an anarchic media accusation that uses body-horror as a metaphor for technocratic dominance
“Death to Videodrome … and long live the New Flesh!”
Dissecting David Cronenberg's avant-garde 1983 SF shocker Videodrome is not an easy task. On the surface of things, it is an anarchic media accusation that uses body-horror as a metaphor for technocratic dominance, but this is also a bit of sappy under-sell, because Cronenberg’s bizarre and hallucinatory vision is a helluva lot more than that.
We are in something of a near future setting, a sort of day after tomorrow milieu that is very familiar, yet traversing a new radical set of collapsed ethics. Max Renn (James Woods) runs a seedy cable television channel, Channel 83, purveying porn and exploitation as cheaply and as nastily as it can. As shrewd as he is, Max is disenchanted with the state of the products that he is being forced to offer, and longs for something new and dangerous to put on his customers' screens. This is when he stumbles across the guerilla broadcasts of what looks like some illicit snuff channel. Called Videodrome, the show just presents death and torture without rhyme or reason, no plot, no “actors”, just unscripted pain, abuse and suffering. As appalling as this is, Max likes it. Convinced that it is the next big thing, he wants to obtain the show for his own channel and so he uses his network of contacts within the industry to glean more information about it, including his video engineer, Harlan, the person who first brought the imagery to Max's attention. The more that he digs up surrounding the production of Videodrome, the more sinister the whole appears to be. Presently, he starts to suffer frightening metaphysical hallucinations - a vaginal slit opens up in his stomach that is able to receive videocassettes instructing Max to commit barbaric acts - and after even more exposure to the show he begins to question exactly where and when reality ends and Videodrome takes over. Mysterious powers are at work – they may be corrupt, they may even be murderous, or they may actually be some form of hideously disguised counter-culture revolution. With close friends suddenly revealing themselves to be anything but who or what he thought they were, Max's world collapses into blood, mutating flesh and shocking death. Who is behind the Videodrome signal, and what is its connection to a media guru who goes by the name of Professor Brian O'Blivion and exists only as a vast collection of video recordings? Why is Videodrome so addictive and so dangerous. Has Max been chosen as the figurehead of an evolutionary rebellion hungry to render its followers to the onset of the “New Flesh”, or is he just slowly succumbing to a TV-signal created tumour?
In a dazzling style that is both hugely intellectual and composed of powerfully trigger-responsive imagery, Videodrome starts off going down one road, but then takes a massive deviation that rarely pauses to offer any long-standing explanations along the way. In fact, the more that Cronenberg's screenplay gives away, the less sure about the truth of what you are seeing you become. Videodrome, then, is a Pandora's Box of cerebral toxin, a beautifully composed neural tapestry of the emotive and the taboo, dressed in the concepts of the high-brow but, in the kind of irony that Max Renn's cynical exploitationer would appreciate, tailor-made for the FX-loving sensationalist.
“Max, what you see on that show … it's not acting. It's for real. It's snuff TV.”
There is a lot of contradiction to David Cronenberg's films. They often tell tales of the cold cruelty of science and technology. They don't necessarily deal with experiments going wrong – The Fly excepted, there – but rather the various unexpected side effects that result from them. His films tend to come across as quite emotionally aloof, and yet they are frequently carried by exceptionally strong ideas of devotion and humanity – both The Brood and Scanners have depths that aren't immediately apparent to detractors of the director's earlier works, think of Samantha Eggar's mutated affections and Oliver Reed's incredible self-sacrificial stance in The Brood, and the fractured brotherly love between Stephen Lack and Michael Ironside in Scanners, and the sweetly subdued fatherly protection of Patrick McGoohan for his wretched telepathic offspring. Cronenberg is also very strangely capable of seducing strong performances from actors that you really wouldn't have thought would have entertained the notion of appearing in body horror flicks. The aforementioned Reed, Eggar and McGoohan, of course, but what about Barbara Steele, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Roy Scheider, Jeremy Irons, Rosanna Arquette, James Spader, Jude Law and, more latterly, Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts, who have all dipped their toes into the bizarre gene-pool of Cronenberg's imagination? This was a man who even managed to coax a much better performance than you would believed possible from hard-core porn star Marilyn Chambers for the aggressive Rabid. The biggest contradiction of all was that this thematically obscure movie would also be his most successful to date. For Videodrome, he would straddle pop culture and mainstream celebrity with gusto and a sort of casting precognition that certainly helped to open doors for him far south of the Canadian border. He may have taken his inspiration from a slim-line, ratings-pushing Toronto-based cable channel and modelled many of his concepts on those of the well-known media mogul, Marshall McLuhan, but Cronenberg's name burns brightly through the white noise static of each and every Videodrome broadcast, sharpening the signal with his own idiosyncratic, scalpel-direct vision.
