‘Television is ruining our lives.’ ‘Stop watching the idiot box.’ ‘You spend too much time in front of the television.’
I’m certain that you, the readers, have either heard, been told, or even said one of these phrases in your lives. On average North Americans spend a lot of time sitting in front of the television, absorbing that warm, comforting glow from which it emanates. Soap operas, prime time dramas and comedies, the hourly news, televised sporting events, we are members of a society that, for the most part, has given in to the hypnotic pleasures of the television. Our lives are often scheduled around what time certain shows are aired, and we find some kind of solace in becoming attached to the people, real or not, that we watch live their own lives, all from the comfort of our living rooms. The social consequences of such behaviour are up for debate, but for writer director David Cronenberg, the symptom of becoming a slave to the television held unimaginable and horrific potential when he wrote his Videodrome screenplay. This being a Cronenberg film, and one of his earlier films more importantly, viewers shouldn’t expect any dry, by-the-numbers commentary on the public’s willingness to succumb to the tele’s enchanting glow.
The story follows a rather simple man, Max Renn (James Woods), who works as a television station programmer. His channel delivers pornography, both soft and hard, to the paying public. He is seeking to more programming however, preferably something with a bit of an edge to it. An associate of his, who practices the all important art of pirating broadcasts, stumbles across a transmission from Pittsburgh. The show, titled Videodrome, is supported by zero plot and only seems to feature ultra-realistic torture. People are brought into a room one by one by masked torturers who then proceed to whip their naked victims. In essence, it’s snuff television, arguably the cruellest form of pornography, but Renn is convinced that there is a market for this kind of programming.
It is as a guest on a talk show that he meets the undeniably sexy Nikki (Deborah Harry), a psychiatrist of sorts who pleads that the current society is plagued by over-stimulation. Also on the show is pop-culture analyst Brian O’Blivion, although he prefers not to make appearances in the flesh. Rather, his face is broadcasted from an undisclosed location. Handsome smooth-talker that he is, Renn manages to snag a date with Nikki, this despite the stark differences in their philosophies regarding the current state of television. One night while Renn and Nikki are getting ‘close’ at his apartment, Nikki shows a keen interest in Videodrome, of which Renn has a pirated copy. To his surprise, Nikki reveals that this bizarre, sadomasochistic form of pornography turns her on. Upon learning that the show is from Pittsburgh, Nikki decides to audition. Sensing that there may be something more to Videodrome, Renn seeks to investigative assistance of Masha, another pornographer with contacts in the industry, who soon returns with news that Videodrome is not to be taken lightly. It has a mission, a philosophy. And the snuff filsm? They’re real. What’s stranger still is that Renn has begun to experience strange visions, such his television coming to life and compelling him to make love to it. And what in blazes happened to Nikki? Shouldn’t she have returned by now?
What follows is a descent into a kind of madness if you will. Max’s curiosity and determination leads him down a path littered with dark spirits and intentions. His discoveries reveal a world changing plot, concocted by the creators and suppliers of Videodrome to control the minds of people in North America, for in truth Videodrome emits a powerful signal to the individual viewer, a signal with infects his or her mind with a strange tumour-like disease, thus enslaving them to Videodrome’s stimulation. Reality and the hallucinations produced by Videodrome fuse together. What shouldn’t be real becomes reality, and those things that ‘shouldn’t be real’ consist mostly of nightmarish physical deformations and visions. Max may be searching for the truth, but the truth, Videodrome and its nature, soon begins to take over his own mind, eventually disfiguring his body for its own Machiavellian intentions. Only Brian O’Blivion’s daughter (Brian is in fact already dead, killed by Videodrome’s powerful tumour in fact. He lives merely through video recordings) can help Max fight this evil corporation. But will there be enough of himself left in order to heed her help?
The film, for its psychedelic qualities, its visual effects, its bizarre off-beat plot, and its intriguing commentary, is one of Cronenberg’s best films. In fact, it’s my personal favourite Cronenberg film, period. The Brood, Shivers, and Scanners earned him some notice, but it is with Videodrome that the director really puts his own personal stamp on the horror genre. There have been many fantastic horror films throughout the decades. It is a genre which is often maligned by being frowned upon by certain movie goers and critics alike. Those that garner considerable success, both critically and financial, don’t come around that often, and those that include gore and intensely disturbing imagery are even further and fewer between. Yet, Cronenberg managed to capture the imagination and critical eye of many. To witness a horror film that marries together schlock, suspense and intelligence is a rarity.
