Videodrome: How Cronenberg Subverts the Noir Thriller Genre

David Cronenberg's Videodrome isn't just a classic sci-fi horror, but also a brilliant noir thriller. Ryan explains why...

Everything in Max Renn’s life is beginning to pulsate. First the Betamax videotape sent to him by one Bianca O’Blivion, which seems to breathe in his hand as he removes it from its beige packaging. Then Max’s television, squatting in the corner of his apartment, appears take on a life of its own: veins twitching, the screen bulging to the sound of a woman’s voice: “Come to me, Max. Come to me…”

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, released in 1982, is loaded with violent and startling imagery like this. Like Apocalypse Now, its very narrative seems to disintegrate as its morally suspect protagonist Max Renn (James Woods) embarks on a journey into his own heart of darkness: a fascination with the origins of a video signal soon leads him to a world of corruption, brain growths, hallucination and murder.

The strength of Videodrome’s images. and the possible interpretations they throw up – a meditation on the meaning of the then-new era of the VHS, a satire about film censorship, an exploration of the murkier side of humanity’s desires – is such that it’s easy to overlook the simple core that underpins Videodrome’s narrative. In other words, the fleshy televisions and gun-swallowing stomach orifices are so seductive that they frequently become the subject of debate rather than the story itself.

Strip all those things away, and what are we left with? A noir detective tale, albeit one where Cronenberg buries and subverts the elements of that genre so successfully as to make them almost imperceptible. So to understand how Cronenberg – whether consciously or not – made Videodrome into his own version of the noir detective thriller, let’s first look at what more typical examples of the genre look like.

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From Double Indemnity to Videodrome

Emerging in the 1940s, film noir was the perfect storm of American storytelling and European filmmaking. It was often inspired by the hardboiled literature of writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, or James M. Cain, but also influenced by the harsh lighting and disconcerting camera angles of German Expressionist cinema.

This infographic, published by the BFI, gives a top-down idea of the elements commonly found in a typical film noir of the ’40s and ’50s: the investigator, who usually drinks and smokes a lot, the criminal, the femme fatale. The action will take place in a city, more often than not Los Angeles. The plot will be strange and labyrinthine, the tone bleak and downbeat about humanity’s malaise, the dialogue terse yet often poetic and highly quotable.

Here’s a small snippet from the BFI’s infographic, which provides an at-a-glance snapshot of their criteria for a noir thriller: 

Now here’s our own (slightly less fancy) table of how Videodrome fits those genre staples – at least in our un-scientific estimation: 

When stripped down to its basic elements, it’s easier to see how Videodromes elements start to correspond to a classic film noir like The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. The story’s investigator is Max Renn, the seedy boss of a late-night cable station (“Civic TV – the one you take to bed with you”)  that often procures its entertainment through questionable means.

While casting around for something new to show to his audience of late-night TV watchers, Renn learns about something called Videodrome thanks to Harlan, the geeky tech wizard who secretly works from his lab of gizmos in Civic TV’s basement.

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Videodrome, Max learns, is an underground show which deals exclusively in torture, rape and murder. A single, locked-off camera shows its victims – usually female – chained up and horribly mistreated by a group of masked figures. That it all takes place in a red room, almost featureless other than a wall of wet clay as its background, seems to make the footage all the more disturbing.

Max is repulsed, but also fascinated. Where does the signal come from? Harlan at first thinks it’s being broadcast from Malaysia using some kind of encrypted signal, then changes his mind and says it comes from Pittsburgh. If this is the case, who made it? Why did they make it? And, most darkly: can Max do business with them?

Thus Max becomes the story’s detective, hunting down Videodrome’s origins and becoming increasingly disturbed by what he finds. Along the way, he meets Nikki Brand (Debbie Harry), a radio agony aunt with a not-so-secret penchant for kinky sex. Openly fascinated and turned on by the idea of Videodrome, she’s fixed on appearing on it herself, seemingly thinking that it’s a kind of sadomasochistic game show. Max learns, however, that the events depicted in Videodrome aren’t mere play-acting – they’re real. As one of Max’s adult industry contacts, Masha (Lynn Gorman) tells him, “It has a philosophy. And that’s what makes it dangerous.”

Femme Fatales and disappearing bodies

As if her red dress wasn’t enough of a giveaway, Nikki later emerges as the film’s twisted femme fatale: appearing on the television to lure Max ever further into the Videodrome web until there’s no longer any means of escape.

