The number of movies influenced or lending a nod to Videodrome could easily stretch into the dozens: the recent hit The Ring comes to mind, with its television-as-curse mentality, or Fight Club, with its hallucinations of grandeur. But remarkably few people have seen the movie, and on watching it again I'm surprised both by how well it holds up and how prescient it is.
Fresh from the commercial success of Scanners, David Cronenberg's follow-up film was nowhere nearly as successful theatrically, but quickly garnered a solid cult on video and laserdisc, and was one of the first movies from Universal Pictures' catalog to be reissued on DVD. Most audiences found it way too bleak and weird, even those who survived Cronenberg's earlier vision of telepathic mutiny. This time around, they had cancer bullets exploding bodies from within and Debbie Harry seducing James Woods through a breathing, pneumatic TV. No wonder they were at a loss what to make of it.
Videodrome stars Woods as Max Renn, a fly-by-night Toronto cable TV owner, whose "Civic TV" airs both soft-core porn and hard-core violence to an audience of night owls. One of the first scenes has him negotiating a deal with a Japanese porno company for "Samurai Dreams," a show that's only a half-step removed from real Japanese porn. "I think Oriental sex is a natural," says one of his boardmembers, "I think it'll give us an audience we never had before." Max disagrees: "I'm looking for something that'll break through. Something tough."
He gets his wish when his engineer, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) pulls in a fragment of a satellite transmission. It's a show that seems to consist of nothing but people being tortured and killed, and Renn finds himself fascinated — especially when he learns it seems to be coming from Pittsburgh, of all places. His underground video contacts know enough about "Videodrome," as the show is called, to be afraid of it, but they give him a name: Professor Brian O'Blivion, owner of the Cathode Ray Mission, where the destitute are fed both TV and a hot meal in about equal measure. There, Max meets O'Blivion's daughter Bianca, who provides him with tapes of her father's lectures, and may know more than she lets on about Videodrome.
Equally fascinated with the show is local talk-show personality Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry). She and Max enter into a relationship of kinky sex and mutual fascination with Videodrome, but the more Max finds out about it, the less he likes it. "In places like Argentina, they execute people for making subversive video," he tells her. "Who knows what they do in Pittsburgh?" That's shortly before Max's world begins to break down around him, and the tapes of the good professor's lectures turn into horrific nightmares (one of them being a scene where a gun somehow gets sucked into his body through his chest — only to come back later under horrible circumstances).
As with any review of a movie with secrets, read no further if you want to find out for yourself, but Max learns Videodrome's true purpose in due time. The TV show is merely a cover for something else — a signal which produces a brain tumor in the viewer and distorts their reality with hallucinations that can be programmed. Max finds this out firsthand when Videodrome's creators come to him and "program" him to kill his co-workers. True to Cronenberg's vision, they do this by cramming a veined, throbbing videocassette into the hole in Max's gut. Max's TV also turns into a pulsating creature of its own, and the gun sucked into his chest winds up becoming a part of him again in a way that Ash of Evil Dead fame would admire.
The final quarter of the film deliberately plays fast and loose with reality, to the point where we're no longer sure what we're seeing is subjective hallucination or objective truth. There is a tipoff, however: when two key killings take place, one is shown objectively, but the other is hallucinatory: Max knows just enough of what's going on around him to be dangerous. The ending is immeasurably bleak, too, and suggests that whatever has happened has only been a tiny fragment of the larger picture, the "New Flesh" that Max has transformed himself into.
Videodrome features some remarkable makeup work, courtesy of Rick Baker — Max's chest slit is a masterpiece — but also features intriguing on-stage effects that are only distantly makeup effects, such as Max's life-of-its-own TV. In one of the best moments in the film, a gun emerges from a TV screen and "deprograms" Max with a bullet — after which we see that the TV screen has turned into a bleeding chest. This kind of effects work is all the more interesting because it's all accomplished on-set and in-camera, not as a matte or CGI effect, and it gives the film an even more hallucinatory feel.
Slimy and blood-spattered as the movie is, it's also admirably brainy (not in the visceral sense). Horror movies usually aren't the place for media theories, but Cronenberg is right at home blending the vile with the intellectual. His characters are smart and charismatic, and at the same time very much at the mercy of their respective tastes and fascinations — much as Foucault and Derrida were, two intellectuals that the movie seems strongly inspired by. The movie sees TV as a medium in the truest possible sense — a vector for the communication of a disease.
One interesting theory (courtesy of an Amazon.com reviewer) casts the film as a Lovecraftian parable: an ordinary, somewhat flawed human being takes on a fascination with things that are simply no good, and ends up insane, or dead, or both. Cronenberg's own take on the film is, as with many of his own movies, remarkably personal: "I always liked the idea of being able to turn on the TV and find something really dark out there that no one else knew about," he told Cinefantastique. "It's what Marshall McLuhan was talking about — TV as an extension of our senses." To me, Videodrome, like many of Cronenberg's films, works best not only as horror but as a grimly biting social commentary: how far people will go to get the things they think they need, and how others prey on such behavior.
A friend of mine once described the film by saying, "It's against porn, but it's also against the people who are against porn." Max and his TV station put out the stuff for whoever wants it — just like, or so he's led to believe, Videodrome's creators, who turn out to be anything but libertarian in their outlook. They plan on using Civic TV for the first public broadcasts of Videodrome — all the better to get rid of the soft and decadent people they claim to hate. "It has a philosophy," someone says about Videodrome, in one of the movie's best lines, "and that is what makes it dangerous." They could have been speaking of the movie itself.
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