David Cronenberg: Videodrome (1983)


For a film preoccupied with now-outdated media formats, namely broadcast television and video cassettes, David Cronenberg's Videodrome remains stunningly relevant in our current age of Wi-Fi and smartphones. James Woods plays Max Renn, a sleazy CEO for a small UHF television station trading in softcore pornography and other lurid fare, who becomes obsessed with discovering more about Videodrome, a mysterious late-night station broadcasting nudity and hardcore violence that seems uncomfortably real. Max's prurient interests and the station's sinister content could be read today as paralleling the desires and material festering in the dark corners of the Internet. Beyond its continued thematic relevance, however, Videodrome also offers 21st-century viewers a fascinating and creepy mystery/conspiracy plot, a strong performance from James Woods, and amazing—and deeply disturbing—makeup effects to realize the body horror that Max undergoes. This is genre fare operating at the top level in terms of both entertainment value and artistic significance.

A great example of Cronenberg's dual achievement with Videodrome is the performance James Woods delivers under his direction, which attains a level of credibility and nuance rarely seen in what could be described as a bizarro late-night sci-fi horror flick. Woods plays the protagonist, Max Renn, with an authentic sleaziness. Often in movies, sordid and immoral characters are simply one-dimensional or cartoonish. But Woods' Max isn't. He’s believable because Woods is able to express the character's own questioning of his increasingly twisted tastes, as well as his own fright at what he is desiring, doing, and experiencing. In doing so, Woods emphasizes the complexity and doubt that mark a person who has actually faced or considered the extremes of pleasure he or she could be drawn to.

For example, at one point, Max's girlfriend, Nicki Brand (played by Debbie Harry, the lead singer of Blondie), who later goes to audition for Videodrome, wants him to burn her breast with a cigarette as part of their foreplay. Woods initially recoils, but then looks back at her fixedly, with growing desire. When he pushes the cigarette to her skin, you can see his mix pleasure and disgust. Woods' performance wonderfully realizes this emotional tension and makes visible the instinctual borderland that Cronenberg's films so often probe.

In Videodrome, Cronenberg also explores some of the fundamental concepts surrounding media and technology. In particular, I was struck by how Cronenberg obviously draws on the image of Marshall McLuhan for the character of Professor O'Blivion (Jack Creley). Cronenberg was at the University of Toronto when McLuhan was ablaze there in the 1960s, although he never enrolled in any of McLuhan's courses. In the early 1980s, when the film was made and is set, McLuhan was still one of the most famous Canadians in the world. The character of Prof. O'Blivion in Videodrome becomes a fascinating point of contact, in which one of the great Canadian artists comments on one of the great Canadian thinkers, for the movie's storyline is virtually a filmic incarnation of McLuhan's most famous mantra: the medium is the message.

The body horror that Max experiences can be read as a kind of media transition, incarnating (and visualizing for the audience) the transformation occurring within his mind, personality, and desires. At one point, Max's stomach opens up forming the slot of a throbbing video cassette player. However, the film never suggests that the hideous bodily transformations that Max experiences are simply hallucinations, meaning that the medium of the body is not merely the conveyance for an internal change or the signifier of an invisible state. More to the point, when the truth of Videodrome is revealed, it becomes clear that the most nefarious aspect of the broadcast station is not the content, although it is revealed to be snuff film, but the signal itself. The signal behind Videodrome contains a power to alter the mind and body of its viewers. The medium creates the alteration more than the sordid content. The medium, the broadcast signal, itself is the real purpose of Videodrome.

The film's only weakness, in my opinion, is the ending, which leaves too many threads unfinished. The fact that Cronenberg toyed with at least three alternatives to ending the film would suggest that its untidiness is as much a case of artistic confusion as purposeful ambiguity. The ending still works, but as the conclusion to the intelligently conceived and rigorously constructed story that's come before, it's not entirely satisfying.

Finally, it's worth exploring Videodrome within the context of other 1980s genre fare, especially science fiction concerned with dystopian worlds and social commentary. Cronenberg's themes and style here recall John Carpenter, whose star faded later on when Cronenberg was achieving his greatest mainstream success. Cronenberg's stiff framing and reliance on the emotionally-flat delivery of dialogue, the muted tone of his works in spite of their extreme subject matter, his preoccupation with explosive themes, and the practical effects proficiency all recall Carpenter's work from the 1980s, particularly They Live.

Both Videodrome and They Live are driven by plots about nefarious broadcast signals and both are pervaded by conspiracy plots and feelings of dread paranoia. There's also a dystopic element to both film's vision of the city in the 1980s. As well, both films—the former an established genre classic and the latter perhaps on its way to similar status—signal a different vision of the 1980s than the garish synth beats of retro songs on the radio or the neon costumes of 80s parties do today. Such works envision the 1980s as layered with social tensions and class angst (a vision which Cronenberg's Scanners also participates in) and as an urban world rocked by crime and nihilism (and so anticipate Frank Miller's Batman comic books). And such works testify to an indie arts scene in the decade more layered and brilliant than the conventional arc of 1970s counterculture to 1980s commercialism would have us think.

So, like works such as They Live, Videodrome offers a useful window onto the subversive art of the 1980s. At the same time, however, as I noted above, the film's potency (as with They Live), has only grown. A famous line from Videodrome is a perfect example of this: "Television is reality and reality is less than television." If we substitute the new digital media for the old television, the film's nightmarish claim of the illusory nature of our perceived reality is even more real than it was four decades ago.

9 out of 10

Videodrome (1983, Canada)

Written and directed by David Cronenberg; starring James Woods, Sonja Smits, Debbie Harry, Peter Dvorsky, Leslie Carlson, Lynne Gorman, Julie Khaner, and Jack Creley.