As stated repeatedly in the past, the horror section in the video store had a strong pull for me when I was little and one of the tapes that always grabbed my attention was this one. I can never remember what the cover looked like, probably what you see to the left, but the back featured a television, a fleshy membrane where the screen should be and that membrane being stretched from the backside by what appeared to be a gun held by a hand pushing outward. Disturbing imagery, to say the least, when you’re 9 years old and your most advanced concept of horror movies is a guy in a hockey mask wielding a machette. A couple of years later I would see this title in the weekly movie listings in the Boston Globe TV schedule and made it my mission to watch it.
Sometimes I have to wonder where my parents were because 5 out of 7 nights of week, around 8 o’clock, I was watching one of the movies that WLVI ran and it was always this edgy, weird stuff. My folks had a TV in their room, so I wonder if they knew that I was poisoning my brain with David Cronenberg’s subversive visions. Given the movie’s plot, it was ironic that one of the last remaining examples of UHF television chose to run this one uncut, as far as I could tell. Blatant nudity was cut, but even some of the raciest scenes of suggestive sexuality and all of the motherfucking violence were left firmly intact. Thank god for that.
Max Renn runs CivicTV, a struggling cable network doing its best to stay afloat in the chaotic waters of early cable programming. In order to stand out from the crowd, CivicTV’s schedule is flooded with soft-core porno and hardcore violence. Realizing that the audience of just such a network is always looking for the next thing, Max is always out looking to push the envelope and keep his viewers coming back for even higher levels of stimulation. Max twists and turns trying to find exciting new material, entertaining producers from foreign markets but is frustrated when he can’t find what he’s looking for. That is, until his video pirate buddy picks up a momentary signal that changes everything.
Videodrome is a blip on the satellite but Max sees enough to get his head spinning. No plot, just torture. A single room occupied by two masked sadists and one screaming woman. The sadists brutalize her until the screen goes blank. Max demands more. Meanwhile, he’s featured on talk show panel along with radio advice DJ, Nicky Brand and social TV luminary, Brian O’Blivion (who is only ever seen on TV and never in person) where Max is called on to defend the content of his TV channel. Max is immediately taken by Nicky and, on the air, invites her to dinner. Oddly, we skip their date and are transported to Max’s apartment, Nicky half-undressed, sifting through Max’s videotapes looking for porn. Max finds a kindred spirit in Nicky who is also overstimulated and looking for new heights of sensation that blur sexuality and violence. He shows her the Videodrome tape and she reveals a masochistic side to him that leads them to the inevitable sex scene.
I find Cronenberg so absolutely baffling. Throughout his career he has hit moviegoers with intense, strange concepts in film and wrapped them in such a repulsive, horror wrapper that has had people relegate him to the otherwise seedy world of genre productions. Videodrome is packed tight with art school metaphor and social indictment yet casually ignored by the high art community due to Cronenberg’s supernatural drive to gross you out and make no mistake, you will be grossed out by at least something here. Many times throughout the movie you’ll be forced to ask just what the hell is going on and while this may be a black mark in many movies due to their incomprehensible plots, here it’s often deliberate and the nature of the movie since the theme is constantly forcing you to wonder where fantasy and reality blur. In other words, at what point does television begin dictating our reality? In yet another reevaluation of movies from the past, I find another title from 20 plus years ago that is even more valid today than when it was first released.
Max sets out to unravel the mystery of Videodrome and secure broadcast rights for CivicTV. What was once thought to be a broadcast from the south Pacific is now theorized to be broadcasting from the United States (don’t forget, the movie takes place in Canada). Pittsburgh, to be exact. He sets one of his industry contacts off to find more information on the ground about Videodrome but what she finds terrifies her. She warns Max about the nature of Videodrome. It’s not what he thinks it is. What he seeks to turn into entertainment is much more dangerous than that and what makes it that dangerous is a philosophy. More to come on that.