Videodrome features bucket loads of uncomfortable and bizarre imagery. As Carrie Rickey comments in her essay Videodrome: Make Mine Cronenberg (available in the booklet included in the Criterion Collection edition of the DVD), the body and all the potential joys (both sensual and psychological) and ills associated with it are of great interest to the Canadian filmmaker . Several of his characters are often subject to great variations of either pleasure and pain, the latter of which can be experienced on a more basic physical level, such as having one’ head explode (Scanners), or on a more pathological level, such as with Max, the main character of the story. The signal emitted by the program accomplishes more than merely infecting Max’s mind. Its power also mutates his physical self, morphing his right hand into some sort of organically created and biologically attached pistol and at one point providing his stomach with what would appear to be a giant vagina into which Videodrome agents can insert their video cassettes. It is his ‘new flesh’ as he becomes a new member of a different kind of society, one in which Videodrome has total control. His body becomes his weapon, Videodrome’s weapon. There is something disturbing, both on a visceral and intellectual, about such deformations, particularly the latter. Cronenberg is toying, as he often does, with the dark of sexual pleasure. The most basic, elemental human pleasure (not that sex is a bad thing in the opinion of this movie fan, no worries), is being given a good shake. It’s discomforting to see such imagery. The body is no longer ‘normal’, our precious standards regarding sexuality in general, the sexuality of our bodies in particular, are challenged in the most brutal way. A man with a vagina in his stomach that receives transmission from an evil corporation hell bent on taking over the minds of North American? First and foremost, the vagina, the female genitalia associated with birth and sex (two good things) is being transplanted onto a man. Second, it is being used for destructive purposes. It’s odd, thought provoking, and depending on what type of movie goer you are, it may just be ‘provocative’.
However, even before the psycho-physical mutation of Max, sex itself is given a moody treatment when he and Nikki begin dating. In the scene in which Nikki reveals her excitement about Videodrome, both she and Max engage in a love making session of sorts involving both pain and pleasure, the former directly causing the latter. Max pierces Nikki’s ear with a pin, she emits a moan of pleasure while Max licks off the blood. It all comes back to this fascination Cronenberg has with the sexuality of the body and ties in perfectly with one of the many muddled themes from plot: stimulation. Stimulation can be rewarding, but sometimes satisfied in dark and disturbing ways. We give in to it often, but what of those who are stimulated by things that are out of the norm? What turns them on? What happens, in fact, when what used to stimulate us no longer quenches that thirst and we need a new fix, something harder, with more edge? The director taps into that zone of what we normally don’t want to see or talk about regarding our physical selves. Sexuality is not something you talk about out loud on the streets, unless you really don’t care about bystanders. It’s still a delicate subject, even now in our day and age. Sex is often depicted in very sanitized, ‘soft’ ways in mainstream media for the most part, and the director here debunks that style, opting for the flip side of the coin. He’ll show stimulation, but in the ‘bad’ sense, in the sense that doesn’t conform to what we want to see or discuss about when we think about stimulation and sexuality, which is exactly what’s happening to the characters within the story itself. Pretty nifty. In that sense, Videodrome can be seen as a certain challenge to the unsuspecting viewer. This may be the reason behind the scorn many of the director's earlier films received upon their initial release. His plots and themes weren’t seen as legitimate challenges to our perceptions of horror and the boundaries that can be pushed regarding the human experience within that genre. It was just shocking and in ‘bad taste.’ Time has been very kind to movies like Videdrome. It is in this film, arguably more so than in any of the director’s other works, that the human body and mind are given the most squeamish, horror bending treatment precisely because the issues of sexuality and stimulation are, for a variety of reasons, still treaded on rather lightly. They feel so very private to us, but Cronenberg chooses to go the other way, by stretching the possibilities within the horror genre.
