Videodrome. 1983. Directed & Written by David Cronenberg.
Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky, Leslie Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynne Gorman, Julie Khaner, Reiner Schwarz, David Bolt, Lally Cadeau, Henry Gomez, Harvey Chao, David Tsubouchi, & Kay Hawtrey. Canadian Film Development Corporation/Famous Players/Filmplan International/Guardian Trust Company/Victor Solnicki Productions.
Rated R. 87 minutes.
The films of David Cronenberg are wonderful metaphors for the modern world. He often seems to navigate our brain waves, collectively as a society. His screenplays examine the fears and paranoia of modern people, taking us away from the classical film perspective on science fiction and horror. Perhaps single-handedly he gave birth to the body horror genre. While many people after him tried attaining the same level of horror on a physiological level, none have ever been able to match both his disturbing gruesomeness, nor his sophistication as a writer. Others might say Cronenberg is not nearly as good of a writer as he is a director. However, I completely disagree. Even his first novel, Consumed, is a buffet of well-written madness.
But above all his work, Videodrome may reign supreme. Definitely the most hotly debated film of his catalogue, up there with eXistenZ. But its implications are some of the most interesting, some of the realest and most unnerving of all the stories he’s chosen to tell. Inspired by the teachings of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, Cronenberg crafted this tale of futuristic media gone insane to dive headlong into how media affects us, its purpose, as well as why our connection to media seems to have become so visceral overall as a society. Offering no answers, only a vision of what may come to pass someday – looking more likely as the years roll on – Videodrome shows us a world of our making should we continue a dangerous relationship with media, its various mediums, the images it puts into our brains.
Max Renn (James Woods) is a small-time cable man, running CIVIC-TV which deals in a lot of softcore pornography and violent material. He searches out the best, sleaziest content in order to satisfy his viewers. He wants something groundbreaking. CIVIC-TV’s satellite operator Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) then shows him a program called Videodrome, seemingly broadcast from somewhere in Asia, which is a show without plot, senseless torture and murder in a bare clay-like chamber inflicted upon a struggling victim.
From there his life becomes more complicated. After meeting Nick Brand (Deborah Harry), a psychiatrist and radio host who also happens to engage in BDSM play, things get even more murky. He comes in contact with Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) and also a man named Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson), both of whom expose him to very terrifying new aspects of reality.
No longer will the things you watch on television be on television, in that they will no longer be fake. They will be an authentic, real experience. You’ll watch everything on a television screen. Because everything will be television. It will all be real. No more are there then shows or films, real life is media. Media is real life. Our minds will become so synonymous with media in its many forms that there’ll be no need to tune in on a box in your living room, as the technology will literally be us; the human body. Such is the large fleshy slit, the media orifice which Max Renn sprouts later on in the film – a VHS tape is inserted directly inside him, as there isn’t any middle equipment to separate flesh from objects.
Even further, media will influence is, as it already does. We see this very clearly at one point early on when Renn receives his secretary at his place; he believes to have hit her, seeing it lifelike and raw. Although, nothing like it has happened. He even sees himself switching from his secretary to Nicki. And like Renn, whose body ingests a gun and makes it a part of his bodily makeup, this influence of media will become a part of us, ingrained in our memories, in our touch – “Television is reality, and reality is less than television,” just as Brian O’Blivion tells us. Similar to how The Brood concerned a manifestation, a physical and living manifestation of rage, Videodrome is a body horror in regards to the infiltration of media into our minds, as well as our bodies.
One thing, though, which must be remembered – this is a first-person narrative. We see as Max sees. So, even while things seem as they do from O’Blivion’s perspective, the madness and the hallucinatory body horror is a part of Max’s delusion. All these things before are still true, in a sense, as they’re part of the way media has ultimately influenced him. Through an elaborate plot, Renn becomes a tool of violence after his exposure to so much sex and violence. It gradually grips him tight until he’s seemingly a part of some grand war between different factions of a two-sided conflict over media and its proper use.
So all the metaphorical bits and pieces of Videodrome are great. Even better are the fascinating practical effects, courtesy of designer Rick Baker – one of the legendary effects artists in the movie business. Here, he helps Cronenberg realize the terror of this media affected world in which lives the screenplay. There are so many that it’s hard to touch on them all. Some of the best then. One favourite is when Renn is sitting on his couch, he slowly starts to itch at a sore spot on his lower stomach. Until finally it’s an open, gaping, vagina-like orifice, and then his gun gets lost in it. Later, after he manages to get hold of the gun inside him, he pulls it out and the things grafts into his hand; or at least, that’s what Max sees anyways. Often people will talk about the television screen extending out. My favourite is later when Renn is shot in the chest and stomach, then we cut to a television with its screen looking like Renn’s body, blood oozing from bullet wounds. Such a great effect. Of course the nasty death of Convex is a rough one, shockingly well executed. Baker is truly one of a dying breed, those who are capable of bringing to life horror with their hands and making it real. The Criterion release has lots of nice stuff on the effects and everything else, so that’s a highly recommended purchase for those who are fans of this film.
Added to the effects, Howard Shore, longtime collaborator of Cronenberg, provides us with an eerie score that has lots of synthesizers, as usual. Also there are these organ pieces, which casts everything in such an ominous tone. What I enjoy about this is how the film is a modern horror, but Shore infuses it with this old school, classic horror feel using those specific organ compositions. It’s a real mindfuck, in a sense. As usual, Shore adds his solid punch to Cronenberg’s hypnotic, twisted images, and the film is all the better for it.
James Woods does a fantastic job as Max Renn. He is so confident and sure of himself at the start. As time goes by, Renn devolves into a paranoid man, more and more. Until almost coming full circle, as he embraces “the new flesh” and starts to take matters into his own hands, then he is confident once more in a new sense. The charisma of Woods works well with the beginning of Renn’s character arc. He’s capable of playing those edgy, crazy sort of characters, so the evolution of Max becomes an interesting thing to see.
Along with Woods, Debbie Harry is awesome here. She plays a disturbing character, but everything from her look to demeanour fits Nicki appropriately. Her eerie calmness throughout some of the more vicious moments is definitely unsettling. Also, she sort of plays Nicki like this blank canvas, a veritable open book upon which violence is written, and she becomes this kind of muse for Renn, in a macabre way. Her and Woods have chemistry together that’s dark and dangerous, which serves their characters’ relationship well.
Cronenberg is not for everybody. He is not the sort of science fiction or horror that anybody will pick up and just get into. Certainly not for date movies, unless you’ve got a really cool partner like yourself. But Videodrome particularly is probably Cronenberg’s best work. It is visceral, filled with explicitly graphic violence, body horror, lots of sexualized violence. Yet every last drop of it has a purpose. This is a metaphorical, metaphysical story of our relationship with media. So strap in, take a ride with this one. Maybe you’ll think twice about watching those clips of beheadings on the dark side of the web next time.