Videodrome (1983) written and directed by David Cronenberg
What’s it about?
James Woods plays Max Ren, the director of Civic TV Channel 83 which is a cable channel that specialises in sex and violence. He’s getting tired of the tame soft-core porn people are trying to sell him for his schedule, the latest being a Feudal Japanese-themed show called Samurai Dreams. All of a sudden, his buddy Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) who runs a pirate TV channel has picked up something promising: a show featuring non-stop sadomasochistic torture and murder that’s being transmitted from Pittsburgh. The name of this show? Videodrome.
Max decides to show a recording of it to radio agony aunt Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), a new girlfriend whom he picked up from their appearance together on a talk show. She admits to being turned on by the violence and embarks on a bit of S & M with him. The next day, she tells him she is going to Pittsburgh for 2 weeks to audition for a part in this sordid show.
Max, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly obsessed with this mysterious production. He meets with Masha (Lynne Gorman) - one of the contacts he buys material off - to see if she knows more about it. She explains that it this show is an extremely dangerous affair, mixing genuine violence with a dash of shady politics behind the scenes. She says the best person to speak to is the mysterious Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), a man who runs a church called the Cathode Ray Mission and only communicates through video recordings provided by his daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits).
As Max gets closer to the truth he starts to experience increasingly bizarre hallucinations and seems to be undergoing some profound bodily changes.
Watch a trailer:
Why is it significant?
Videodrome was one of several early, gory sci-fi horror films that David Cronenberg made during the so-called “tax shelter era” of Canadian cinema. In order to foster the country’s film industry and attempt to turn it into a rival to Hollywood, the national government set up a loophole whereby investors got a 100% tax deduction for making films in the country. While this resulted in quite a few bad films being made, it also enabled genre filmmakers such as Cronenberg to make some bold pieces of work that would otherwise have been an extremely difficult sell.
Indeed, while Videodrome did succeed in securing a budget of almost $6 million from the money men (making it the most expensive of the director’s films up to that point), it failed to score at the box office during its original theatrical release. The film’s central concepts were too discomfiting and flat-out bizarre to have any hope of attracting a mainstream audience. The video game pastiche trailer (see above) only served to further baffle prospective audiences - who might have been led to believe that it was some kind of low-budget Tron ripoff.
Nowadays, however, it is frequently cited as Cronenberg’s best film.
How does it hold up?
Cronenberg’s early cycle of horror films (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, this one and The Fly) is marked by surrealistically gruesome bodily effects. However, these are not effects for their own sake; they are manifestations of human yearnings and pains. Videodrome is perhaps the most thematically rich and visually audacious of the lot; it is about the relationship between human yearnings and TV and video’s ability to provide succour for them. By extension, the person becomes moulded by the cathode ray tube’s ability to tap into their primal desires, and hence what is transmitted becomes their reality. This, in turn, makes them a target for manipulation by whatever sinister forces are behind the media.
The way in which Cronenberg depicts this theme is by subtly pulling the rug from under the viewer and unveiling some visually striking imagery. When Max and Nicki make love in his flat after watching Videodrome (the show) and indulging in a bit of ear-piercing sadomasochism, the camera pulls back and displays them writhing in the show’s dungeon. Suddenly reality has started to become replaced by that given by Videodrome hallucinations. These get more and more extreme as the film progresses: Max whipping a huge television that Nicki’s image is being transmitted from and it responding by writhing ecstatically; a vaginal slot that opens in Max’s chest ready to receive a throbbing videotape; a gun that gruesomely fuses itself with Max’s hand. He is being moulded and purposed by Videodrome, and whoever controls it.
One key area where Videodrome differs from its predecessors visually is the rather warm colour scheme. While previous films exuded a meat-locker coldness, here we get red and orange hues aplenty, from the scarlet dress Nicki wears at the talk show (“Freud would have something to say about that” Max proclaims) to the lighting of the Videodrome dungeon. They are colours closer to blood, sexual organs and the womb; they are colours associated with an inviting place but also the colours of sex and violence.
In many ways, Videodrome is a meta-commentary on the way in which cable TV and video infiltrated people’s lives (certainly in the UK, Canada and the US) during the early 1980s. Home viewing options multiplied, amongst them being options for less salubrious material. However, despite the grim consequences resulting from the ultra-violent show of the title, Videodrome ultimately isn’t pro-censorship. Cronenberg spells this out in one speech a specific character makes later in the film. Indeed, the film’s gruesome psychosexual imagery was itself the victim of censorship in some of its released versions. What he is doing is accusing those of censoring of being guilty of the very same thing that they are accusing purveyors of “sex and violence” of doing - using sleaze (albeit by denigrating it) to manipulate their audience for their own personal gain.
Runtime: 87 mins
Dir: David Cronenberg
Script: David Cronenberg
Starring: James Woods, Sonja Smits, Debbie Harry, Peter Dvorsky, Leslie Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynne Gorman