David Cronenberg’s early career saw him create several memorable body horror films that involved the destruction of the body via parasites (Shivers), or disease via surgery (Rabid) or mutation that results in telepathic powers (Scanners). Videodrome (1983) marked the apex of this period with the filmmaker masterfully fusing notions of the body horror genre with his fascination with the blurring of the boundaries between man and technology in very provocative ways. The end result was a rare horror film that incorporated elements of science fiction in ways that were as smart and thought-provoking as they were gory and scary.
Max Renn (James Woods) is the unscrupulous president of a small, cable television station that appeals to the lowest common denominator. He’s fully committed to his job, willing to visit a sleazy dive hotel to meet with Japanese businessmen peddling softcore pornography in order to find programming that will “break through,” and is “something tough.” This leads him to Videodrome, a violent, pirate broadcast of an anonymous woman being tortured. Intrigued, he has his resident technician, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), use their satellite technology to find and record more of these illicit broadcasts.
While defending the unsavory aspects of his T.V. station on a local talk show, Max meets and shamelessly hits on Nicki (Deborah Harry), a beautiful woman who hosts a self-help radio program. She publicly criticizes his station but when they go out on a date, reveals a kinky side to her personality. While having sex, she has Max perform several sadomasochistic acts on her while watching the Videodrome tape. Nicki ends up being Max’s entry into the world of Videodrome as the boundaries between his reality and what he sees on television begin to blur. Is it live or is it Videodrome?
Max’s search for the origins of Videodrome lead him to seek out Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), head of the Cathode Ray Mission, a refuge for homeless people, giving them a safe haven to watch T.V. He believes that T.V. plays an important role in everyone’s lives. O’Blivion never actually meets with anyone, preferring instead to communicate via messages on videotape. He sees Videodrome as the next step in human evolution, the merging of flesh and technology as a revolutionary act (“Long live the new flesh!”) – something that Max eventually experiences first hand. As the film progresses, he peels back the layers to discover more insidious intentions behind Videodrome that have political implications in ways that he could never have imagined.
James Woods has never been afraid to play unlikable characters and the amoral Max is certainly one of them and yet the actor’s natural charisma makes his disreputable broadcaster somewhat sympathetic – especially once his life gets progressively weirder. Max is one of Cronenberg’s trademark protagonists whose inherent curiosity leads them to seek out and uncover secret, underground groups while undergoing a personal transformation in the process. A musician by trade, Deborah Harry is excellent as the mysterious and very uninhibited Nicki whose sadomasochistic tendencies fascinate and horrify Max. She is his guide through the looking glass as it were.
What is most striking about Videodrome is how ahead of its time it was in anticipating people’s fascination and access to the illegal and the forbidden. Max’s obsession with the obtaining and broadcasting of twisted, sexual fantasies has now become even more prevalent with the widespread proliferation of the Internet. Cronenberg’s film also anticipates the notoriety of snuff films like the Faces of Death tapes of the 1980s. Like the Videodrome transmissions, they supposedly showed real deaths and acts of torture (it was later revealed to be staged footage). The program featured in Cronenberg’s film has no story or plot, anticipating the torture porn subgenre by many years.
There is some truly disturbing, uniquely Cronenbergian imagery on display in this film as Max begins hallucinating because of his exposure to Videodrome. At first, he mistakes his personal assistant for Nicki and then sees a videotape pulsate like a living organism. Cronenberg deftly blends reality with Max’s surrealistic hallucinations, culminating in the iconic set piece of a living, breathing T.V. set that threatens to absorb Max. It transforms into a throbbing, sexual object – an extension of Nicki – that seduces him. It is media philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, “The medium is the message,” represented visually.
Videodrome also continues Cronenberg’s pre-occupation with secret organizations that operate beyond the boundaries of what is socially acceptable and permitted. They work towards a greater goal that involves the next step in human evolution. In the case of this film, it is the merging of man and technology as one character, Professor O’Blivion, exists entirely on videotape. In fact, he comes across as quite the McLuhan-esque figure with such proclamations as, “The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye.”
Videodrome arguably best represents Cronenberg’s obsession with the merging of man and technology, flesh and electricity. In this respect, it was very influential as evident with the same kind of ominous presence and surrealistic effects of electricity as in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). The dangerous manipulation of a video image would also be explored in Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997). Videodrome’s influence can also be seen in the music video world with the notorious Broken music video collection (that played with staged snuff film imagery) by Nine Inch Nails as well as Japanese horror films, like the Ringu series, that were released in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Cronenberg’s film was also a game changer in how it commented on the invasive nature of technology in our lives – something that Cronenberg would revisit with Existenz (1999) years later – and has only become more prevalent since, making Videodrome even more relevant today.