“As promised … grotesque ...”
James Woods has always been a wonderful presence on film. There’s a definite edge to him. Likeable, but ever-cynical and hard-faced. Before Cronenberg recruited his flesh for Videodrome – there was a tendency to believe that the filmmaker was on the look out for actors with the most malleable bodies during his splattery halcyon early days, viewing his cast not as people, but as fresh meat – Woods had done exemplary work in The Onion Field and The Black Marble and would go on to carve out a weirdly eclectic oeuvre of work for himself. He is perfect as Max Renn, a grabbing opportunist without the scruples to filter out filth, because he knows it can make him money. Like many actors inveigled into Cronenberg's clutches, Woods believed he was working for a true craftsman who had something important to say. He would go on to work with Oliver Stone on Salvadore, Sergio Leone on Once Upon A Time In America, Martin Scorsese on Casino and Richard Attenborough on Chaplin. That Woods has, himself, gone on to become something of a fixture in iindie pop culture with the high school in Family Guy named after him is something that Max Renn would be tickled by. Remarkably for such a slime-ball character as Renn, Woods is still able to have us care about what happens to him. We are endlessly fascinated by the unsettling things that are happening around him, and to him, but we remain on his side no matter what craziness Cronenberg throws our way and what seemingly despicable acts he perperates.
“You know what Freud would have said about that dress?”
“And he would have been right. I admit it, I live in a highly excited state of over-stimulation.”
Much was made of Videodrome’s casting of Blondie, herself, Debbie Harry in the role of the sultry radio talk-show hostess Nicki Brand, the red-dressed temptress with a taste for the kinky and the painful. This was her first major film part, and the promise that we would see her baring a little more than she had in her pop videos was a definite coup for Cronenberg. Actually this casting could have gone horribly against him if the Sunday Girl had proved less of an actress, but Harry (then going by the more refined first name of Deborah) actually comes across very well in what is, admittedly, little more than a stretched bit-part. It is really only her initial meeting with Max on a TV talk show that the pair of them contrive to hijack via their mutual attraction for one another, and her over-the-top treatment of an anguished guest on her own radio phone-in show that stand out. The rest of her performance comprises of little more than enjoying some impromptu coital needlework, a skin-burn via cigarette and some hallucinogenic appearances on Max's TV, or rather, the retina of Max's eye, as we shall soon discover it to be. As good as she is, she becomes part of the allure of the New Flesh – a body, a tease. It is also marvellously appropriate that the singer once released a song entitled In The Flesh, thereby making her appearance here somewhat preordained.
