Hel Jones tackles Arrow Video’s superlative four disc limited edition release of Videodrome
Arrow Video‘s new restoration of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) follows in the footsteps of Rabid (1977) and Shivers (1975) also restored and re-released on dual format this year. Each film with its disc-filled extras is clearly a labour of love.
Just preceding the Video Nasties Act of 1984, Videodrome, I’m sure would have gotten Mary Whitehouse’s knickers in a twist with the film’s provocative, paranoiac and altogether pleasure-seeking premise. The narrative centres on Civic TV executive Max Renn (James Woods) and his quest to find the next ‘big thing’ in sensationalist programming. His station is responsible for “soft core pornography and hard core violence” which Renn unapologetically justifies as a result of economics. Moral questions arise surrounding the over-stimulation of the consumer following exposure to dehumanising images via the media. These questions are depicted through metaphor, potential Freudian psychological imagery and the former protégé of Dick Smith, multi-Oscar winning make-up effects Wizard Rick Baker (Smith famously created the exploding head in Scanners). Fellow Canadian, composer Howard Shore, yet again, provides the score (Shore and Cronenberg have worked together on all but The Dead Zone) and employs the use of a Synclavier II synthesiser alongside an orchestra. This electronic sound adds a dark, ominous, even metallic, tone to the film and aids with the 80s nostalgia along with the coiffed hair, shoulder pads and leather ties.
Renn stumbles upon Videodrome – a pirate television station which depicts the torture, brutality and eventual death of its subjects. Becoming obsessive to continually transgress social boundaries, Renn shows the footage to his girlfriend Nicki Brand (a hypnotic Deborah Harry) who, by her own admission, is the perfect over-stimulated test audience. She is sexually free (connoted by her costume, both cut and colour) and is immediately enamoured at the premise of the snuff sequences. Her enthusiasm for all things dark and painful grows and she even disappears to audition in Pittsburgh upon hearing the show is filmed there. Left alone, Max begins to suffer hallucinations; disturbing, intriguing visions which only seek to feed his need to consume the morally ambivalent visual media and further blur the line between fantasy and reality. His interactions with the Marshall McLuhan-inspired Brian O’Blivion (velvet-voiced Jack Creley, only ever visible via a television screen) increase the bizarre especially when we learn O’Blivion’s history to Videodrome. It is an aesthetically pleasurable film; body parts are fetished, Betamax tapes pulsate and television undulate and literally swallow the flesh.
Anybody familiar with the articulately intense septuagenarian director will immediately recognise the body consciousness which is prevalent in a large percentage of his oeuvre. The man, who has cited Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa as main inspirations, presents the limitations of the human body within his own artistic nihilism. Ideologies are often invasive and monstrous, the embodied becomes disembodied whilst sex and violence surrounds, causes, or indeed invades the diegesis. There can be contradictory readings of Cronenberg’s films; does he fight for the patriarchal pleasures he depicts and stray dangerously close to misogyny or destroy said pleasures while reinforcing the fragility of the physical body and mind? While the male consciousness is seen in crisis and at odds with the social world around him, it is the female body which appears abject and the site of disgust. In Videodrome, the male mind becomes more abhorrent through feminine imagery; Renn’s torso is repeatedly violated via the vagina-like opening. Or perhaps, it is like the man himself stated a few years ago; he plugs into the zeitgeist, examines and plays around with it. In simple terms Cronenberg’s films are about life and death yet he cleverly uses the horror and prosthetics as a distancing tactic. He questions who or what we are and presents, albeit through social paranoia and viscera, the evolutionary limitations of the human body and the emotional terror of the waking nightmare.
Videodrome has never been more relevant in the face of the current media and image appropriation. It is disorientating, visually audacious and presents an ideology which is fascinating, wholly original but is, perhaps, one of the more convoluted Cronenbergs. That said, as a first time viewer (yes, I know…) the experience of it was exhilarating.
Never one to scrimp on material, Arrow has collected an array of goodies and following the film, there are numerous options for the viewer to take, although do yourself a favour and hit them all.
Cinema of the Extreme.
