Most movies, even the smart ones, are pretty easy to figure out. But there's one veteran filmmaker beloved by every horror fan who knows what's up, and this man was, at one point, intent on crafting some of the strangest, smartest, and most memorable horror / science-fiction films ever produced. These days he's still kicking much ass on films like Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, but the Canadian-born David Cronenberg started his career with one hell of a genre streak: Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), The Fly (1986), and Dead Ringers (1988). Not only is each a unique and worthwhile film in its own right, but that streak represents one seriously impressive evolution for a filmmaker who loves to tell weird, dark, and scary stories.
Horror fans will pick and choose over the favorite Cronenbergs for eternity (I hope), but very few of them would argue that 1983's Videodrome is not among the filmmaker's very best efforts. It shows a filmmaker just getting truly confident with his odd, personal material while still holding onto the "indie" approach that made him a success in the first place -- and like the best of Mr. Cronenberg's films, Videodrome works as several things at once: on the surface it's a morality tale involving a sleazy cable TV producer who aims to bring something dark and sexual to his low-rent network, but it's also a refreshingly fast-paced neo-noir story about a cocky anti-hero who stumbles into something seriously disturbing, and (of course) Videodrome is a multi-faceted rumination on all the things that Cronenberg fears: media saturation, loss of individuality, blind conformity, genetic distress, general disease and discomfort, overtly non-traditional sexuality ... grown-up topics that rarely get any light shone upon them unless it's in the world of sobering non-fiction -- or challenging horror-flavored fiction.
It would be silly to point out that James Woods delivers a magnetic lead performance, because by this point we all know how damn good the guy is. But this was back in 1982, and even then Mr. Woods displayed a jittery magnetism and an effortless sense of cool authority. His "Max Renn" character is hardly a nice guy, and sometimes he's outright scummy, but Woods keeps the guy just slightly human, even when things start getting rather, well, inhuman. The supporting cast is exceptionally strong, especially Les Carlson as a smoothly malevolent adversary and Peter Dvorsky as Max's tech-obsessed pal. Also worthy of note is another great early score from Howard Shore, a quick-moving editorial style that mixes conventional storytelling and hallucinogenic weirdness with no excess silliness, and a consistent sense of dark, weird, somehow playful malice.
Of course much ink has been spilled by now regarding how prescient Videodrome seems to be: it deals in themes and technologies that were rarely even discussed in the early '80s, and it does so in a quick and efficient style that's the trademark of adept filmmakers. Of course there's little that's unique about Cronenberg's basic theme: that man may be devoured by his own technology -- but the filmmaker presents that concept from such odd and refreshing perspectives ... there's little denying that Cronenberg was way ahead of his time with much of Videodrome. But his points never get in the way of telling a dark, smart, creepy story, and that's just one of the reasons that the horror fans (and the fine folks at Criterion) will always find a spot for his early films in our collection.
And man the flick looks great. I'm no expert on these things, but this film is not "digitally scrubbed." It looks like a film from 1983 ... but it looks like a film from 1983 on perhaps the opening night of its most pristine print. And while I have no experience with any truncated versions of this film, I do know that this version has some restored footage that was deemed too explicit from the 1983 branch of the MPAA. Seems a little silly, considering how "explicit" the entire film is, from visual style to its numerous subtextual themes, but at least we know this is the director-approved version of a very good genre film. Which is good enough for me.
But wait, there's more!
By my reckoning none of the extra features are new for this blu-ray release, but what's been ported over from the 2004 release is of such high quality, it seems silly to complain. Plus new extras thrown in just for the hell of it would just be sort of redundant -- and hardly Criterion's style. Fans of the film will no doubt delight in the pair of feature-length audio commentaries (one with writer/director David Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin; the other with lead actors James Woods and Deborah Harry), as all four participants approach the film with equal amounts of distance, insight, and affection. Cronenberg, as always, comes off like one of your favorite college professors: thorough and refined, but never pretentious or boring.
Also included is the great 30-minute piece "Forging the New Flesh," which focuses mainly on the film's visual goodies, both technical and artistically icky, but features a few seasoned pros (including Rick Baker!) and is actually quite intriguing; "Effects Men" is a four-part audio supplement that features interviews with special effects creators Rick Baker and Michael Lennick; "Bootleg Video" is something for the hardcore fans: extended footage from three of the film's more disturbing moments; the "Effects Visual Essay" is a slick collection of archival photographs from the set; "Fear on Film" is a really cool 25-minute piece from 1982 in which a young Mick Garris interviews John Landis, John Carpenter, and (of course) David Cronenberg. (Seriously, I adore this great old piece. So so cool!)
Rounding out this fantastic blu-ray release is Cronenberg's 2000 short film "Camera," three old trailers for Videodrome (and an old on-set "making of" promo piece), another large gallery, and (inside the nifty case) a meaty little booklet boasting three fantastic essays from Carrie Rickey, Tim Lucas, and Gary Indiana.
Bottom line: as a lifelong Cronenberg fan who's waited (way) too long to revisit Videodrome, I'm pleased to opine that it's now one of my very favorite horror-style blu-rays. Great flick, transfer, supplements, the whole package. Long live the blu flesh.