Elsewhere, Cronenberg indulges in his penchant for unusual supporting actors that many of his earlier films are renowned for. Peter Dvorsky is brilliant as Harlan, Max’s geeky, curly-mopped video-signal pirate sidekick. Also seen in The Dead Zone, Dvorsky has a strange gypsy-like visage, sort of reminiscent of Kevin Rowland from the band Dexy’s Midnight Runners (“Come on, Eileen!”), especially with his woolly hat. With odd little twangs and accents (“Si, Patrone”) and an unusually disjointed manner about him, Dvorsky is great as a character you could term as dependably screwy. Too many years tampering with satellite dishes and peering through the electric mist of interference has left him socially fragile and inept, and too long in the service of Max has jaded the intellectual aspirations he may once have had. As the wonderfully named Brian O'Blivion, Jack Creley looks like a Muppet as he spouts calmly lunatic sermons on the coming of the New Flesh from his square-box cathode ray domain. Sonja Smits is blankly officious as the Professor's daughter, Bianca, the human holdover from, and caretaker to, the vault of her father's mind. Les Carlson is fussily smug and self-righteous as Barry Convex, the head of an innovative technological empire that may have a little more to do with Videodrome than even Max might suspect. And Lynne Gorman's diminutive East European soft-porn merchant, Masha, is an eccentric delight who reminds of the great Linda Hunt (The Year Of Living Dangerously, Silverado) with her knowing purr and “age-no-limit” sexual liberation. It is actually something of a shame that Cronenberg's film isn't another half-hour longer, just so that we could enjoy the company of this curious collection of obsessives, geeks and fringe oddities just that little bit more.
“It's just torture and murder. No plot. No characters. Very, very realistic. I think it's what's next.”
“Then God help us.”
But Videodrome was also celebrated for gross-out moments of splattery invention. Rick Baker had just unleashed An American Werewolf In London and was in the process of doing the unthinkable – becoming a household name as a special makeup FX artist. He’d been in the game since John Landis’ much earlier Schlock (1972), and toiled under the influence and part-time mentorship of the great Dick (The Exorcist) Smith. His groundbreaking techniques for bubbly latex transformations had been purloined by his own talented protégé, Rob Bottin, and utilised in Joe Dante’s The Howling, that metamorphosing werewolf extravaganza actually coming out before the Oscar-winning latex-chango revelations of American Werewolf and managing to split the camp as to whose man-into-wolf transformation was the best. With Videodrome, there was scope for Baker to pioneer something new all over again, something that definitely hadn’t been seen before. Although the original screenplay called for a lot more elaborate transformations to take place, including a stratospherically grotesque finale that only the likes of the climactic orgy in Brian Yuzna's infamously gloopy Society would venture near, we still get to see the vaginal slit in Woods' stomach getting repeatedly violated, we see his hand and the automatic it holds mutate into a conjoined weapon of flesh and metal (in a typically Cronenbergian visual gag, it literally becomes a “handgun”), a television screen changes into an undulating seductress into which Max's head is enveloped and, later on, extends a fleshy arm in an effect that seemed to have influenced some of Freddy's manifestations in A Nightmare On Elm Street. Another sight-gag creates a “hand-grenade” and the results of a raging Videodrome-induced tumour plays grisly havoc with the body of one of Max's assassinations (his flesh-gun actually fires cancer-bullets), a truly visceral and bloody delight that was, for a long time, pruned out of the sanitised UK version. The image of Max inserting his hand into the pulsating orifice in his own stomach is certainly not one that is easily forgotten. And the concept of such male-violation is thick with redolent metaphor too. For this filmmaker, anyone's flesh is fair game.
