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Rarely has a movie been as prescient about technology (and our response to that technology) as David Cronenberg's Videodrome. Cronenberg envisioned a world where television directly impacted the viewer, even changing the viewer physically so that interaction could be made easier yet. In Videodrome these changes take their most notorious form as a slit that develops in the protagonist's stomach, turning him into a VCR in which videotapes (programming) can be inserted that will directly influence his actions.

When first released in theaters in 1983, Videodrome attracted the appreciation of many lovers of fantastic cinema, but the box office receipts were disappointing. Cronenberg may well have been too far ahead of his time for viewers to comprehend the movie's implications. In hindsight, however, the movie's forecasts now look rather startling for their accuracy and rather troubling for their predictions of what is yet to come. Now the movie comes to DVD in a pristine transfer from The Criterion Collection. It's difficult to complain about the quality of the DVD presentation; the film looks great. However, arguably, Videodrome loses something in the process. Videotape brings the viewer closer to the world of the movie and suggests a union that can make goose bumps standup on your skin, as when the movie shows us a videocassette that pulsates like living tissue before being inserted into the slit in the protagonist's stomach. The DVD format distances us from Videodrome. In a sense, we've passed some of the movie's implications, thanks to digital television broadcasts and HDTV, but the core concepts from Videodrome are still relevant. People still crave greater and greater interaction with television and devote more and more of their time looking at computer monitors. Much of our communication now takes place though our computers, thanks to e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, etc. And adult Web sites even allow viewers to influence the acts depicted, thanks to two-way streaming audio and video. For many people, computer and television usage has replaced many of the activities that traditionally required face-to-face interaction. Having sex by way of television/computer—as forecasted by Videodrome—is no longer a techno-geek's dream.

During the audio commentary track of The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Videodrome, director David Cronenberg says the movie's genesis came from his own experiences, before the days of cable television, when late at night, as local stations went off the air, you could sometimes pick up the signals of stations from other cities. Cronenberg wondered what might happen if you picked up a strange broadcast, where events possibly illegal were taking place. What would you do?

In Videodrome, Cronenberg's lead character, Max Renn (James Woods), witnesses just such a broadcast signal, this time from a satellite station called "Videodrome." He sees a woman being tortured in a red room with clay walls. He sees only a few seconds of the transmission before static overcomes the signal. He doesn't consider the legality of the broadcast or what his ethical responsibility should be having witnessed such a horrific act. He's concerned about learning more: this might be just the sort of thing he's been looking to broadcast on his own cable television station. He knows the broadcast grabbed his attention, and if he's attracted to these extreme images, he assumes other people will be attracted as well—an egocentric attitude that serves as Max Renn's justification for becoming involved in increasingly more extreme and violent forms of sexuality.

While serving as a guest on a talk show, Max meets Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry of the rock band Blondie). They flirt and soon end up back at Max's apartment—where she says porn gets her in the mood, so she looks through Max's collection of videotapes and chooses a tape labeled "Videodrome." Instead of being shocked by what she sees, she's turned on. Soon afterwards, she introduces Max to the wonders of body piercing as a sensual pleasure—as well as the pleasure (?) of a lighted cigarette burning into bare flesh. Meanwhile Max discovers the Videodrome signal induces hallucinations: one evening, as he's watching the television, the console begins to sprout throbbing veins. It pulsates as if it's alive and the screen bulges toward Max—with a woman's lips inviting Max's interaction. As Max soon learns, the Videodrome broadcast is designed to alter the consciousness of its viewers. Max finds his body has developed a new organ—a vaginal like slit in his stomach, just the size of a videocassette. This new organ exists only in Max's mind, but he no longer lacks the ability to distinguish between reality and the hallucinatory visions inspired by Videodrome.

