Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: James Woods, Debbie Harry, Peter Dvorsky, Jack Creley, Sonja Smits, Leslie Carlson, Julie Khaner
Words: Adam Janicki.
Throughout the 1980s David Cronenberg had one of the best directorial runs in science-fiction horror cinema. Videodrome (1983), the second of these releases – preceded by Scanners (1981) – was a commercial flop, failing to make back an estimated budget of $6 Million.
However, 40 years on from the initial release, Videodrome is now seen as one of the most prescient and influential science-fiction movies of all time. Written and directed by David Cronenberg with the backing of Rick Baker’s special effects team, Videodrome sends James Woods’ protagonist down a dark, 80s tech rabbit hole filled with hallucinogenic tumours, stomach vaginas and the usual technological body horror to be expected from a director who owns the genre. Videodrome sits somewhere between Network (1976) and Wall-E (2008) as an absurdist commentary on over consumption and mass media.
The story follows Max Renn, the president of a subterranean television network on the lookout for extreme new content. When Max is introduced to a pirate signal broadcast known as ‘Videodrome’, he searches for the source of the signal in hope of acquiring it for his own network. As Max’s obsession deepens, the lines between Videodrome and reality blur as his mind and body start undergoing changes that can’t be explained. Max reaches out to a local media prophet named Brian O’Blivion, who he believes may have some understanding around the cause of the Videodrome signal.
Max Renn is not likeable, he has no real moral barometer and is driven only by the promise of new, profitable content, the more shocking and cheap the better. Woods plays him with his trademark sleazy charisma but the overall feeling is of stale cigarettes and dirty pizza crusts dipped in coffee. When Max meets pop rock hall of fame and Blondie front woman, Debbie Harry’s Nicki, it doesn’t take much convincing to press lit cigarettes to her skin following some limp attempts at protest.
However, this is testament to James Woods, he makes Max unlikeable but compelling and engaging to watch, the perfect person to follow down the increasingly bizarre rabbit hole. The mystery behind the Videodrome signal paired with Max’s disposition are more than enough to suck you in and bring you along for the ride.
Max’s investigation introduces him to a few notable characters along the way, the absolute highlight, and topping the list of Cronenberg character names is Brian O’Blivion, although Barry Convex – the head of evil Specsavers – comes second in the Videodrome name rankings. O’Blivion is a media prophet who delivers the main ideas of the film in the form of cryptic, doom laden monologues from a television screen, he will only appear on television via a television screen. Every O’Blivion monologue delivers quote worthy lines to equal Seth Brundle’s insect speech in The Fly (1986), another of Cronenberg’s notable body-horror tech nightmares. Cronenberg is always at his best when asking the viewer to engage with his ideas, and deciphering O’Blivion’s “retina of the minds eye” philosophies makes Videodrome worthy of multiple viewings.
Rick Baker, the previous year’s Oscar winner for An American Werewolf in London (1981) has the job of bringing Cronenberg’s visions to life. Every effect in Videodrome is practical which on viewing feels like a necessity, Cronenberg presents them all with a clinical, matter of fact style that shows events as they appear to the characters. The practical effects have a tactile aspect, giving the viewer a literal image for the concepts delivered by O’Blivion, so that when Videodrome implants an idea, the viewer has a perfect representation of how it works. It doesn’t hurt that the effects are excellent, pulsating and grotesque; one image in particular is among the most memorable in science-fiction cinema. The use of practical effects combined with Cronenberg’s ideas are what make Videodrome so effective as a film with big ideas worth engaging with.
Videodrome is as relevant today as when it was written, if not more so with the growth of mass media. Cronenberg anticipated and commented on both the Video Nasty censorship that was to come a year or so after the release of this film, but also the impact and scope of media consumption. The 80s tech aesthetic and the focus on video tapes might give it away but replace those with smart phones or the internet and Videodrome could have been written this year.
The fears around the increasing requirement for stimulation are today being played out on social media feeds, no plot, no budget, the same praise Max awards the production of Videodrome. O’Blivion even manages to predict user names and tailored online personas with the idea that there will be a new synthesis of technology with the private life, Videodrome with the New Flesh.
The intelligence behind the script and the skill with which Cronenberg, Woods and Baker bring those ideas to life make this one of the best science fiction movies of the 80s, a decade with some stiff competition. The ideas and the way in which they are presented will generate discussion after the credits and bring you back for further viewings. Videodrome is a dark and entertaining social commentary that gets better each time you watch it, with some of the most memorable and iconic imagery in science fiction horror.