DVD. R2. Arrow. 18.
Horror Hack: Are you aware of the story that David Cronenberg was inspired to make Videodrome after seeing your Emanuelle In America?
Joe D’Amato: Yeah? (Laughs) Maybe I should ask him for some money…
Horror Hack: I’m not sure Videodrome actually made any money!
“Videodrome… has something that you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous.”
Masha to Max Renn in Videodrome.
Since my breakfast exchange with Uncle Joe in London, back in 1995, Videodrome has made its money back (and then some) in the video arena, in stark contrast to its theatrical failure in 1983, thereby vindicating some of the dark prophecies made in it by director David Cronenberg (don’t hold your breath waiting for a sequel, though.) But does Videodrome the movie, as opposed to Videodrome the malevolent broadcasting enterprise featured in the movie, have a philosophy? And if so, has Cronenberg (during the course of the movie or in any of the many interviews where he’s discussed it) ever explicated that philosophy coherently? Given that he was struggling to come up with an ending, late on the very last day of shooting (bonus material contained herein reveals just how fluid things remained until the final call of “cut”) I would answer “no”, “no” and “I’m still listening, David.
Videodrome is a polymesmeric meditation, by one of Horror’s outstanding intellects, on identity, technology, sexuality, social responsibility and more, not least the very nature of reality itself… a mind fuck of monumental proportions. It crowns the director’s earliest and most fruitful phase, the “body horror” / “venereal horror” cycle initiated with Shivers (1975) and continued through Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981.) His post-Videodrome offerings were nothing like as challenging, though his 1986 remake of The Fly, which recapitulated some of the themes of his most vital, most viral period, was splendid in its own way. Now, I’m aware that some people who’ll be outraged at my low regard for, e.g. Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) but, y’now… when that one came out, Burroughs’ novel had been horrifying and tantalising me in equal parts for decades and if Cronenberg really thought the best way to encapsulate its moral and literary complexities was to have Roy Scheider rip off a Mission Impossible-style latex mask and announce himself as Dr Benway… well, ‘nuff said. As for eXistenZ (1999)… Videodrome lite!
Since Cronenberg makes much of cod-Renaissance philosophy in Videodrome, he hopefully won’t mind me pointing out that his solipsistic approach to the question of personal identity here adds little to what the likes of Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753) and even Rene Descartes (1596-1650) had to say on the subject. He does dress it up compellingly though with lashings of Philip K Dick’s bad acid consciousness (a pity Cronenberg never got to direct Total Recall, as originally planned) and a jolt of Marshall McLuhan (whose wittiest cinematic deployment remains that in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, 1977) together with an acknowledgement of frightening technological developments that Rene, The Bishop and probably even McLuhan couldn’t have begun to imagine. Videodrome is a “reductio ad absurdum” demolition of the arguments behind the video nasties shit-storm-in-a-tea-cup before that “debate” even broke (and significantly delayed the release of Cronenberg’s magnum opus into the UK home video arena) and, as if that weren’t prescient enough, it anticipates the irresistible rise of untrammeled corporatism, the internet, secret state snooping on the latter, the apparent current consensus that nothing is real unless it exists on a TV / mobile phone screen, repressive tolerance, consumerist conformity, K-holes, black sites and innumerable other regrettable aspects of Modern Life. The best critical take on Videodrome probably remains that of Newsweek’s David Ansen who contends that if it fails, it fails on a level to which few of Cronenberg’s contemporaries could dare aspire. Cronenberg has described one of Videodrome’s key grand guignol set pieces, the instant cancer karma demise of Barry Convex as a metaphor for his own hyperactive thought processes threatening to bust out of his head. Videodrome won’t make you split open. Watching it won’t even give you a brain tumour. But unless you’re thick as two short planks, it will definitely make you do what so few horror films (films, period) can manage these days… it will make you THINK!
You’ll notice that I’ve staunchly avoided any discussion of synopsis here because if you’ve seen Videodrome then you’ll already know that a synopsis of its first half is unnecessary.. and of its second half, probably unrenderable. Whereas if you haven’t yet seen it, I wouldn’t want any spoilers to impair your enjoyment of it. Having said that, if you haven’t seen Videodrome, you should endeavour to put that right as soon as is humanly possible! Here’s your chance, now that Arrow have put out a very affordable DVD edition. I’m not reviewing their sold-out Limited Edition Blu-ray release because that struck me as an expensive way to reacquaint myself with the early experimental Cronenberg shorts which sent me to sleep when Ramsey Campbell presented them at Liverpool’d Bluecoat Galleries, way back in the day. And anyway, it’s sold out! I made the penny-pinching judgement that Arrow’s subsequent mainstream Blu-ray effort would mark only a marginal picture improvement over this DVD version (the hi-def digital transfer for both has been approved by Cronenberg and DP Mark Irwin), which faithfully reproduces all the extras from that… and what an embarrassment of cool extras they are!
Tim Lucas, in his capacity as a Cinefantastique contributor, was the only journo to visit the Videodrome shoot (this was way before the “serious” pundits started earnestly pondering Cronenberg) and his commentary track here comprises the expected mix of personal reminiscence, trainspotterly factoids and thought provoking observation. Bonus documentaries include Cinema Of The Extreme (DC, George Romero and Alex Cox chew the gristle re censorship) and Forging The New flesh (Michael Lennik on concocting the film’s many video and prosthetic effects), there are also various contemporary promotional featureless in which Cronenberg, Jimmy Woods, Deborah Harry, Rick Baker, Lennik and many others get to have their say, new interviews with Mark Irwin, producer Pierre David and Dennis Etchison (author of the Videodrome novelisation), the uncut Samurai Dreams, a bunch of trailers (including a couple of bizarre, self-consciously “new wave” efforts, presumably intended to appeal to the Debbie Harry demographic.) Videodrome obsessives will be wetting themselves most copiously though, I would imagine, over Pirated Signals: The Lost Broadcast, a collection of footage that was only ever seen during certain U.S.TV broadcasts of the film. My own favourite among the extras is Fear On Film, a fascinating 1982 round table discussion between Cronenberg, John Carpenter and John Landis, moderated by Mick Garris. Teasers are shown for The Thing (imagine what Cronenberg might have made of that, given sufficient budget) and Cronenberg is described as “currently finishing” Videodrome… ah, took me back to a sweet spot in the ‘80s, just before that horrible decade turned REALLY, er, nasty. At one point in this, Cronenberg expresses surprise that his films are regarded as confrontational. Sure thing, Dave. And now for a picture of a woman about to stub a cigarette out on her boobs…