Like Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Videodrome also features an elderly, reclusive millionaire. In The Big Sleep, it was General Sternwood, who hires the protagonist Philip Marlowe to investigate a blackmail case. In Videodrome, it’s Professor Brian O’Blivion, a Marshall McLuhan-like media philosopher who only appear in public on a television screen. We later learn that the professor had himself watched Videodrome, sparking a malignant brain tumour which ultimately killed him. As a result, O’Blivion only exists in a library of videotapes curated by his daughter Bianca.

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Max therefore realises that the hallucinations he’s been experiencing are caused  by watching the Videodrome broadcast – something in the signal is capable of inducing a tumour in the brains of its victims, which means that Max probably doesn’t have long before he too succumbs to its worst effects, just as Professor O’Blivion did. This part of the plot echoes another classic film noir: 1950’s D.O.A., directed by Rudolph Maté and remade in 1988 by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. In it, the protagonist is poisoned and has about 24 hours to discover who the culprit was. Max goes on a similar hunt, and like the protagonist in D.O.A., uncovers a ants’ nest of conspiracy and death.

Even incidental details in Videodrome correspond to the widely-accepted staples of film noir. Max appears to be an enthusiastic drinker and smoker, just like the protagonists found in most noir movies. He already resides in an unseemly world of pornography and illicit backroom deals, with Cronenberg’s version of Toronto sharing many parallels with the Los Angeles depicted by Chandler in The Big Sleep. A noirish moral malaise infects every frame in Videodrome, from the dingy light seeping into Max’s apartment to the lurid crimson chamber where Videodrome’s atrocities take place.

There’s also a disappearing body – another noir staple, as seen in such films as The Big Sleep and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques.

“Harlan, where is it coming from…?”

Of course, Cronenberg also departs from the conventions of film noir and the detective story quite freely throughout Videodrome; but then again, film noir’s a broad and flexible genre. With his visceral hallucinations and jabs of violence, Cronenberg could be tapping into the collective unconscious of German Expressionism, which also dabbled in horror and the dreamlike – just look at the likes of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari or 1931’s Dracula, shot by the cinematographer Karl Freund.

Videodromes plot was partly inspired by personal experience. The idea of picking up a disturbing image via satellite was taken from his childhood, when Cronenberg would sometimes tune into strange broadcasts from far-off places on his television. It’s possible, too, that the detective story elements found in Videodrome were partly inspired by the writer-director’s father, Milton Cronenberg.

Cronenberg senior was a writer and editor, and often contributed to Canadian pulp magazines with such titles as Greatest Detective Cases and Famous Crime Cases. According to the writer Tim Lucas, who provides an excellent commentary track on Arrow Films’ release of Videodrome, Milton Cronenberg even edited a magazine called Big Detective Cases in the 1940s. It doesn’t seem too farfetched to think that his father’s work may have subtly informed Videodrome, whether Cronenberg meant it to or not.

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Videodrome may also have been inspired by Philip K Dick, whose own work used detective fiction as a jumping off point for surreal and reality-bending sci-fi; A Scanner Darkly, for example, mixes genres to hallucinatory and quite moving effect. The movie adaptations of Blade Runner and Minority Report played up the detective genre elements implied in Dick’s work.

Long live the new flesh

Of course, the noir elements in Videodrome are only a part of a disturbing, visceral whole. What’s fascinating about Cronenberg’s film, in fact, is just how effortlessly he fuses style and genres. Just as his earlier movies – Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners – melded sci-fi and horror, so Videodrome appropriates some of the staples of noir and detective fiction to create something wholly individual and new.

It’s this, I’d argue, that other writers and filmmakers can learn from Cronenberg’s work in general and Videodrome in particular: it’s possible to take a genre that is familiar to the point of parody and rework it to such a degree that it’s virtually unrecognisable at first glance. Videodrome is proof that it’s not the generic framework that matters in a great story, but the storyteller’s imagination – and the ways the storyteller chooses to subvert and depart from that framework.

Like Dr. Moreau, Cronenberg twists the form of the noir thriller into something altogether new and freakish: the more Max unravels the Videodrome mystery, the more his grip on reality also begins to unravel. As Professor O’Blivion warns Max – and us – “You’ll have to learn to live in a very strange new world…”

Videodrome is out on Blu-ray on the 17th August courtesy of Arrow Films.

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