When Cronenberg began filming Videodrome, his screenplay wasn't finished. He didn't have an ending. As the filmmaking process proceeded, he allowed the interplay of the actors to help shape the direction the drama. This free-form approach likely contributed to some of the inconsistencies in the movie. For example, the Max-Nicki relationship is initially central to the movie but then it is largely discarded (except for the brief appearances she makes by way of video). Instead, the movie focuses on the Videodrome conspiracy. Along the way, though, Cronenberg's wonderfully bizarre imagery (provided through the ingenious designs of Rick Baker) becomes subservient to ludicrous plot developments. For example, when Max discovers the slit in his stomach, he promptly probes the slit with a handgun and then loses the gun inside his own body. Why does he lose the gun? Because Cronenberg has already decided there should be a fusion of the mechanical and the flesh within Max's body. Never mind this concept is arrived at in absurd fashion. Eventually, Cronenberg lets an anything-goes mentality takeover; because Max can't distinguish reality from his Videodrome-induced hallucinations, Cronenberg uses this as an excuse to give us nonsensical plot developments—as when Max uses his stomach orifice to chew the flesh off a foe's hand. But wait, the orifice isn't real; it's a figment of Max's mind—so what really happened? Cronenberg doesn't tell us. We don't know what happened because Cronenberg's subjective camera doesn't differentiate between reality and Max's visions. Cronenberg used this approach by design, as he explains on the DVD's commentary track: he thought it would be a mistake to telegraph the hallucinations, for example, with an optical shift. "Hallucinations feel real" [to the people experiencing them], he says, "That's what makes [them] so scary." The downside to this approach, however, becomes more pronounced as Max's hallucinations increase in magnitude: we don't know if any of Max's actions ever really take place. At the extreme, Cronenberg endows telekinesis powers upon Max, which Max uses to blow apart a brick wall (or so Max believes to have happened). At this time, he is trying to resolve the conspiracy plot, so we don't genuinely know if Max resolves anything—which makes watching the movie very frustrating.

The concepts behind Videodrome are more impressive than the film. With the foresight of a prophet, Cronenberg has envisioned a world where people can live through the fantasies induced in their minds by technology. In this world, the human body becomes increasingly less relevant. Media guru Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message," and Cronenberg takes this statement to its extreme-but-logical end, where the medium and its audience have been fused. If only Cronenberg had envisioned a scenario as cogent as the philosophies that run through his movie then he might have crafted a classic sci-fi/horror film. As is, though, Videodrome is frequently confused and clumsy. But it's also fascinating, and I suppose that's why The Criterion Collection (which typically only releases the best movies) decided to release Videodrome. This is a compelling movie even if you're convinced it rarely makes any sense.

Some of the special features on this two-disc set are somewhat suspect. For example, do we really need to see extended video footage from the torture sequences? Do we really need to see the entire softcore porn movie (also directed by Cronenberg) that Max viewed while considering broadcast candidates for his television station? A short documentary about Rick Baker's special makeup effects is more substantial, but the movie's philosophies go largely unaddressed by the extras. Arguably, the most valuable extra is Tim Lucas's liner notes about the movie's production history and the decisions that were made on the fly that shaped the final product. For example, originally Cronenberg had envisioned a final sequence where Max and Nicki would be reunited (along with another female character) in an hallucinatory vision. They would have sprouted an array of new sexual appendages—and Rick Baker's crew had created these appendages. They were ready for the cameras to roll, but at the last minute, Cronenberg decided to go in another direction and the sequence was never filmed. (You'll find a photo of some of these appendages in the disc's photo gallery.) While the commentary track by Cronenberg and director of photography Mark Irwin is a welcome addition to this DVD package, many of the other extras here are disposable.

Videodrome is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection as a director-approved special edition double-disc set. The widescreen digital transfer has an aspect ratio 1.85:1. Special features: two audio commentaries, David Cronenberg and director of photography Mark Irwin & actors James Woods and Deborah Harry; Forging the New Flesh, a new half-hour documentary featurette by filmmaker Michael Lennick about the creation of Videodrome's video and prosthetic makeup effects; Effects Men, a new audio interview with special makeup effects creator Rick Baker and video effects supervisor Lennick; Bootleg Video, the complete footage of Samurai Dreams and seven minutes of transmissions from "Videodrome" presented in their original, unedited form with filmmaker commentary; Fear on Film, a 26-minute roundtable discussion from 1982 between filmmakers Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis, and Mick Garris; Camera, a short film starring Videodrome's Les Carlson, written and directed by Cronenberg; original theatrical trailers and a promotional featurette; and a stills gallery featuring behind-the-scenes production photos, special effects makeup tests, and publicity photos. Suggested retail price: $39.95 each. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.