Ew, David!: Videodrome

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.

Creed III

When Ryan Coogler rebooted the Rocky series in 2015 with Creed, it brought a much-needed level of excitement to the stalled franchise and introduced a formidable new pugilist protagonist to allow future films to flourish. After a serviceable sequel in 2018, Creed returns 5 years later with Creed III, a moderate step up from the second chapter that still can’t quite recapture the magic of the first movie in the trilogy. Nevertheless, this boxing series has had all sorts of highs and lows over time and these three Creed films have an admirable amount of consistency when it comes to the fundamentals of what makes these kinds of movies work. With stronger dialogue and more detailed characterization, this entry could have hit even harder than it does but as is, it’s still plenty rousing and a properly engrossing addition to the boxing genre.

Our story begins in Los Angeles 2002, where teenaged Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) works as a corner man for his amateur boxer friend Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors). After we see glimpses of an incident in which Donnie and Dame become entangled, we jump forward to 2020, where Creed caps off his professional boxing career at 27-1. Stepping out of the ring will give him time to focus on training the next up-and-coming brawlers in his gym and, more importantly, give him more time to spend with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and their hearing-impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). But the reemergence of Dame following an 18-year stint in prison brings back former feelings and old scores to settle that can only be remedied by an inevitable bout in the ring.

Incorporating numerous reliable tropes from the Rocky franchise, Creed III follows the formula dutifully and even lifts specific plot points from some of the 1980s films in the series. Plot contrivances are hardly anything new in these movies and the events and motivations that get Creed and Anderson to the final showdown are fittingly questionable. For the storyline to work, Creed has to spend most of it painfully naïve of both Dame’s intentions as an old friend and his abilities as a boxer. It also requires us to believe that along the way, a bonafide heavyweight like Dame would actually duke it out with a dude who looks like he’s 150 soaking wet for a shot at the title. Florian Munteanu also returns from Creed II and even though he’s only sparring with Creed this time instead of going into full-on battle once again, his hulking figure is a reminder that these movies do not care about weight classes.

Stepping into the role of director for the first time, Michael B. Jordan makes occasional missteps with overly obvious visual cues but on the whole, he adds an impressive visual flair to scenes in and out of the ring. Jordan has talked about the immense influence that anime had on his approach to telling this story and in one specific instance during the climactic feud, the inspiration is apparent and the results are jaw-dropping. Elsewhere, he finds a clever way to showcase the way that Amara deals with a bully at school with an unexpected POV perspective. A masterful shot towards the middle of the film shows Donnie and Dame parting after a pre-fight pep talk, in which a wall separates the two and finds the former shorthanded in a more confined space compared to the eminent domain of the latter.

Having been in three of these films now, Jordan knows what makes them work best and summarily plays the hits. That means we’ll get family tragedy played up with full-force pathos, supposedly shocking upsets and, of course, training montages that show off the incredible physicality of the principal performers. I’m not sure how many more Creed movies Jordan will sign on for but given how long Stallone — who, somewhat curiously, doesn’t appear in this movie — held onto his role, I have to imagine he has one or two more in him. During one of the aforementioned montages, Creed’s trainer remarks that the titular heavyweight is “old and broken”, which would count as the funniest punchline I’ve heard in a movie so far this year if it had been intended as a joke. Jordan is obviously still in phenomenal shape and if Creed III is any indication, he’ll have plenty more opportunities in front of and behind the camera for many years to come.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Scream VI, starring Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega, is a slasher sequel which finds the survivors of the latest Ghostface killings now residing in New York City but still being plagued by a series of murders from a new Ghostface killer.
65, starring Adam Driver and Ariana Greenblatt, is a sci-fi action thriller which follows an astronaut as he crash lands on Earth 65 million years in the past and has to defend himself against dangerous prehistoric creatures.
Champions, starring Woody Harrelson and Kaitlin Olson, is a sports comedy about a temperamental minor-league basketball coach who finds himself in legal trouble and, in order to satisfy a community service requirement, must coach a team of players with intellectual disabilities.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup