Looking back at David Cronenberg's Videodrome

Feature Ryan Lambie 3 Dec 2012 - 07:25

Fiction and reality melt into one in David Cronenberg's 1983 film, Videodrome. Ryan takes a look back at a disturbing classic...

"With Videodrome I wanted to posit the possibility that a man exposed to violent imagery would begin to hallucinate. I wanted to see what it would be like, in fact, if what the censors were saying would happen, did happen. What would it feel like?"

With the box office success of Scanners in 1981, David Cronenberg had unexpectedly struck a balance between his usual brand of uncompromising filmmaking and audience-pleasing gore and action. But if that film's relatively straightforward sci-fi thriller plot and joyfully explosive violence led some to assume that Cronenberg was shuffling towards the mainstream, Videodrome would quickly dispel that illusion: surreal and disturbing, the 1983 film would prove to be his most audacious yet.

The basis of Videodrome had been formulating in Cronenberg's mind for several years. Partly inspired by childhood memories of picking up unexpected broadcasts on his television as a child, and partly inspired by the content of a Canadian cable TV channel in the 1970s, Cronenberg's hallucinatory tale began as a rough draft called Network Of Blood. Following Scanners' success, Cronenberg resisted offers to direct a sequel, and instead began work on what would later become Videodrome.

Cronenberg's growing stature as a filmmaker meant that he could gain access to actors and resources he could only have dreamt of back at the start of his career in the mid-70s. Videodrome was his most expensive film at that point - its $6 million budget was almost double that of Scanners' - and also his most technically and narratively complex.

“The battle for the mind of North America will be fought on the television screen.”

The first half of Videodrome unfolds like a detective story, in that the protagonist has a mystery to solve, and it isn't clear whom he can trust. Max Renn (James Woods) runs a small Canadian cable TV channel, which specialises in broadcasting "everything from softcore porn to hardcore violence" - some of it procured through seedy contacts, the rest snatched from the airwaves by the company's tech pirate, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky).

It's Harlan who first intercepts an initially scrambled signal apparently originating from Malaysia. Called Videdrome, the show offers up nothing more than a procession of violence and abuse; men and women are hauled in front of the camera, chained to a red clay wall and killed - and the reactions of the victims are disturbingly realistic.

Max is both repulsed and hypnotised, yet senses that Videodrome could be just the thing his viewers would want to see - something hard-edged enough to cut through the apathy of desensitisation. Max becomes determined to locate the makers behind the show, hoping to cut some sort of lucrative deal, only to discover that not only are the deaths in Videodrome genuine - "Snuff TV" as one character describes it - but the show also has a darker philosophy behind it.

Videodrome, Max learns, is the accidental invention of a media prophet named Brian O'Blivion, an enigmatic character who only appears on television screens. The bloodshed in Videodrome is merely a Trojan horse for another, hidden signal - one that causes a fatal tumour to grow in the brain of the viewer, which in turn causes bizarre hallucinations.

Videodrome has been seized by an entity called Spectacular Optical. Although posing as an ordinary company ("We make inexpensive glasses for the third world, and missiles guidance systems for NATO "), this is merely a front for its true objective. Chairman Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson) plans to take control of Max's television station, and use Videodrome to rid the world of people sick enough to want to watch it.

“North America’s getting soft, " one of Convex's cohorts tells Max. "The rest of the world’s getting tough. You and this cess pool, and the people who wallow around in it, you’re rotting us away from the inside. We’re going to stop that rot.”

With Max no longer able to tell the difference between fiction and reality, he becomes a pawn in a power play between Convex's company and Bianca, the daughter of Brian O'Blivion. As Max's world disintegrates, he's just able to avenge his tormentors before the film stalks to its gloomy, ambiguous climax. The line "Long live the new flesh" could serve as Max's new beginning or his epitaph.

“Whatever happens on the television screen emerges as reality"

Videodrome is loaded with possible meanings and interpretations. On one level, it's a satire, a slyly literal exploration of contemporary fears. At the time Videodrome was produced, there were all kinds of arguments and counter-arguments about the power of violent imagery, both in general culture, and in Cronenberg's controversial pictures.

The arrival of the videotape - which had become widespread in the early 80s - had brought the debate to the fore. The term 'video nasty' became a common one in UK newspapers at the time, and ultimately led to the 1984 Video Recordings Act, in which violent movies such as Driller Killer or Cannibal Holocaust were either cut or banned outright.

Videodrome rode the wave of this particular zeitgeist, and imagines what would happen if violent imagery had the immediate psychological impact some have suggested. We're introduced to a moral blank of a character, Max Renn (named after one of Cronenberg's favourite motorcycles), who not only becomes obsessed with televised violence, but is also controlled by videotapes - they're plugged into him by other characters, and effectively turn him into a mindless assassin.

In this sense, Videodrome works like a blackly wry comedy, in which the worst conservative nightmares come true. Amid the gore and mutations and chaos, it's easy to imagine Cronenberg grinning at the prospect of what his critics might make of this latest attack on their values.

"If violent imagery really did provoke violence," Cronenberg said in the 1986 documentary Long Live The New Flesh, "then everyone would be violent, because we're constantly bombarded by violent imagery at one time or another."

With Videodrome, Cronenberg merged his body-conscious preoccupations with narrative perfectly. Pushing at the boundaries of what was possible with prosthetic and practical effects, make-up designer Rick Baker created some extraordinary distortions for the movie. Television sets breathe and pulsate; Max's abdomen mutates into a suggestively-shaped slit, his hand later mutating into a fleshy gun.  A body splits open in a rush of disgusting tumours erupting from within - it sounds hideous written down, and it looks even worse on the screen.

Videodrome is about the irresistibly horrible image, and it's also filled with such images, which is what makes it such a tense, unforgettable film - perhaps even frighteningly so. It's not frightening in a typical horror sense, where we're anxiously waiting for the killer to leap from the closet. It's frightening in a way that is rare; by its mid-point, the conventions of storytelling and cinematic reality of slipped from beneath our feet, and we're genuinely unsure where the director will take us next.

When Brian O'Blivion, apparently reading out a pre-recorded monologue on a television screen, suddenly addresses Max by name, we can't help but hold our breath - the line between fiction and reality has been shattered, and somehow, we know there's no going back.

 Again, we sense that Cronenberg is there, just out of shot, grinning.

“What type of teeth do you think it has?”

With its talk of cathode ray tubes and media prophets immortalised on videotape, Videodrome could easily have shrivelled to the status of interesting relic - like 1981's Looker, say, which offers up a similar mix of sci-fi and media satire. But Videodrome reaches past  the boundaries of 80s technology. Much has been said about the film's predictions of virtual reality (Max even wears a 90-style VR headset at one point), the Internet and online personas ("Soon, all of us will have special names," O'Blivion predicts),  but Videodrome is culturally relevant beyond mere prophecy.

Barry Convex stands out as science fiction cinema's ultimate extremist; he's unable to tolerate the notion of people enjoying violent or cruel images, yet is paradoxically willing to resort to violence and cruelty in order to rid the planet of them.

As well as its handling of the screen violence debate - one that is still ongoing - Videodrome's theme of control is equally relevant. We live in an era where images and memes are freely shared, where the usual state controls over censorship have been eroded. The kinds of horrific footage Max Renn stumbled on in Videodrome are lurking in dark corners of the web, making Barry Convex's question, " Why would anybody watch a scum show like Videodrome? Why did you watch it, Max?” more pressing than ever. The film implicates us, and forces us to ask the same questions of ourselves. Why do we enjoy violent and disturbing movies? Should we be disturbed or ashamed? Is it part of our animal nature, or an early symptom of a modern sickness?

There are many other themes to unpack and ideas to explore in Videodrome, which is what makes it a film to be watched over and over. It’s Cronenberg’s richest film, perhaps, both visually and thematically. There’s so much going on in the sets, the character motivations, the subtexts.

Heading up the uniformly excellent cast, from Leslie Carlson's oily Barry Convex to Debbie Harry's masochistic Nikki Brand, there's James Woods, turning in one of the best performances of his career. Max Renn is a moral blank, a shameless opportunist, but when he becomes obsessed with Videodrome - and perhaps not sure whether that obsession is professional or personal - we become drawn in, too. It’s in Woods’ eyes: what Cronenberg called "Dangerous, paranoid intellectualism."

Unlike Scanners two years before, Videodrome was not a hit when Universal Pictures placed it in cinemas in 1983. Its violence, carnality and downbeat ending, it seems, were not as widely enticing as Scanners' exploding heads.  But time has been unusually kind to Videodrome, and while its box office numbers weren't as complimentary as many of Cronenberg's earlier pictures, it was quickly recognised as the remarkable piece of work it is - that master of media manipulation Andy Warhol described Videodrome as "A Clockwork Orange of the 80s".

Why would anyone watch a scum show like Videodrome? Because once its irresistible imagery begins to flicker across the screen, it's impossible to look away. 

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