Viking Night: Videodrome
By Bruce Hall
July 16, 2013
Videodrome is one of David Cronenberg's earliest attempts to blend horror, erotica, madness and sci-fi together in the same grimy pot. The result is a sticky, violent stew of images and ideas that you'll want to talk about for hours, whether you actually liked it or not. It's thematically ambitious, intellectually arousing, visually provocative, and it does all these things in ways that will make you keep watching - even when you want to look away. In a nutshell, Videodrome is as simultaneously gruesome and spellbinding as a plane crash.
The story centers on Max Renn (James Woods), president of CIVIC-TV, a small Toronto cable access provider circa 1983. If you’re under 30, the closest modern equivalent might be your college roommate's all hentai YouTube channel, or maybe Spike TV. CIVIC specializes in sex, violence, and all things socially deviant. Ratings are solid, but the station's viewership is (surprise) mostly rage-a-holic sex fiends. Max knows people like that bore easily, so he has turned over a lot of slimy rocks looking for the next big thing. He finds it when his satellite technician (the delightfully twitchy Peter Dvrorsky) discovers Videodrome, a pirate channel broadcasting from parts unknown and featuring high quality rape, torture and snuff films for all manner of discriminating psychopath.
Max wants Videodrome on CIVIC-TV, and sets about tracking down the brains behind it. But his life takes an unexpected detour when he's booked on a finger wagging right wing talk show alongside a reclusive media mogul named Brian O'blivion (Jack Creley), and a sexy pop psychologist called Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry). Max and Nicki unexpectedly hit it off while O'blivion rambles on about life, death, and the medicinal benefits of television. It's a bizarrely awkward scene that sets the story's foundation, and also shuts off its moral compass. Never again will you feel comfortable with any of these characters or anything they experience. Before you know it, Nicki turns out to be a marathon sadomasochist who puts cigarettes out on herself by night, and gives relationship advice on the radio during the day.
When Max shares his discovery with her it turns her on, and the two strike up a sensuously stabby relationship where pain equals pleasure and sex equals Videodrome. Nicki becomes just as determined to uncover its secrets and just like that, the once unflappable Max Renn starts to lose his balance. As he closes in on his goal and begins to discover the evil truth about Videodrome, he's forced to confront the consequences of his obsessions. He begins experiencing a series of violent, often sexually charged hallucinations and begins to question his sanity. As the mystery unravels, the movie kind of does too, as though it was in the middle of making a point and forgot what it was trying to say so...violence! It’s an absorbing, provocative story up to this point, and then it’s just...demented and nasty.
Videodrome is a techno-thriller typical of the time, with a topical air of social paranoia and a heaping helping of surreal horror thrown in for good measure. Think of it as Network for the MTV generation, if Freddy Krueger wrote the script. In reality Cronenberg did, and he wants you to know that some people have trouble separating fantasy from reality. He wants you to know that for some people, violent imagery can have the same dehumanizing effect as real brutality. And for those who spend a little too much time immersed in self-indulgent fantasy, maybe that voyeuristic sense of entitlement itself becomes a new form of reality. And Max is portrayed as a morally ambiguous media purveyor of this filth, unconcerned with anything but profit. Both merchant and consumer are locked in the same sordid dance; despicable people for whom entertainment is a religion, and whose principles are indistinguishable from their passions.
That's intriguing, and a lot of it really works, at least on a fundamentally thematic level. These particular characters and events might be little inaccessible, but the visceral punch of seeing people literally transformed by their obsessions is (mostly) fascinating. But as the story of Max's descent progresses it starts to play fast and loose with reality, which causes it to take some unfortunate narrative shortcuts. Not that this completely kills the film, but it really doesn't help, either (although if you’re not going to make it to the end, this will probably be where you get off). I realize we’re watching a man slowly succumb to madness, but once it loses focus, the movie devolves into an art house splatter frenzy that does more to disgust than enlighten.
And that ending... really? You’re going to want to take a shower after this movie.
Videodrome successfully levels an accusing, judgmental finger at society's ills, but it doesn't really offer up any useful insights. I don’t think anyone would disagree that whether it’s real or fake, overexposure to anything can be bad for you, whether it’s sex, violence, or cheesecake. So while it doesn’t score a lot of points as a message movie, as all that choppy dialogue and sinewy gore reminds us, this is also a horror film. Rick Baker's makeup effects are so incredibly haunting, it'd be easy to forget the film you're watching is 30 years old. Except for all the wide lapels, giant eyeglasses, and people throwing around terms like “cathode ray tube" and “video cassette tape” as though these things are cool. Still, when held up against today's narcissistic, over stimulated world, Videodrome's bleak, cynical mix of media fueled madness still holds water.
And, in case you’re curious, it's a great way to see what James Woods would look like dating someone his own age.