As such, Videodrome was one of Cronenberg's more overtly sexual offerings until Crash came along. Shivers may have been the very depiction of a rampant sexual revolution, but Videodrome tackles voyeurism, pornography, S&M, self-abuse (for what else is Max doing when he is investigating this new hole?) and death-sex. But then for Cronenberg, the flesh is always ripe for discovery. Whether it is young, fit and healthy or whether is is at the mercy of a virulent, cell-altering disease, he is determined to discover the beauty and the fascination that lies within the body. Constantly enamoured by the process of physical change and the emotional wonders and/or terrors that come with it, Cronenberg is like a living, breathing test-tube for possibilities and, like the most dedicated of scientists is able to sidestep taste and social mores in order to fully make those new discoveries viable. Obviously, over the years, he has assumed different angles and even gone on to make films that are considerably outside of his own self-styled genre, most obviously the Russian Mafia thriller Eastern Promises. But he has hardly ever removed himself from the theme of remorseless transformation or obsession. Whereas Woods' slow and irrevocable evolution in Videodrome is not of the sheer tragic class of Jeff Goldblum's in The Fly, and not as slyly brilliant as Viggo Mortensen's in A History Of Violence, it is still very much of the quintessential Cronenbergian philosophy – that metamorphosis, of the body or of the mind, should be accepted and even embraced for it is never wholly a bad thing, and can offer up a multitude of positives. Max Renn may be a neo-political cypher in a world gone syphilitic with media abuse, but on many more intimate levels he is a hero from an alternate universe who, very tantalisingly, only glimpses the true meaning of what his crusade was all about when he makes the ultimate sacrifice, the final crossover to the next evolutionary epoch. Cronenberg very wisely doesn't let us in on this secret, of course … and this is part of the undying enigma of Videodrome.
“Open up, Max. I've got something I want to play for you.”
Other great ideas abound. The concept of the Cathode Ray Mission is an incredibly audacious device, both viciously satirical and darkly ironic. Slaves to the broadcasts beamed into drip-feed TV screens, television junkies queue up like down-and-outs at a soup-kitchen eager for their rationed fix. Although this serves a purpose in the greater sphere of Videodrome’s influence, the image of these sad wretches in their segregated cubicles and glued to cumbersome TV sets showing them nothing other than utter banality is so weirdly prescient of the reality-TV-addict culture that surrounds us today. Where once people were compelled, almost instinctively, to watch soaps, the never-ending demand for celebrity this and celebrity that has now created an entirely new strand of 16.9 eyed zombies. Cronenberg’s wacky foresight even saw this coming. The very concept of Videodrome’s torture-porn attraction is fascinating enough to drive Nicki to audition for it, believing it to simply be a show. She wants to be seen, paraded and degraded on the screen, relocating her persona from voice over the air-waves to flesh-on-demand death-vixen. It is a stunning conceit, but it foreshadows the demented efforts of the public just to get themselves seen on television that have become the main modus operandi of gameshows and talent searches the world-over. As Brian O’Blivion so astutely informs us, “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye.” He is saying, quite simply, that real life isn’t real enough until it has been televised. This is not, therefore, art imitating life, but life becoming art in order to survive. And he isn't very far from the truth of the matter, is he? It is worth mentioning that the Nigel Kneale scripted and John Carpenter produced Halloween III: Season Of The Witch also utilised the television screen and the lengthening tentacles of technology as a means of spreading mass infiltration of society, but in a far more cosily supernatural fashion. For Cronenberg, the broadcasters and the architects of that technology are the slaves to the sentience that they unleash. And it is not black magic. It is evolution.
Howard Shore had already scored The Brood and Scanners for Cronenberg, his style in these early electronic mood-fused days, was more often dark, impersonal and cold, a pulsating, sinister and isolating musical canvas underneath which the filmmaker’s bizarre imagery and moral conflicts would play out in the soup of earnest intellectualism. For Videodrome which, on the face of it, could have been the most coldly inhuman of his collaborations so far, dealing as it does with corrosive imagery and the eradication of personality and free will, he actually developed a texture of undulating sensuality. His layers of theme were part synthesised, part orchestral, but the atmosphere evoked is one that can be distinctly warm and enveloping, provocatively providing an almost organic blanket that could help the Videodrome signal smother the viewer. Shore doesn’t do this at the expense of mystery and foreboding, though. For the final scenes of the film he creates a sense of driving and inevitable cataclysm. It is the music of rebellion, but also of sacrifice, mimicking the visuals perfectly. Shore would, in fact, be turning something of a corner now in his career, Videodrome, despite its sinister aura of densely layered sound, would prove to be more accessible than his previous scores and, from this point, his music would become larger in scale, more thematic and richer in harmony. He would, of course, go on to compose the acclaimed masterwork that is the score for Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, a very, very far cry from his early days with David Cronenberg.
