Blu-ray review: Videodrome Limited Edition

Starring: James Woods, Debbie Harry
Director: David Cronenberg

Videodrome may have flopped at the box office on its initial release, but it now seems like the David Cronenberg movie par excellence and the culmination of the Canadian auteur’s first phase as a writer/director of futuristic nightmares. Stylistically, though, it arguably has more in common with the films that came later rather than those that went before, eschewing as it does the cold, clinical feel of The Brood and Scanners for a more slick, seductive surface. It’s also the first Cronenberg film to feature a truly commanding lead performance, courtesy of James Woods as Max Renn, the sleazy president of a small, struggling TV channel who becomes convinced that some pirated torture porn tapes are going to be the next big thing and attempts to sniff out who’s making them, only to find the grainy images triggering violent, body-dismorphic hallucinations. Apparently Cronenberg was scribbling new pages during the shoot, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the ending teeters into incoherence, but for the most part the film achieves an effortless, dreamlike flow that embraces social criticism, amour fou, body horror and conspiracy thriller and wraps them up in one darkly pulsating package. 10/10

TRANSFER
No grain or damage, and the transfer looks very sharp, solid and textured. The shadowy, dusky, noirish scenes in Max’s flat have plenty of warmth, and the occasional pops of colour in the film – such as the pastel Art Deco set of the Rena King Show – also come up looking fresh and vibrant. Brian O’Blivion’s book-lined study is a mass of baroque detail, and there’s a lovely amber glow to the red clay Videodrome set (where Max gives a TV set the hiding of its life). 8/10

EXTRAS
A nicely made 21-min BBC doc from 1997, with the director talking about his career and abiding themes, and Alex Cox chipping in here and there. ~ 27-min piece about the film’s various FX (we learn that the surface coruscations of Max’s telly were operated with a keyboard) that also puts the movie into a wider context. ~ An interesting 25-min piece from 1982 in which Cronenberg takes part in a discussion with John Landis and John Carpenter. It’s full of nice snippets about The Thing, American Werewolf, etc, and there’s a wonderful contrast in personality between the three directors – Landis joky and jovial, Cronenberg professorial and Carpenter laconic. ~ A full 5-min version of “Samurai Dreams”, the Japanese soft-core show that Max toys with buying for the station; it comes with the videotape nicely cleaned up, and with an interesting commentary in which it’s explained that Max’s TV station was based on a Toronto station called City TV (which started showing soft-core porn after midnight on Fridays). ~ 17-min interview with celebrated horror writer Dennis Etchison, who talks about how he got into doing novelisations and the problems involved in adapting Cronenberg’s film. With some passing comments about the ’70s horror fiction scene along the way, this is a great treat for Etchison fans. ~ 26-min interview with cinematographer Mark Irwin that’s packed with info. Among other things, he talks about his early career, about Cronenberg’s working methods (no storyboards) and the difficulty of getting rid of Debbie Harry’s wrinkles. ~ 10-min interview with producer Pierre David, who tells a slightly different story from Irwin’s – of a script ready well in advance and of a well-organized and financed shoot. ~ “Camera”, a rather arty 6-min short by Cronenberg from 2000. ~ 25-min of additional or alternate scenes that were included in various TV broadcasts of the movie, including a substantial scene with Debbie Harry in a limo which surprisingly didn’t make the final cut. ~ Audio commentary with film critic Tim Lucas, who provides memories of his own visits to the set as well as exhaustive details about when and where various scenes were shot. 10/10

 

THE EARLY FILMS

This collection also gathers together Cronenberg’s first four films. The first two, From the Drain (12 min) and Transfer (6 min) are slightly painful skits, one about two people sitting in a tub and the other about the dysfunctional relationship between an analyst and his patient. The undoubted highlight of the disc is the third film, Stereo (60 mins). Purporting to be a case study of some surgically created telepaths, this piece looks forward to Scanners, and it’s combination of crisp, sparkling b/w cinematography and a cold voiceover laced with scientific jargon works very well. It comes in a flawless transfer from 35 mm. Crimes of the Future (62 min) presents the ruminations of one Adrian Tripod, a therapist adrift after his skin clinic becomes infected with a mysterious malady. Looking forward to The Brood in theme, this is another stylishly shot piece that makes great play with the intimidating, inhuman shapes of modern architecture, but Tripod’s tongue in cheek observations work less well as a counterpoint than the flatly delivered facts and figures of Stereo. Crimes of the Future is presented in a 4K transfer which fully captures the sunny, autumnal bloom of the film’s colour cinematography. Both films are remarkably consistent in theme with Cronenerg’s mature movies, and they also get an injection of period charm from the presence in key roles of the eccentric, very much of-his-time Ronald Mlodzik, a slender, dandyish figure not unlike the young Peter Cook. The set also includes as an extra a 17-min interview with Kim Newman in which he puts Cronenberg’s early “underground” movies in context and points out hints of things to come. 10/10

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