David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, released the same year as the directors’ far more conventional The Dead Zone, is about a malignant TV show designed to get inside the minds and bodies of its viewers. Kind of sounds like Netflix’s entire business model, amiright? Except this isn’t at all like the 1983 equivalent of binge-watching Stranger Things so long you start to think Eleven is a real person. No, in Videodrome the show leads you to have Geiger-like visions of gaping chest wounds, pulsating tapes, and gnarly hands merged with guns.
So, you know, classic Cronenberg body horror stuff with a tech edge, which is not usually my jam. That’s not to say I think Cronenberg is a bad or overrated director. I’m certainly not going to argue with The Guardian (which ranked him the ninth best director of all time) or Total Film (which put him a little lower, #17, on their list). It’s more of a personal preference thing. Some people, for example, reject Spielberg for being too sentimental and preoccupied with broken families and abandoned children, yet I usually eat that up with a spoon, at least when it’s coming from him. Similarly, some people admire and adore Cronenberg to such a degree that they’ve written entire books about his career, yet when it comes to horror giants of that era I prefer Wes Craven and John Carpenter.
But Cronenberg hasn’t been a straight horror director, if he ever was, for decades now. In this new century, he’s made dark, psycho-dramas (Spider, A Dangerous Method), bloody crime thrillers (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises), and acidic social satires (Cosmopolis, A Map to the Stars). In fact, Videodrome was one of his final forays into the body horror genre he invented. Beginning with Shivers in 1975, he spent a decade working in the horror and sci-fi genres, churning out films which took people’s darkest fears and expressed them biologically through symbolic gore, parasites and disease. But after Videodrome in ‘83 and The Fly ‘86 he sought out new, less explicit ways to explore these themes in different genres.
To view Videodrome now is to glimpse a director near the peak of one stage of his career and on the cusp of something new. Moreover, it also means looking back at a time when cable TV and home video were each in their ascendancy, which might present some barriers for younger viewers. For example, shots of James Woods eyeing an oddly pulsating Betamax tape with both horror and slight arousal must look silly and beyond confusing for anyone who’s never even seen a real Betamax or VHS before. However, some still regard Videodrome as being among Cronenberg’s best and having seen it now for the first time it certainly converted me into a fan even though I don’t usually go in for this guy’s work.
In the film, Woods, at his slimy best, plays Max Renn, a UHF station director who has made a career out of airing extreme, often softcore pornographic content. Now he craves harder content and bigger ratings. (Think of him as an amoral YouTuber looking for the next, insanely mean prank to up his subscribers). The meeting he takes early one day at work to glimpse some tasteful, erotic footage of topless Japanese women doesn’t do anything for him. It’s just more of the same, nothing that’ll move the needle. But then his technician turns him onto a pirated signal for some program called Videodrome, which mostly entails what appears to be simulated S&M torture filmed on a random soundstage in front of a flesh-colored background.
It’s exactly what he’s looking for, but what is it? Where did it come from? Who does he have to go to get the rights? That’s for his agent to find out for him, but before she can he starts having real, WTF visions and gets sucked into a conspiracy of manipulated assassinations, corrupt moguls posing as eyeglass salesmen, and media personalities who don’t let a little thing like death stop them from making their latest talk show appearance.
That might make it sound a bit like They Live, John Carpenter’s late 80s parable about a conformity-enforcing mass media run by corrupt humans and disguised aliens. However, the two films couldn’t be further apart in tone. Carpenter threw in a 6-minute fight scene. Cronenberg threw in this:
I can see the tagline now: Have you ever loved TV so much you wanted to fuck it?
Moreover, Carpenter made a movie about yuppies taking over the world through subliminal advertising; Cronenberg treated what was then a new piece of technology like a mind and body-altering parasite dangerously capable of re-wiring humanity. And, as per his wont, he threw an intermingling of sexuality and technology into the metaphorical punch bowl as well, such as in the above clip or in an early shot of Debbie Harry (playing Max’s kinda girlfriend Nicki) burning her right boob with a lit cigarette since she’s otherwise too desensitized to feel anything.
If made today, one imagines the basic story of Videodrome translating fairly well to a Black Mirror episode, albeit likely stripped of most of the S&M material. Because whether it’s cable and home video in the 80s, the internet and VR in the 90s, or social media in the 2000s, the central paranoia over who’s really behind new technology and what exactly it is doing to us as a human race remains the same. Few, however, have ever communicated this concern quite like Cronenberg, and much of Videodrome’s psychosexual imagery and raw intensity is fairly unforgettable.
The film has its flaws, as even one of its superfans, the BBC’s Mark Kermode, acknowledges in describing “all of its ragged edges, all of its fleshy bits, all of its elements that don’t quite up.” I would have liked for there to have been more of and more to Debbie Harry’s character. The ending, which they apparently only ever settled on after several different stabs at it, is abrupt. There’s also the James Woods of it all, which isn’t truly a fault of the film but more a choice foisted upon the viewer: are you someone who actually likes his acting? Not everyone does.
But, to quote Josh Larsen, “If Netflix soon offers streaming eye lenses, Videodrome will have warned us.”
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- In a nice, subtle twist, Howard Shore’s musical score begins the film in a more traditional, orchestral space but grows more tech-oriented as Videodrome gets its hooks in Max.
- Videodrome came from Cronenberg’s childhood. After the Canadian TV networks where he lived went off the air for the day they would sometimes pick up TV signals from Buffalo, New York, and he worried he might see something he wasn’t supposed to. Or so Wikipedia says. If true, he was probably right to worry. Check out this Rialto Report podcast about Al Goldstein’s 1974 TV series Midnight Blue for a shocking indicator of what New York public access television used to get away with.
Here’s 27-minute documentary about the creation of Videodrome’s effects
Prior Cinematic Blindspot Articles:
Stanley Kubrick’s Steven Spielberg’s A.I.