The 1997 BBC documentary featuring Repo Man director, Alex Cox, David Cronenberg and George A. Romero briefly discuss cinema extremes. These verbal tidbits are intercut with clips of Shivers, Dawn of the Dead (1978) Videodrome and Crash (1996). It is a slight, fairly insignificant documentary which never goes into great detail but Cronenberg’s thoughts on censorship are always worth a listen (Cox’s on Se7en, not so much).
Forging the New Flesh
Visual Effects artist Michael Lennick narrates (and stars) in the first of his four contributions to these extras and discusses the techniques used in the making of the film. This, unfortunately, short but fascinating featurette contains behind-the-scenes footage and interviews Rick Baker, Bill Sturgeon, David Cronenberg and star James Woods.
Fear on Film
One of the highlights of the disc extras is a roundtable discussion originally aired in 1982; presented by Mick Garris and featuring David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and John Landis in tweed, flared jeans and big hair respectively. The conversation centres around the horror genre, what scares the filmmakers, films, as well as their individual takes on censorship and ratings. Although, less than 30 mins long, it is a highly entertaining and lively chat and well worth watching.
The complete and uncensored Japanese series Samurai Dreams with optional commentary by Michael Lennick who is still revelling in the Videodrome/Samurai Dreams experience some 32 years later.
Helmet Camera Test / Why Betamax?
Bite-sized early test footage showing Max Renn’s virtual hallucination chamber head-gear and a second segment which very briefly details why Betamax was the format of choice.
This is an extension of Forging the New Flesh documentary although written and directed by Mick Garris and features behind-the-scenes footage and the making of Videodrome. Interviews include: Cronenberg, Harry and Woods As with the previous featurettes, these are brief but still interesting.
Audio Commentary is provided by author Tim Lucas (Videodrome: Studies in the Horror Film).
Cronenberg: Early Works Blu-ray
Transfer of the Future
The ever entertaining and jovial Kim Newman discusses, examines and critiques Cronenberg’s early career and labels him a child of Romero and genre auteur along with fellow underground directors Brian De Palma and Tobe Hooper.
The Early Works
Restored by the Totonto Film Festival, Criterion Collection and Arrow Films respectively, these films show the progression of Cronenberg as an art student and his shorts through to the first feature film which was made some five years before Shivers.
From the Drain (1967)
Crimes of the Future (1970)
In Transfer, shot on a snowy Canadian landscape, an analyst (Mort Ritts) and his patient Ralph (Rafe McPherson) thrash out their doctor/patient relationship via farce and Freudian speak; while in From the Drain, two men (Mort Ritts and Stephen Nosko), seemingly war veterans sit clothed in a bathtub awaiting something ominous which may or may not come out of the drain. Stereo was the first short feature film shot on 35mm and has an establishing shot reminiscent of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and appears to be heavily influenced by Bergman. It stars Ronald Mlodzik (later seen in Shivers and Rabid) whose costume looks deliciously Hammer-House-of-Horror-like. This is the best of the bunch, definitely my favourite; shot in black-and-white, silent save for a voiceover, the canted camera angles add to the general creepiness and sterility of the sanatorium set amidst the Ontario north woods. Subjects are placed in isolation and operated on, telepathic ability and extra sensory perception is monitored through sexual interaction. Finally, the last feature is Crimes of the Future a potential follow-up to the preceding film. Restored exclusively by Arrow Films from a new 4k scan of the original 35mm negative, again starring Mlodzik (as Adrian Tripod), and again silent but for the added commentary, only this time in colour. In the House of Skin all women are extinct and Tripod is in search of the enigmatically named Antoine Rouge.
It is fascinating to see the early attempts of an artist, to witness how he develops and to note his visual interests and motifs even back then. There’s the Freudian terminology (which all eventually came to a head in A Dangerous Method ), themes of consciousness, sexual experimentation, telepathy and the oddly monikered characters which have all been seen over the Cronenberg oeuvre at one time or another. They may not, necessarily, be to everybody’s taste but they are revelatory in their style, content and deserve to be seen in all of their restored loveliness. All-in-all, Arrow has produced a beautiful box set which cannot be recommended highly enough.
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