“Have you been hallucinating recently?”
“No. Should I be?”
“Yes … you should be.”
The New Flesh has always been an overriding impetus for Cronenberg. From Shivers (They Came From Within), Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, this and, of course, The Fly, which are all obvious body-horror offerings, to The Naked Lunch, Deadringers, The Dead Zone, Crash and even A History Of Violence, his predilection for transformation can be expressed physically, emotionally or cerebrally – and, very often, in all three modes at the same time, as we see here with Max Renn’s body and soul reconciliation to the New Flesh. A sense of warning has always been at the root of what Cronenberg has preached, too. Although he clearly loves science, and the concepts that fire and spur such developments onward, and is surely enamoured by technology, as proven with this, The Fly and Existenz, Cronenberg is also extremely wary about how unprepared we are for such eventualities. On the one hand, he is keen to show us the possibilities that such power bestows, literally mind-boggling successes in the case of teleportation (which worked extremely well until that pesky Fly got in there too), but his understanding of Man’s fallibility – his greed, his impatience, his arrogance and his own narcissism – weighs heavily on his mind as well. Basically, he is saying that we can achieve the astonishing, but we are also more than likely to leap straight into things without looking properly first, and courting disaster. This weird hybrid of enthusiasm and warning is unusual and sort of consigned to Cronenberg’s oeuvre far more than any other filmmaker's. The 50’s spawned a thousand atomic horrors, but none of those were born out of something that was reckoned to be just an unfortunate happenstance of a project that was fundamentally good to begin with. Most “science gone awry” tales place the blame with the boffins for mindlessly meddling with nature. By contrast, almost all of Cronenberg’s scientific scenarios are initially intended as being for the betterment of things, no matter how ethically shaky they may be. And through this, quite ironically, we end up with the ethics of the old Universal Horrors … in that we develop sympathy for the monster.
“We're entering savage new times, and we're going to have to be pure, and direct, and strong if we're going to survive them.”
Videodrome cannot help but be dated in its use of videotapes, but the central themes of media brainwashing, techno-slavery and the loss of identity – both personal and corporate – are just as relevant and potent today as they were back in 1981, when that gargantuan top-loader sitting menacingly under the TV, kept demanding to be fed, and the idea of time-shifting was still something that felt like a form of necromancy. Looking at Videodrome now becomes an intriguing session of ticking off the innumerable “what ifs” that actually came to pass over the next three decades. It cannot be denied that David Cronenberg was onto something (as opposed to simply being “on” something) when he conceived this cautionary fantasy. In the category of the thinking man's horror genre, he really is without equal. Thus, in a film that runs for a scant 89 minutes even in this uncut version, he really crams in an awful lot of food for thought.
The influential fingers of Cronenberg's media satire have scratched throughout the whole spectrum of fantasy and reality. Inspiring films and their contained metaphors as far ranging as Hostel, The Matrix and on to even Srdan Spasojevic's disturbing A Serbian Film, and acutely preconceiving such everyday things as downloading, virtual reality, user-names and avatars, videogames and on-line social networks, Videodrome is very possibly the most culturally infiltrating of all the auteur's films.
It is a curious thing to watch the film now, because what once seemed outlandish, illogical and fantastical now seems both horribly imminent and even commonplace. Cronenberg was asking what was coming next in the form of mass media consumption. The answers that he gave, or rather the half answers that he gave, don't seem anywhere near as far-fetched as they once did. We are all TV addicts and the majority of people reading this crave the next level of video technology. No-one believes that the authorities are telling us the truth. Put these two elements together and butt them up against society's slavering obsession with celebrity and the next “live event” and the potential for Videodrome's hostile takeover suddenly seems inevitable.
Whether you view it as a work of controversial media accusation or as a wild ride of speculative, prophetic culture-shock, Videodrome is a classic of modern cinema … and it comes highly recommended.