"If you look at it in a cold light, photography is death," an aging monologist says with a sigh in David Cronenberg's 2000 short film "Camera," a bittersweet ode to moviemaking included on the generous new DVD edition of Videodrome. At first, the line seems like a wry joke, undercutting the silly premise of precocious grade-school kids who find a "clunky old camera" (actually a state-of-the-art 35mm Panaflex). But then the man recounts an old dream in which he was in a theater and caught a disease from the movie that caused him to age rapidly, bringing him closer and closer to death. Seeing the same actor, played by Les Carlson, in a small role in Videodrome 17 years earlier, the laugh sticks in the throat: Carlson's hair has gone from jet black to wispy gray, and his facial features, shown in smothering close-up, are craggy and withered.
The transient nature of the body, usually manifested via some form of psychic stress, has long been a theme in Cronenberg's work, but it wasn't fully articulated until Videodrome, which imagined "virtual reality" long before it became a household phrase. Inspired by the teachings of fellow Toronto resident Marshall McLuhan, Cronenberg saw a time in which technology and the body merge into "the new flesh," and the mortal concerns of aging and appearance become irrelevant. While other forward-thinking science-fiction films have followed the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A into obsolescence, Videodrome seems more prescient than ever, especially now that the Internet has moved most human interaction into a realm where the physical world has evaporated. Under anonymous usernames and invented personas, the new flesh continues to stretch.
The go-to guy for fast-talking sleazebags, James Woods makes a meal of his role as head of an off-the-dial cable TV station that specializes in soft-core nudity and violence. Always looking to push the envelope, Woods comes across a pirate broadcast of a show called "Videodrome," which features nothing but scenes of hyper-violent sadomasochism acted out with startling realism. As he investigates the source, Woods starts to experience terrifying hallucinations in which televisions and videotapes pulsate with life and his stomach opens up into a gaping maw. Meanwhile, his sexy, experimental new girlfriend (Deborah Harry) gets so turned on by the scandalous footage that she wants to audition.
About halfway through Videodrome, the web of far-right conspiracies, virtual planes, and bodily transformations gets so thick that it becomes impossible to figure out precisely what's going on. (Either that, or Cronenberg is still running several steps ahead.) Yet its dense mysteries remain more tantalizing than distancing: No other director integrates the creepy with the cerebral quite like Cronenberg, whose best work suggests a gorehound working on his dissertation. Cleverly packaged to look like an old Betamax tape, the new DVD honors both instincts with 40 pages of essays, two commentary tracks, and a host of supplements that deal equally with the film's ideas and the resourceful special effects that bring them to life. Photography may be death, but Videodrome hasn't aged a bit.