Why Did I Watch It? Just bought it on blu ray for $10.
Max Renn is the President of Channel 83, a trashy, low budget station that will screen anything to get viewers. Weary of a hundred different variations on soft porn, his interest is piqued by a pirate signal one of his tech guys intercepts; ‘Videodrome’, a plotless something set in a single room, where people are tortured to death by masked figures. As Max investigates who is behind the program, he uncovers a sinister conspiracy involving reality shifting subliminal messaging.
Canadian director David Cronenberg got his start making ultra low budget horror flicks like ‘Rabid’ and ‘The Brood’. While these followed all the genre conventions, they were also distinguished by some fairly cerebral ideas. ‘Videodrome’ is the film where he made the leap, moving beyond straight up horror to focus on something more intellectual, and psychological. This film, one of his best, sits in a kindof trilogy with ‘Naked Lunch’ and ‘Existenz’. All three movies are about media; our lurid fascination with extreme content, and how this can be manipulated to exercise control over society.
‘Naked Lunch’, set in the 1950s, focuses on literature. At this time, TV was still something of a novelty, and the film industry was dominated by the Hayes Code, a strict set of self censorship rules that kept content anodyne. The literary scene was where you turned for edgy material; William S. Burroughs and the other Beats wrote about drugs, homosexuality, and a free wheeling life on the road. It was a complete rejection of middle class American values, that proved controversial and very popular. Burroughs’ book ‘Naked Lunch’ is a surreal and harrowing tale of heroin addiction, that also reflects the author’s belief that governments utilise illegal drugs to control their populations. They want addicts, some anyway, as it keeps potentially difficult citizens docile. The film takes that idea and links it to Burroughs’ writing, showing how one becomes an extension of the other; art can be as addictive as any drug, and both are dangerous.
In ‘Existenz’ we are in the future. Now the cool medium is virtual reality, manifested via totally immersive video games. These are so convincing that you lose your sense of self; you become the character you are playing, and who you were prior becomes a faint and unreal memory. Again the popular content is extreme; people play as assassins and secret agents, and indulge their most violent tendencies. The players are easily manipulated through this technology; they have willingly put themselves in an artificial environment controlled by the games manufacturers, monolithic corporations who have no reservation misusing their power to further their own interests.
‘Videodrome’ falls somewhere in between. Now it it the 1980s, and TV is king. In this, the last pre-internet decade, fringe satellite and cable stations are where people go to get content they can’t elsewhere. Max, played with sleazy charisma by James Woods, know what his audience wants: ‘Just torture and murder. No plot. No characters.’ The pirated tapes of Videodrome that he obtains seem to provide exactly what he is looking for, although he does have a moments pause when he finds out the clips are real, not staged. But this really just predicts the future; in subsequent decades, the rise of reality TV would show that people had no compunction about watching humiliation and degradation for entertainment. While we haven’t reached the point where Netflix broadcasts real murders, they are all over Youtube and social media (check out the 2020 film ‘Spree’ for further comment on this).
Debbie Harry, from the band ‘Blondie’, plays Nicky Brand, a cultural commentator who is right in the middle of Videodrome’s target demographic. Nicky is immediately drawn to the program’s imagery, and will not be put off by any moral or philosophical concerns. She does not care if it features real people, or if the people behind the program are villains, she just knows it excites her. She has never seen anything like it, and that outweighs everything else. This is the lure of extreme material.
People are disturbed by confronting content, but can’t look away. In this movie that concept is literalised, as the ‘Videodrome’ program contains a subliminal signal that compels people to watch, and allows them to be controlled subsequently. It’s technological hypnosis, with a TV screen instead of a swinging watch. The sinister figures behind ‘Videodrome’, suggested to be the government, intend to use it to control the population, and keep them pliant. But they use it to turn Max into an assassin, and have him target their enemies.
As Max’s psychology splinters, we get into territory that would come to be viewed as classic Cronenberg. There is a blurring of technology and biology; Max develops a video cassette slot in his stomach, and a pistol he is given sprouts cables and fuses with his hand. There is the first of what would be a whole series of strange, sinister devices; the insane looking hallucination recording helmet Max is made to wear. And then there are the deliberate narrative inconsistencies, the scenes that you watch that you know could not have happened, characters perceiving the same events differently, brooding nightmarish imagery as dreams and reality entwine; the next phase of the director’s career is right here.
It’s exciting and disturbing, and more prescient than ever. One of the great cult movies.
All hail the new flesh!