Videodrome(The Criterion Collection, 8.31.2004)
In David Cronenberg's seminal 1983 horrorshow, done quick and dirty and now honored with a Criterion double-disc set, TV producer James Woods discovers just what he needs to break through the clutter and grab audience share for his low-budget station: a snuff-flick purveyor called Videodrome. "Like video circus," he explains to a colleague. "Video arena. It's just torture and murder. No plot, no characters, very realistic. I think it's the next thing!"
But the minute he puts the snuff cassette into his VCR, the producer is doomed, very like the victims in The Ring (which Cronenberg claims on the commentary track was inspired by his film). He plunges into a reality fissure the size of Li'l Abner's Bottomless Canyon of Dogpatch. A slit opens in his abdomen, into which videocassettes, pulsating like horny teenagers, disappear, as does his revolver, which re-emerges from his belly and fuses with his hand.
After knife-nicking and cigarette-branding an S&M sweatmeat named Nikki Brand (Blondie's Deborah Harry), he discovers she's turned into a giant pair of lips on a pneumatic TV tube that sucks his face right into it. When the flesh gun starts shooting blobby bullets that cause cancer, things really start getting weird.
I think the satirical philosophy of Cronenberg's first true signature flick is overrated and the paranoid plot underbaked, but you can't argue with its otherworldly aura. Woods' sweaty nastiness loses none of its stink and sour tang in Cronenberg's bizarre parallel philosophy- world, Debby Harry is a smart sendup of a cooing, oozing cooze, and displays oodles more confident than she did in 1980's Union City.
Rick Baker's gloppy prosthetic makeup and props are great even when they're cheesy or unrealistic. When Woods first discovers his new aperture, his right arm is way is way out of proportion, but you don't notice because of his topnotch acting and the fact that your eyes (and his) can't pull away from the bloody tunnel in his chest. That's sexually transgressive entertainment!
The elaborate making-of DVD features (and incisively intelligent 40-page booklet by Carrie Rickey, Cronenberg scholar Tim Lucas, and Gary Indiana) explain how everything worked, and also how some other stuff worked that Cronenberg decided not to use (e.g., a TV set rising out of Woods' bathtub, which would've looked silly).
The veiny, breathing TV set Cronenberg did use was operated by a pipe-organ-like pneumatic device; the contortions it produces on the TV set were produced by playing Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in G Minor on its keyboard.
The extras are extravagant: a mini-doc, Fear on Film with Cronenberg, John Carpenter, and John Landis; faux snuff and porn flicks; and scads of commentary.
"I have officially stopped being an actor, now I'm just a walking slit!" Woods complained to Debby Harry. "Now you know what it feels like!" Harry retorted.
One disappointment: we don't get to see the mutant belly-slit-dwelling sex organs Baker designed for the never-used orgy finale. Judging from how cool the death of mephistophelian Videodrome pusher Barry Convex (Les Carlson) looks, the erotic Gotterdammerung might have been as cool as the fantasy orgies in Peter Jackson's masterpiece Heavenly Creatures (also out on DVD with a few previously unglimpsed naughty bits).
Convex is consumed by ravenous cancer critters that remind me of the "odd squealing things" that Alex runs over on the highway in A Clockwork Orange, and the package "writhing with worms" that so unsettles the detective in Thomas Berger's "Who Is Teddy Villanova?" Cronenberg's opus goes to show that it's not about the effects budget. It's all about the writhing." -- Tim Appelo