Sci-fi horror filmmaker David Cronenberg’s diabolical invader is a television show that seduces and controls its viewers. Featuring rock star Deborah Harry as a kinky hostess, James Woods as a cable programmer looking for the ultimate in viewing thrills. VIDEODROME is a pulsating science fiction nightmare about a world where video can control and alter human life.
eyelights: its commentary on the influence of television on society. Howard Shore’s atmospheric score.
eyesores: its inaccessible abstract quality.
“The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye.”
Where is the line drawn between reality and fantasy? How can one know if one’s senses provide an accurate representation of reality? And what is reality anyway? Is it merely a question of perception? And what if we could influence perception? Could we then affect reality? And, if so, in what way is television altering reality? How is it changing us psychologically, and physically?
These are some of the questions that come to mind while watching ‘Videodrome’, David Cronenberg’s first film following his 1981 commercial breakthrough, ‘Scanners’. The film, which stars James Woods, tells the story of Max, a program director for a low budget television station who, in his quest to find new edgy material to broadcast, stumbles upon a dangerous underground programme.
This programme, is called Videodrome.
Videodrome, which he’s had bootlegged by an employee of his, shows a naked woman being tortured. For all intents and purposes it looks like a snuff film, but Max is so jaded that he’s more interested in the production quality, the set design, than the content. Somehow, he is immediately convinced that it is the future of television, that it would cost little to make and would capture audiences.
Max is one of those people who likes to argue that violence is “Better on T.V. than on the streets”; he sees TV as a solution, not as a problem. He soon sends his agent out to find the maker of Videodrome, which is believed to originate from Pittsburgh (having lifted his copy off the airwaves, the source is unknown). Even when she returns and tells him that it’s not a show, that it’s real, he wants it.
From that moment onward, Max’s reality warps and he begins to hallucinate: video tapes come alive, turning into creepy, pulsating flesh, and people talk to him from his television set. He begins to believe that Videodrome is transforming him into the “New Flesh”. He even begins to believe that there is a conspiracy to warp reality by broadcasting Videodrome on a larger scale, to the masses.
This will not end well. Not well at all.
It’s very hard to know what to make of ‘Videodrome’. On the one hand, it could be viewed as a condemnation of the media and of the influence that it holds over us. It could also be viewed as a satire of our media-obsessed society and the ethical boundaries we cross for the sake of profit. It could also simply be viewed as a horror movie, what with its grotesque psychotronic imagery.
Although I see ‘Videodrome’ as a multi-layered picture that covers all of these things, the fact remains that Cronenberg was inspired by childhood fears that he would see something not fit for mass consumption from the distorted signals he’d get from Buffalo, NY, late at night. He also drew inspiration from in reality (ex: the picture’s Civic TV, which he loosely based on Toronto’s CityTV).
He does broach the notion that television is more real than reality itself, through an exchange that Max has on a talk show with Professor O’Blivion and Nicki Brand, a radio show psychologist. The Professor is quite insistent in his belief that television is the only way to see the world – to the degree that he now only communicates through videotape. It’s hardly a conclusive debate, but it’s intriguing.
Further to that, O’Blivion is a recluse whose daughter runs a Cathode Ray Mission, a place where people who don’t have access to TV are provided with a place to watch it so that they can partake in “reality”. It’s a weird concept, but Max accepts it easily, as he does everything else that he is confronted with. This and his violent hallucinations make it difficult for us to know what’s real and what’s not.
And that’s part of the appeal of ‘Videodrome’: It can be taken at face value, that what he’s experiencing is reality, that he’s mutating into a grotesquery and that the conspiracy behind Videodrome is fact. Or one can look at it as the product of a diseased mind, that none of it is real, that Max is in fact schizophrenic, and that we are forced to see this absurd new world through his eyes.
It’s up to the viewer to pick his/her version of ‘Videodrome’, of reality.
James Woods is terrific as Max. He’s perfectly sleezy and his lack of moral guidelines is totally apparent. When he gets obsessed with Videodrome, we don’t understand the appeal, but we have insight into the intense pull he has to it. We also understand all of the decisions he makes as he devolves further – whether it be because of Videodrome’s influence or because he’s lost his marbles.
Similarly, Debbie Harry (of Blondie fame) is excellent as Nicki Brand, an ice queen with a penchant for masochism. Harry had only been in a few roles before ‘Videodrome’ but she was coached by Cronenberg to perform differently than on stage. She only has limited screen time here, but she makes Brand feel real, and is appropriately detached. Plus which she is absolutely beautiful to look at.
‘Videodrome’ is notable for some really eye-catching visual effects, including Max blending his head in with his television, the afore-mentioned living VHS tapes, Max feeding tapes in an open aperture in his chest, and his hand transforming into a monstrous flesh gun. It’s all quite disturbing, especially since it was done so efficiently – which is surprising given the film’s low budget.
It is also backed by a terrific score by Howard Shore, a friend of Cronenberg’s who got his start in his pictures. He had only done two movies beforehand, but he displays a tremendous amount of skill here, creating an eerie, atmospheric soundtrack that gradually shifted from more traditional, classical fare at the onset into more appropriately artificial sounds by the film’s end.
‘Videodrome’ is a strange picture, but it’s an unforgettable and intensely satisfying film. No matter how you look at it, it offers enough to warrant multiple viewings. I find it disturbing on many levels, but this echoes my views of media and our addiction to it. ‘Videodrome’ for me expresses humanity’s pathological inability to face reality, to always want to escape it at all costs.
Including our own personal welfare.
Date of viewing: April 30, 2015