A word of warning, since this is a classic review, spoilers are contained herein. Though this article will not dilute the effectiveness of Videodrome for first time viewers, those sensitive to plot details are advised to watch the movie before reading this review
“Why would anybody watch a scum show like Videodrome?” asks its curator, Barry Convex (played by the late Leslie Carlson), head of the Spectacular Optical Corporation, an eyeglasses company that behind the scenes, specializes in NATO weapons manufacturing and serves as the antagonistic presence in the David Cronenberg movie that birthed the term “Cronenbergian”. “Business reasons” replies Max Renn (James Woods), President of CIVIC-TV, a small Toronto based television station that broadcasts softcore pornography and hardcore violence in an effort to rise above its meagre budget.
“Sure, what about the other reasons?”
Videodrome wasn’t very popular in 1983 at release, neither among critics or audiences. It bombed at test screenings and the psychosexual, techno body horror repulsed more than it intrigued. Yet despite the quaint video technology on display, Videodrome remains eerily prescient in its depiction of our relationship with media and its affects on our lives and lives on as a cult classic now seen as one of Cronenberg’s most celebrated films.
Harlan, an employee of CIVIC-TV, operating an unlicensed satellite dish comes across a broadcast of a plotless staged snuff film called Videodrome that has virtually no budgeting costs while managing to depict realistic looking violence. Max suggests it is the future of television, an outlet for people to vicariously experience horrific acts of depraved violence. He wants it. Max believes or wants people to believe that his station is doing a socially positive act by allowing people to vent their frustrations through the television broadcast instead of committing crimes on the streets.
Before long, a film that has been relatively straightforward becomes a surreal nightmare of Eraserhead proportions. Max becomes obsessed with the snuff show even though one of his associates believes the acts to be real and its creators dangerous. The sequence in which Max makes love to his television set, beckoning him with images of his girlfriend, sadomasochistic radio host (Debbie Harry of Blondie fame), is positively hallucinogenic. Videodrome benefits from late night viewings; its living TVs, vaginal stomach openings and cancerous handguns work in tandem to make the viewer feel like they are suffering the affects of Videodrome along with Max. Some of the strangest scenes in the film beg the question of what is real and what is just “video hallucination”. Professor Brian O’blivion, a philosopher who refuses to appear on television “except on television” notes that the videodrome signal has physically altered his body, creating a brain tumour or what he believes to be a brand new organ in the body. This organ is the first step towards a physical and technological evolution that would change the way people use and are used by television. This idea and the excellent body horror on display (thanks to the exceptional special effects work of Rick Baker) make note of the genuine fear at the time that television would have adverse affects on the body. Even nowadays there remains a fear that mobile phones will increase the risk of brain tumours.
O’blivion states that the television screen is the retina of the minds eye in a televised debate that focuses on Max’s channel and whether it contributes to a social malaise. He suggests that whatever appears on television will emerge as raw experience for the audience, that “television is reality, and reality is less than television”. This statement is the crux of his work and belief in ‘the new flesh’, a new human evolution spurred by mass media. Max’s deteriorating state isn’t a question of what’s real and what isn’t, every experience Max has is real to him and by extension, us the viewer. We see Max’s new reality.
Videodrome, much like the snuff broadcast, is somewhat plotless. The film mostly stands as a vehicle for ideas. The show is created in a conspiracy to purge “lowlifes” who would otherwise enjoy its content. Max is stronger than most of the other victims and he manages to evade the whims of Videodrome’s parent company and instead attempts to destroy it through ‘the New Flesh’ philosophy.
Rick Baker and his special effects company had attempted to show what the New Flesh looked like in ending sequence that would put all other Cronenbergian horrors to shame; a sequence showing some of the film’s key players with the same chest slit as Renn (used to consume the Betamax tapes throughout his ordeal) with which mutated sex organs would emerge. As it stands, the somewhat brief film does feel a little unfinished, dragged into the realm of cult status through its ideas and their execution alone.
Through Cronenberg’s otherworldly direction, the film successfully portrays a shifting reality that feels both worlds away from our own yet more relatable than many of its ilk and the moody synthetic score grants the film a malevolent edge. James Woods as Max is both a charming yet slimy company president and its clear ‘business reasons’ aren’t the only reasons that pull him through the rabbit hole of Videodrome. He makes viewing deals in shady hotels and seems to relish the more deranged material he watches.
It’s feasible that determined viewers of Videodrome won’t ‘get’ the movie, even after many re-watches; I’m not sure I ‘get’ it. And yet its ideas permeate long after you’ve switched off your own TV (and likely have turned to your computer screens for answers to what it all means). The Internet is filled with what Professor O’blivion calls ‘television names’ (twitter handles, forum profiles etc) and we’ve all witnessed the popularity of the torture porn genre of films like Saw and Hostel. News too, is now unfiltered through the lens of the Internet allowing indivuals to witness acts of violence that make the Videodrome broadcast seem tame.
Videdrome’s ideas have supplanted the outdated technological vehicle it used to showcase them and it remains a great movie. Just be careful… it bites.