Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
In the age of endless streaming services with innumerable films and series a tap away, it’s difficult to imagine a home viewing experience that was limited to TV and tape. When writer/director David Cronenberg made Videodrome 40 years ago, long before the internet and smartphones existed, he was able to extrapolate the temptations of televised images and make what is still the most prophetic and prescient movie of his career. It’s also the film that could be described as “definitive Cronenberg”, given that it incorporates so many of the themes that he has explored throughout his filmography: graphic violence and its effect on the psyche, the allure of sadomasochism and the Kafkaesque notion of flesh melding with the horrifying unknown.
Our conduit into Videodrome is Max Renn, a seedy TV producer played by James Woods in one of his very best performances. The tagline for Renn’s Canadian-based TV station CIVIC-TV is “the one you take to bed with you” and it specializes in sensationalized and sleazy programming designed to shock and titillate. Always on the lookout for something edgier, Renn’s eyes widen when CIVIC-TV’s satellite operator Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) picks up a pirate signal that depicts torture and murder. Where the average person may be repulsed by such images, Renn sees it as the next new thing in subversive content and begins broadcasting this show dubbed “Videodrome” on his network. The decision to air the feed draws him deeper into the rabbit hole and becomes an all-consuming force in Renn’s life.
His new girlfriend Nicki Brand (Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry) becomes so enamored with a taped episode of Videodrome that she travels to Pittsburgh, the origin of the broadcast’s signal, with the intent of auditioning to be on the show. In her absence, Renn seeks out media studies personality Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) to try to dig up more about who makes Videodrome and how they make its ultraviolence look so convincing. He also meets O’Blivion’s daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits), who runs a sort of halfway home called Cathode Ray Mission, where vagrants are encouraged to watch non-stop TV as a means of rehabilitation. The lines between television and reality start to blur for Renn and we’re treated to his nightmarish hallucinations in the process.
Though Videodrome was generally well-received by critics during its initial release, the paltry box office — about $2 million against a $6 million budget — was indicative of the film’s divisive reaction from audiences. Infamously, a reaction card from a test screening of the movie found one participant scrawl the word “SUCKED” in large letters under the section pertaining to what they disliked about the film. Time has certainly been much kinder to the movie and not only has it achieved a sizable cult following but also a penetrative sphere of influence as well. Recent films that interpolate body horror and technology like Titane and Annihilation owe a debt not only to Cronenberg’s work overall but specifically to his 1983 classic.
It’s downright shocking how much Cronenberg got right in Videodrome with his vision of how television could “evolve” and permeate every facet of our lives. “The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye,” Brian O’Blivion opines during a talk show appearance. “Of course O’Blivion is not the name I was born with; that’s my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names.” To reiterate the obvious, this film preceded usernames, online personas and social media but somehow, Cronenberg knew that’s where we were headed. For better or worse, he understands human nature and how quickly we would put the “vice” in “personal devices”. After all, cybersex is about as old as the internet itself and if you haven’t heard, pornography can even be accessed on one’s phone now! But you didn’t hear that from me.
The characters in Videodrome talk often about not being able to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake on television and, eventually, in real life. Renn’s instinctual cynicism tells him that what he’s seeing on Videodrome is a production and that it couldn’t actually be just genuine beatings and killings on repeat. With years of reality television under our collective belts, we now have similar levels of distrust about what we see on our menagerie of black mirrors. With deepfake technology getting more sophisticated by the day, it won’t take long before the unreal may not be discernible from the real when it comes to the media we all consume constantly.
Aside from being forward-thinking as all get-out, Videodrome is seductive and hypnotic as its own twisted blend of dystopian science fiction and gross-out horror. The grotesque practical effects come courtesy of inaugural Best Makeup Academy Award winner Rick Baker, who helps personify the blurred line between flesh and machine in unnerving fashion. There’s a third act kill that’s not quite as brutal as the iconic “mind-blowing” scene from Scanners but it’s not too far off. To aid in the uneasy mood that envelops the film, Cronenberg consulted fellow Canadian and personal friend Howard Shore to craft a synthesizer-heavy music score that rocks the sonic landscape throughout. Within the first two sub-octave notes over the title card, we know we’re in for an otherworldly experience.
Each player in the cast lends something special to Videodrome but James Woods is perfect for this lead role as someone that the audience can simultaneously be repulsed by and be drawn in by. Skulking around the seedy streets of Toronto with a trench coat and frequently alit cigarette, he’s like a private eye seeking out softcore porn – Sam Smut, if you like – for his insatiable viewers. As he examines new footage with potential clients, he considers its merit by asking, “can we get away with it? Do we wanna get away with it?” But as we get drawn into the mystery with Renn and his sanity deteriorates, he’s our audience surrogate whether we like it or not. Woods has always had a dangerous and.unpredictable quality as an actor and Cronenberg utilizes it perfectly. As long as humans are around, there will be new screens close by and the relevancy of the messages embedded in Videodrome will remain evergreen.