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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.
Psycho II. 1983. Dir. Richard Franklin. Screenplay by Tom Holland.
Starring Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia, Dennis Franz, and Hugh Gilin. Universal Pictures.
Rated 18+. 113 minutes.
There’s no debate to be had: Anthony Perkins IS Norman Bates. The way Perkins inhabits the role in the first two Psycho films is amazing. It’s particularly interesting to see Norman in Psycho II quite some time after his institutionalization, and to see how he is a little older, maybe a little wiser, or maybe not.
What we get is not only a story about Norman trying to re-enter society, but also a sort of look into what it’s like when any violent mentally ill criminal is deemed fit to be integrated back into a normal life after having undergone various psychiatric treatments. By no means a statement, but merely an examination; we sway back and forth with the story, as we’re not quite sure if Norman has really been rehabilitated, or if Mother is up to her old tricks again. It’s just as psychologically trying as the original Psycho, but not in the way it feels like Hitchcock; it simply frays on our nerves, as we try to figure Norman out, and events push us to one side then back to the other.
A particular scene where Norman is handed a large kitchen knife to cut a sandwich for a young girl who befriends him (very similar to his sandwich dinner with Marion Crane from the first film) becomes a very nervous few moments; we watch as Norman battles his subconscious, or possibly Mother whispering in his ears about how nice it might be to kill his young dinner guest. I enjoyed how they played with the idea of someone toying with Norman, but also with Mother being very present still in his mind.
One of the things I really enjoy about this sequel is the fact it relies on more than just Perkins as Norman Bates to really drive things. While the original Psycho did start off with Marion Crane before shifting to Norman, this movie gives us a couple other performances to enjoy as well.
Both Vera Miles and Meg Tilly did great jobs here with their characters. Tilly, as Mary Loomis, was just enough of an innocent type to sort of be drawn in by Bates’ charm while also still remaining a bit of an independent and tough young woman. I liked how Mary Loomis was sympathetic towards Norman because it created this tension where you sort of teeter on the edge of wondering exactly what his intentions towards her are really. Their relationship is one of the real interesting parts about this underrated sequel.
Vera Miles, playing Lila Loomis, is spectacular. She is every bit a wicked and wild old woman here. Her character fight very well with the plot, as you’d naturally expect some of Norman’s victims to have family who would care enough to protest his release. Miles is a fantastic actress. She really plays a great character to provide some of the new plot developments here in Psycho II, and had they cast a lesser actress in the part it may not have worked as well. Miles gives us enough venom in her portrayal of Lila Loomis to really sell the part.
All in all, I would say this movie is a 4 out of 5 stars. The plot is really great, and relevant to modern society (how many killers are let loose on the streets again because they got an insanity plea & supposedly ‘served their time’ in an institution somewhere? Plenty!). Perkins, again and as always, is a revelation as Norman Bates. As I’m also a fan of the third movie in the series, Psycho III (see my review here), each time Perkins plays the character he seems to hone Norman into something more intricate and full of little idiosyncrasies. A treat to see the same actor come back to a character and not only do a good job again, but also add something more to the character with each turn.
My only reason for not giving the film closer to a perfect rating would be the whole situation with the boy getting killed in the cellar. It’s hard for me to believe that even though his young lady friend lies for him that the police would not take Norman into custody until they figured out some more about the situation. I mean, the man has been in psychiatric confinement for 22 years after killing a few people, he goes back to live in the exact same house where all the violence really happened, and then when someone gets murdered right in the cellar of this house they just let him stay free walking around on the word of some waitress? That’s my only problem with the film, and it’s not something that ruined it for me, just a little nitpick.
Other than that, I love Psycho II, and it’s criminally underrated especially when many horror franchises keep churning out sequels that get worse and worse ever year. This one is a keeper. A lot of people expected a direct copy of Hitchcock in some sense with this sequel, and unfortunately that was never going to happen. Nobody is able to replicate Hitchcock, even those who closely emulate him with their own personal style, and it’s silly to want another movie exactly like the first one. This is a very natural, organic sequel. It plays well both as a horror film, and also as a real psychological thriller, too. I really had no idea exactly what was going to happen until the very end – speaking of which, the end is also one of the great aspects of the film. It not only gives us a little surprise, setting things up for a further look at Norman Bates, it opts to make more of the story and expand things. No longer is Norman tied completely to the events of the original film, or his own story as we know it so to speak, and it kind of opens up the whole concept for further plots. Of course there’s Psycho III, but even if they hadn’t gone on to make another one I’m still satisfied with the little twists, and most certainly how thrilling the climax of the film came off.
You can do much worse in terms of horror sequels – this is one of the best, and absolutely one of the more underrated sequels in any of the big horror franchises. Norman Bates is an incredible character. Psycho II does an admirable job with his legacy. Plus, there’s a bit more hack and slash going on here – sure to appease any genre enthusiast.
Highly recommend you seek this out and enjoy it to the fullest!
The debut feature film of Panos Cosmatos, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, is modern psychedelia at its finest.