, it doesn't age either. This is chiefly due to its themes of a generation insatiable for regular servings of sex and violence. In this age of YouTube uploading, grisly torrents and online clips of actual executions and so on, the message seems more prescient than ever.
A bona fide classic.
Why, then, has the film been treated so poorly on UK home video? It's always been cut previously. Even the eventual upgrade to UK blu-ray, courtesy of Universal a couple of years back, was pre-censored and barebones. Adding insult to injury, America and Germany both got extras-laden uncut blu-ray releases in the meantime.
Luckily though, in early 2015, Arrow Films Video announced plans to bring the film out in a fitting special edition package.
Now that their release has arrived, does it do the film justice? The answer is a resounding 'yes'.
This dual-format set consists of four discs. That's two blu-ray discs and two DVDs. We were sent screener copies of the blu-ray discs to review.
Disc one contains the film, uncut, in a stunning 1080p HD transfer. Housed as a nicely sized MPEG4-AVC file, the materials used are reportedly the same as those used on Criterion's US disc. Certainly, to the naked eye, both transfers appear to be identical.
Framed at 1.85:1 (yes, there is ongoing controversy as to the correct aspect ratio), everything looks accurately framed here. The print employed is stunningly clean, with a fine layer of grain accentuating the filmic depth and acute detail on offer. Deep blacks and strong colours impress further, while everything looks as sharp as a brand new film. It's a stunning presentation.
Audio-wise, the English mono soundtrack proffered is a satisfying lossless affair: clean and clear throughout. Optional English subtitles for the Hard-of-Hearing are well-written and easy to read.
An animated main menu page opens up the disc. From there, pop-up menus include a scene selection menu allowing access to VIDEODROME via 12 chapters.
Bonus features begin with an excellent audio commentary track from Tim Lucas. As ever, he offers an extremely informative, enthusiastic commentary. So what if he's clearly reading from a script? This is great stuff, cribbing where relevant from Cronenberg's own commentary track from a few years back (sadly not licensed here). Best of all are Lucas' own observations from his time spent on the set of the film, where he acted as correspondent for the brilliant Cinefantastique magazine.
"Cinema of the Extreme" is a superb 21-minute BBC documentary from 1997, in which Cronenberg gets to speak articulately about his early violent cinema, his fascination with the flesh as the only reality people can be sure of, censorship and so on. George A Romero and Alex Cox are also on hand to give their opinions on Cronenberg's patented form of body horror shocks throughout this engaging offering.
We also get 26 fascinating minutes of deleted footage, which amounts largely to short extension of conversational scenes that made the film's final cut. The quality here is VHS-like, but it's great to have these moments included nevertheless.
"Camera" is Cronenberg's 6-minute short from 2000, which reunited him with VIDEODROME co-star Leslie Carlson. It's a quietly unsettling reflection on film as a medium, and makes perfect sense being included here.
"Fear on Film" will no doubt be familiar to fans of the flick: a 1982 round-table discussion between John Carpenter, John Landis, Mick Garris and Cronenberg as the directors discuss the nature of making scary movies. On the cusp of releasing VIDEODROME, the Canadian auteur is the most animated and interesting of the foursome in this great accompanying piece.
Garris also directs a vintage 8-minute Making Of featurette shot on the set of VIDEODROME, which boasts interviews with Cronenberg, a chain-smoking Woods and a frankly spaced out-seeming Harry. Best of all, there are some fabulous behind-the-scenes clips of Rick Baker and his assistant at work.
"Samurai Dreams", Masha's fictional softcore offering, is presented here in its entirety (5 minutes) along with archive footage of the film's helmet camera being tested (another 5 minutes). Both of these clips come with commentary from FX supervisor Michael Lennick, who also appears on screen during a 1-minute clip explaining the practical reason for using Betamax videocassettes - as opposed to VHS - in the film.
Three original trailers make for fun viewing, especially the hilariously misleading manga-esque second and third ones.
A trio of all-new interviews round off a most impressive first disc: cinematographer Mark Irwin (26 minutes), Pierre David (10 minutes) and Dennis Etchison, who adapted the screenplay into novel form (16 minutes).
Over on blu-ray disc two, we get a handful of beguiling early films from Cronenberg.
"Transfer", a 6-minute short from 1966, is the most abstract of the bunch. It's experimental and perhaps more interesting than it is entertaining, but it's great to have it included here regardless.
"From the Drain", from 1967, is longer - 12 minutes in length - and hints at the scientific preoccupations that would distinguish the bulk of Cronenberg's later career.
The real prizes here, of course, are 1969's monochrome STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (1970). These are both feature-length and begin to explore more blatantly the worlds of genetics tomfoolery, mind-altering substances, libidos and the weaknesses of the flesh - you know, the usual Cronenberg traits.
Some ham-fisted humour robs CRIMES of its potential, but STEREO is a great little examination of human test subjects first given the power of telepathy, and then pulled in different directions by mind-bending drugs.
Although not as satisfying as his more commercial works, these early (extremely low budget) offerings provide a great insight into the evolution of Cronenberg as a filmmaker blessed with an extraordinarily singular voice.
Each one is restored in HD and benefits from a lossless English mono soundtrack mix.
Finally we get the ever-reliable Kim Newman appearing on screen for 16 minutes to energetically contextualise these films, proffering titbits of background trivia and establishing themes that would continue to run throughout Cronenberg's oeuvre.
Discs three and four replicate these features in standard definition form, across two DVDs.
This set also comes in a stunning slipcase which houses two digipacks and a collectors' booklet. Although these were unavailable for review purposes, I understand the book includes - among other things - an essay by Brad Stevens detailing the film's history of censorship. Which should be well worth checking out.
Considering the extra mile Arrow have gone to in terms of bonus features, it almost feels ungrateful pointing out that they were unable to license the audio commentary track from David Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin, or the one where Woods is reunited with Harry. But, really, these two tracks (available on Criterion's blu-ray) are pretty essential and it's only their omission here that prevents this release from being truly definitive.
VIDEODROME remains Cronenberg's most audacious, and perfectly realised, film. The performances are perfectly pitched, Baker's FX work is sublime and the themes contained therein are more troubling today than they ever were.
Arrow Films Video clearly recognise this, and have finally give the UK the release of this film it's been crying out for.
An essential purchase.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Arrow Video|
|see main review|