There’s yet another topic that’s wrestled with in the film: the media, in this case satellite television more specifically, but you get the point. While watching the movie, I was amazed at how easily the film, for its plot points regarding a war engaged by a television show and network for the minds of ordinary people, is as relevant today as it probably was back in the early 80s. In fact, the battle for viewership by television stations is arguably even more intense today. The nature of television shows has even changed to reflect that intense battle. Networks no longer offer pieces of fictionalized drama, but ‘reality’ tv shows as well. Viewers are expected to identify with these on-screen personalities, and most often they do. Then there are the strange hybrid shows that look very much like a documentary but are in fact fiction. All these creations are there for our stimulation, even though the stimulation in question is at the most elementary level: flick on the tv, keep eyes open, intake information. Still, it must be said that up until now television has been doing a fine job of keeping us occupied. Max becomes a victim of Videodrome when his reality (our reality) is distorted by what corporation wants him to see. At first it seems like Max is only hallucinating, and perhaps that’s all it is at first when the tumour is still in its early stages of growth. Eventually, Videodrome conquers more and more of Max’s mind, eventually leading to a new moulding of his physical self. Whatever the show wants him to see is what he sees. Whatever it wants him to do he does. Before anyone reading gets some ideas, allow me to write that I am not advocating for the annihilation of all our tv sets. You enjoy watching tv shows? Good for you, keep on doing that. I only find it fascinating how Cronenberg uses that notion of the tv enslaving our minds in his film. Keep in mind that, as silly as it sounds, that was a real fear in certain circles (radical and paranoid as they may have been) a few decades prior to the release of this movie. In fact, the Criterion booklet for the movie features an essay which briefly explains how a University of Toronto professor of philosophy, Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase ‘The media is the message’ had an influence on Cronenberg when the man was a student there. The message is embedded in the form of media, thus influencing how the message is received. ‘The media is the message’…that’s pretty much how Videodrome is hoping to enslave the pitiful viewers who tune in. The old, almost comedic argument that people become zombie slaves to the tv takes on a drastically horrific turn when handled by Cronenberg. He’s not playing it for laughs either. It sounds like it could be a hilarious satire, it really does. Yet, the director plays his cards with a straight face and manages to pull it off.
If this review seems like it’s hopping all over the place, briefly discussing this theme and that, then I plead guilty. In trying to dissect Videodrome, one encounters a great many themes and notions to talk about. In limiting myself to only a few pages, it becomes challenging to encapsulate everything I took away from the film. Readers familiar with this film and the director’s filmmography in general will undoubtedly be wondering ‘how come I haven’t talked about so and so?!?’ There is an impressive amount of subtle, not-so subtle, subversive things occurring in this movie that it would require at least a few more pages to tackle them. Suffice to that Videodrome is the thinking person’s horror film. It’s not easy to grasp at first, and I would certainly encourage multiple viewings so you too can be enslaved by the mighty- uh, … I mean, multiple viewings so you too can discover the many themes touched upon. Not only is it an exercise in visual effects (which still look pretty good today, 26 years later), but it happens to be one of the more intelligent and intriguing horror films I’ve seen to date. As I mentioned earlier, I also think it is the one Cronenberg film that challenges the viewer the hardest, both intellectually and viscerally because of its treatment of the human body and our sexual stimulation. That is also why I chose to write about Videodrome first, to give the readers a taste of what the writer director is capable of at his most mind bending philosophical self. That isn’t to say the rest of his cannon holds nothing to wonder about or ponder on, quite the contrary in fact. It’s just that I thought I’d get the heaviest of his material out of the way first. Sex, the media and its affect on people, deformation of the body, violence, chest vaginas …it isn’t the easiest film to access, but by golly is it ever worth when you’re into this kind of filmmaking. On a certain level, it could be argued that Cronenberg thrown everything but the kitchen sink, although I’m sure genetically attach hand guns are a fine replacement. While that may be true, this would be one of the rare occasions when, thematically, a movie actually doesn’t feel too crowded with a director’s ideas. Kudos to you Mr. Cronenberg. The tv set is acting all crazy and I’m feeling fine.
Want to read more on Videodrome? Check out the review at Bill's Movie Emporium.