You show me a David Cronenberg movie that thematically tackles the transitory nature of the flesh, the inherently stateless class of consciousness, or the symbiotic relationship between man and technology, and I’ll expect any of a dozen movies he’s made over the course of his career. (I still think his masterful 1986 remake of The Fly is the strongest AIDS allegory ever put to film.) Nonetheless, his 1983 masterpiece Videodrome is probably the most concise and brilliant distillation of all these themes at once in all of his work. Taking a cue from Marshall McLuhan’s popularization of the global electronic village, Cronenberg weaves a suspenseful and horrifying science fiction epic in which he posits that the next battleground of human engagement lies in digital consciousness, the television realm… or the “Videodrome” — the circus of the broadcast frequency.
The Internet era has long since made the global village concept a fait accompli, but the early 1980s the landscape was markedly barren in comparison. Mass communication meant still meant television, in which milieu Cronenberg sets his hallucinogenic tale of sexual obsession, mind control and brainwashing as content programming, and, perhaps most presciently, the extreme dangers of partisan rhetoric. James Woods stars as Max Renn, a co-owner of a small UHF station in Toronto which specializes in softcore pornography and ultra-violent content. Renn is always on the prowl for “harder” material, something beyond the pat, predictable, lifeless imagery of geisha girls cavorting around suggestively (but not explicitly) with various sex toys, or medium-budgeted scenes of PG-13 rated Bacchanalia that fail to deliver the visceral rush that would attract even more viewers. Something of a breakthrough occurs when Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), one of his station techies who pirates satellite transmissions from around the world, introduces Max to a scrambled broadcast he discovered out of Malaysia entitled ‘Videodrome’. It features hardcore snuff material — rape, torture, mutilation, all in a single orange-paneled room. No plot or story to be bothered with here; this is degradation from frame one.
Max is obsessed with Videodrome, especially after finding out that the broadcast is originating out of Pittsburgh. He sends his agent Masha (Lynne Gorman) to discover who is producing the series in order to secure the rights for his station. Meanwhile, he meets the enigmatic Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), a local talk radio personality and a striking figure in scarlet whose obsession with sadomasochism and self-mutilation feeds into (and perhaps fuels) Max’s continued obsession with Videodrome. A passionate encounter in Max’s apartment, while a Videodrome videotape is playing on the background television, seems to drive Max even deeper into its world, both figuratively and literally. Max begins to experience a series of hallucinations, which intensify after Nicki tells Max she’s going to Pittsburgh to find out more about Videodrome, because she wants to participate in the programming herself.
The other major players are television personality Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), who is never seen, ever, except on television, and his daughter Bianca (Sanja Smits), who runs the Cathode Ray Mission — a homeless shelter of sorts in which the indigent are reintroduced into society via constant exposure to television. O’Blivion popularized the philosophy of the television being the “retina of the mind’s eye”, that virtual existence is now superseding the physical one. He also is has a connection to Videodrome, and as Max’s hallucinations become more intense, he starts to learn the truth about Videodrome; that it’s not simply a snuff program, but perhaps an entire realm of hallucinogenic existence co-developed by O’Blivion, disseminated by television broadcast, controlled by prerecorded content, in which humanity can be programmed as easy as slipping a videotape into a VCR — imagery that is compounded by the sudden appearance of a vaginal slit in Max’s abdomen during one of his hallucinogenic episodes.
If Videodrome represents the next evolution of human existence, it stands to reason that content providers will then be given absolute power over shaping reality. Two contingencies emerge in the battle for control of Videodrome: a right-wing enterprise that would use Videodrome to purge the nation of filth, weakness, and degradation by embedding such programming (like the “Videodrome” show itself) with brain tumor-inducing frequencies, and those who would want to exploit the potential of Videodrome to usher in the next age of human existence via tacit acquiescence to the soft television afterglow. Max, whose grasp on reality has now become tenuous at best, becomes an unwilling pawn trying to be controlled by both sides, whereas Nicki, who has disappeared to find Videodrome itself, is nowhere to be found… if she ever existed at all. If she wasn’t a hallucination caused by Videodrome in the first place…
It’s a heady conceptual mix, but it works. Videodrome is equally as nightmarish in its imagery as it is exhilarating in its presentation. At a brisk 89 minutes, Cronenberg’s masterpiece details a gripping science-fiction narrative that packs enough conceptual content to fuel a half-dozen other movies, yet never feels stuffed nor rushed (nor does it outlast its welcome). Rick Baker’s special effects are grotesque and groundbreaking; steel, wood, plastic, and glass becomes sensual, organic, rhythmic. For horror fans, there’s enough oozing gore and explosive tumorous operatics to satisfy all around. As a visual exercise, it’s a smashing success. But Videodrome is so much more than a brilliant visionary exercise. It confounds, it horrifies, and it challenges the viewer with an intriguing narrative, sharp direction, and incisive 80s social commentary that seems just as relevant 30 years later.
Meet the New Flesh. Same as the Old Flesh.