In the meantime, Max’s contact has dropped a single name for his quest for Videodrome. Brian O’Blivion. Max heads to the Cathode Ray Mission to meet him. What he finds inside are the mentally ill and homeless being treated by watching television in the shelter. O’Blivion’s daughter, Bianca, explains that they are this way because they don’t watch enough television. Max is sent away and later receives a videotape containing a recorded monologue from O’Blivion who warns that Videodrome is, most likely, a political weapon. Now the strange shit starts to happen. Max is plagued by hallucinations and Nicky announces that she’s going on a trip to Pittsburgh and will be on Videodrome.
Despite the fact that Videodrome descends into David Lynch style madness, I hate to give away any more since the resolution is so wildly out of control and awesome. So I’ll leave you with this. Barry Convex, a salesman for Spectacular Optical contacts Max and reveals that he produces Videodrome. The show carries a wave in it that causes brain cancer and it’s growing in Max’s head. Max is one of the earliest Videodrome guinea pigs for a program that is designed to weed out the sickest of us in society by selectively killing off the people who revel in broadcast filth. With Max now an agent of Videodrome, Convex programs him to kill by inserting videotapes into a vaginal opening that has grown in Max’s stomach.
The O’Blivions have a plan for Max, though and in order to ascend into a new state of consciousness (the new flesh), Max is going to have to destroy Videodrome and “the old flesh”, if you know what I mean.
I can watch this movie a million times and find a new explanation every time. It is very much open to interpretation but the most common theme throughout seems to be, as mentioned above, television determining what is real and what is not. Max Renn is obviously an exagerration but he’s a man who lives his life surrounded by video. His job is running a television station, his apartment is littered with video tapes and Atari games, he falls asleep to the TV and wakes up in the morning to a video agenda dictated by his secretary, Friday. Nearly all of the major characters are introduced on television screens before taking a regular part in the rest of the movie. Media saturation and the proliferation of cable introducing the public to far more information options than it can handle runs constantly throughout, yet Cronenberg’s movie seems less like condemnation of television or even so much as a cautionary tale. The idea may be lost on younger viewers, not to sound like an old man, but prior to cable many communities had less than ten channels at their disposal a far cry from the several hundred that I have today.
Cronenberg also weaves in the idea of the government using television as a weapon. It’s certainly nothing new, but rather than have it be a medium for propaganda, it becomes something much more sinister where the real danger isn’t even visible. It’s as if he saw what was coming down the pike. A public that is anaesthetized with So You Think You Can Dance and tabloid TV is far less likely to cast a ballot, let alone bother to keep up with cable news headlines. It brings to mind the depressing statistic from 2004 where more people voted for American Idol than in the presidential election that year, to which I replied, “Do we even want their votes?” But that’s neither here nor there.
It was because of this movie that I became a larger Cronenberg fan. In recent days, I feel he’s fallen off, but this period, Scanners to Dead Ringers, is his golden age. An age marked by disgusting, challenging movies. I often feel that Cronenberg fell by the wayside, his output as important as the big four of the 70’s (Romero, Hooper, Craven and Carpenter) yet he hardly seems to get the credit he deserves. Horror is such a wtaered down genre these days and I often feel that it’s difficult to come up with anything new because all the good movies have been made, yet Cronenberg managed to create an entirely new concept in horror and his name is synonymous with it. Body Horror has never really proliferated since few people know how to work with it but Cronenberg seemed to have a natural understanding from outset. Horror often deals with the vulnerabilities of the human body but often in grisly dismemberments and stabbings. Body Horror takes it to a new level where your body turns against you, completely out of your control, developing into something horrible on its own. It’s a sometimes difficult concept to grasp as to what sets it apart from other horror movies, but it is clearly evident in Cronenberg’s movies. Here, in Videodrome, Max’s body changes against his will. Developing an opening that Spectacular Optics can use to program his will as well as his hand being physically fused to and later a biomechanical part of the gun that Convex gives him. Convex’s fate is also hardly a gunshot wound, his body erupts into a mass of cancerous flesh. It’s absolutely disgusting.
It’s generally impossible to tell where Videodrome is going but staying along for the ride will take the viewer to rewarding places. Videodrome starts out innocently enough and spirals wildly out of control. Enjoy the ride strictly as an exercise in the incredibly strange and nonsensical or dive deeper and explore its many folds. I consider this to be Cronenbergs highest career point.