The American Society of Cinematographers

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Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC
Short Takes
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Videodrome (1983)
Blu-ray Edition
1.85:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Dolby Digital 1.0
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

When David Cronenberg directed Videodrome in 1983, he was coming off a series of fiercely original, independent horror films (Rabid, The Brood, Scanners) financed largely by Canada’s favorable tax-shelter laws of the 1970s and early ’80s. Videodrome began as one of those pictures but was picked up by Universal early in production, making it a transitional film that paved the way for The Dead Zone and The Fly, two movies in which the director merged his personal preoccupations with mainstream genre conventions to stunning artistic (and in the case of the latter, commercial) results. Viewed today, Videodrome seems to contain the best of both phases of Cronenberg’s career: its premise and gore are as confrontational and unsettling as his best work in the tax-shelter epoch, but the technical precision and complex characterizations (particularly as portrayed by stars James Woods and Deborah Harry) look forward to the director’s richly textured studio work in A History of Violence and other films.

In hindsight, Videodrome can be seen as part of a wave of subversive American films that reacted to the conservatism of the Reagan era in the same way directors like Nicholas Ray (in Bigger Than Life, Rebel Without a Cause and others) and Vincente Minnelli (in Father of the Bride, The Cobweb and Some Came Running) explored the discontent under the deceptively calm surface of Eisenhower-age conformity. In addition to Cronenberg’s cult classic, the early ’80s saw the release of John Carpenter’s The Thing, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, Joe Dante’s The Howling, Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse and Poltergeist and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street—all films that challenged, examined or outright attacked accepted cultural norms. Videodrome was possibly the most prescient of all these movies in its vision of a blurring line between reality and television; like Albert Brooks’ 1979 masterpiece Real Life, it predicted the age of The Bachelor, American Idol and Survivor with remarkable insight and accuracy. When one of Cronenberg’s characters says, “In the future, we will all have television names,” 2011 audiences are likely to ponder the plethora of Jersey Shore-era celebrities who could only have become famous in a world saturated with “reality” TV.

In the film, James Woods plays Max Renn, a cable-TV programmer who trolls the underground for the most subversive shows he can find. When he comes across transmissions of a torture-porn series called “Videodrome,” he thinks he has hit the jackpot — until he realizes viewing the show is seriously messing with his own sense of reality. As Renn embarks on a mission to discover the source of the “Videodrome” signal, he experiences grotesque hallucinations — visions made all the more horrifying by Cronenberg and by the choice of director of photography Mark Irwin, ASC, CSC, to render them without differentiation from the rest of the film’s imagery. Using hypnotic camera movements and a lush palette of saturated blues, reds and grays, Irwin and Cronenberg draw the viewer into Renn’s consciousness to ponder complicated theoretical issues relating to violence, politics and the media. The bold colors and rich blacks are vividly rendered on Criterion’s flawless high-definition transfer, which also boasts a superb monaural soundtrack. The capacity for uncompressed sound of the Blu-ray format allows for a mix of remarkable clarity and dynamic range, making this disc worth a double dip even for consumers who have already purchased the company’s earlier standard-definition release of the film.        

The Blu-ray contains a generous array of extra features, all of which are carried over from Criterion’s earlier DVD release. There are two perceptive commentary tracks, one by Cronenberg and Irwin and the other by actors Woods and Deborah Harry; both contain a wealth of insights into the creation of Videodrome from both a technical and a conceptual perspective. The Blu-ray also includes Camera, a wonderful six-minute short Cronenberg directed for the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000 (the director of photography is André Pienaar, CSC, SASC), and a 12-minute collection of unedited “transmissions” from Videodrome. These shorts are accompanied by commentary tracks featuring Cronenberg, Irwin and video-effects supervisor Michael Lennick. Lennick offers further commentary on a five-minute demo used to establish a look for Max’s “helmet-cam” in the film, and he and special-effects makeup artist Rick Baker are featured in “Effects Men,” a 20-minute audio supplement.

Lennick is also the director of the terrific, half-hour featurette “Forging the New Flesh,” a documentary that presents an extremely detailed history of the production’s innovative visual effects work via archival footage and new interviews with the crew. Even more inside information can be found in the Blu-ray’s collection of rare and fascinating photographs from journalist Tim Lucas’s collection (He visited the Videodrome set for nine days on assignment for Cinefantastique, accompanied by photographer Donna Lucas and Robert Uth. These shots offer not only candid looks at the cast and crew at work, but also glimpses of sets, props and effects not used in the final cut. A broader perspective on both Cronenberg and horror in general can be found in “Fear on Film,” a 26-minute roundtable discussion from 1982 between Cronenberg, Landis and Carpenter. The conversation is pure gold for horror fans, as it presents three masters, at the height of their powers, in lively conversation with moderator Mick Garris. Garris is also the director of a nifty eight-minute promotional featurette from 1982 that features interviews with Cronenberg, Woods, Harry and Baker and supplies even more footage from the set! In fact, it is hard to think of a filmmaker who has revealed more of his or her process to the public than Cronenberg on this Blu-ray — and it is a testament to the greatness of Videodrome that the comprehensive supplements do nothing to rob it of its mystery or impact.

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