James Woods is likably sleazy as Max Renn, a Toronto TV programmer on the lookout for the next big thing in unwholesome entertaiment. We see him wading through a slush pile of idiotic erotic stuff, the low-budget precursors to such 90s soft porn fare as Red Shoe Diaries. Then again, Renn would probably think that stuff is too nice — he wants to push boundaries and buttons, airing something edgy that hasn't been seen before.
Enter "Videodrome." Max's pal Harlan is a satellite TV geek, a protohacker who spends his days bootlegging video signals with an eye toward out-of-the way programming for Channel 83. Snatching one such transmission out of the ether, Harlan shows some tapes to Max. It's a program called "Videodrome" (the title card for the program is identical to the one used at the beginning of the film). Over and over, a barely clad victim is dragged into a small room and chained to a wall of electrified clay before being whipped repeatedly. One woman is dragged away, and a new subject is brought on. Max is transfixed. This could be the "new thing" he's looking for.
Harlan says maybe the signal comes from Malaysia, and Max takes a tape home for review purposes. His world first starts to fold in on itself when he brings home pretty radio psychologist Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry, in a truly bad performance). Nicki wants to watch some porno; she winds up popping "Videodrome" into the VCR. Deciding that Max must be open to the rough stuff, she askes him to cut and pierce her body. To demonstrate her tolerance for pain, she burns (brands?) her own flesh with a cigarette. Max's reaction to her masochism is parallel to his fascination with "Videodrome" — he's both disturbed and turned on.
From here, things start to get weird. Harlan finds out that the "Videodrome" signal is not coming from Malaysia, but from Pittsburgh. Max tracks down a media philosopher (sample: "The television screen has become the retina of the mind's eye") who bills himself as Brian O'Blivion, but finds only his daughter Bianca. When Max plays a videotape Bianca gives him, his TV set itself starts stretching, bulging, and breathing. And one day as he's watching TV and scratching himself absently, a vaginal orifice opens up in Max's stomach. Clearly, Max is hallucinating. But when and where his reality stops and the hallucinations begin is never clear.
That's the whacked-out set-up for a characteristically Cronenbergian consideration of human society in the latter years of the 20th century. Videodrome is equal parts conspiracy flick, cautionary tale, and over-the-top gross-out. Critics have pointed out what can be construed as reactionary tendencies in Cronenberg's work, apparently delighting in pinning down the greatest of contemporary psychohorror directors as a veritable homebody. But if it's true, then why not? From the venereal disease that infects the Skyline Towers of Shivers to the strange gifts bestowed upon the protagonists of Scanners and The Dead Zone and the dysfunctional sexual fetishes of the cultists in Crash, Cronenberg's films are about breaches of normalcy, the influences that keep us from going about our lives the way we might choose to. In significant ways, a Cronenberg film is a requiem for the normal life, a metaphysical horror story that mourns what has been lost rather than simply wallowing in obligatory transgression.
There is, however, plenty of transgression. Videodrome is a showcase for some of the most unforgettable special makeup effects work ever to see a movie screen. (One of its few rivals is John Carpenter's The Thing, which includes even more elaborate and disquieting bodily transformations.) Rick Baker had nowhere near as much time to prepare for the film as he would have liked, and some of the work is rough. But in the climactic scenes, his effects are astonishing. (The new DVD is the unrated, unedited director's cut that was released to video, restoring trims made to avoid an X rating as well as a shot of a dildo that was originally removed to placate Universal's Bob Remy.) Entrails explode out of TV screens, handguns graft themselves onto limbs, and bodies turn themselves inside out. Eventually, it becomes impossible to tell exactly where Max's hallucinatory state of mind begins to intrude on the film's supposed third-person viewpoint. As Professor O'Blivion would put it, "Television is reality, and reality less than television."
One key to making this all work is the cutting style, which must mimic the image patterns of a dream. Cronenberg's ace film editor is Ronald Sanders, who has worked with him since Scanners in 1980. Looking at Videodrome in the context of the director's later work, what's most striking is how closely the almost musical rhythms and camera movements match those of, say, Dead Ringers and Crash. True, you can ID a Cronenberg film by its fascination with questions of perception versus reality, of physical versus mental transformation, and of the beleagured human spirit and the siege on normalcy. But you can also pick it off by watching the way the camera moves (especially those slow, high-angle tracking shots) and by noting the carefully measured rhythm of the edits. (Just take a look at the way Renn's appearance on the Rena King Show is cut together, from "live" footage to reaction shots on video screens.) Cronenberg is the ideal auteur — a director whose aesthetics are as consistent and pleasurable as his ideas, and whose collaborators consistently follow through on his singular concepts.
Pleasurable may seem like a strange adjective to apply to the dark forces at work in a Cronenberg film, but his movies have given me countless hours of pleasure. Videodrome in particular is a very serious but darkly funny film. How far does one's tongue have to be in cheek to name a character "Brian O'Blivion?" To triangulate Pittsburgh, home of George Romero's wildly influential zombie trilogy, as the source of the sickest programming on the tube? Or to have Max Renn, in many ways a Cronenberg surrogate, appear on TV first defending violent television programming and then hitting on a pop psychologist by asking her what Freud would have thought of her screaming red dress? Surely Renn's ready platitudes on media sex and violence are the thrown voice of an artist grown weary of trotting them out again and again in defense of his work. In contrast with the very dry humor of 1996's Crash, Videodrome is broad satire.
In the end, Cronenberg turns the tables on media critics by crediting the creation of "Videodrome" to a shadowy sociopolitical movement bent on exterminating society's seamier, impure element — they figure that anyone who would watch something like "Videodrome" pretty much deserves to have their life destroyed. (Interestingly, this is an explicit attack on the audience for Cronenberg's Videodrome, as well as the fictional program.) While Cronenberg himself never puts anything resembling a stamp of approval on this kind of entertainment, he's not quick to condemn it, either. Rather, he recognizes and accepts its appeal, and then investigates it. In Videodrome, as in other Cronenberg movies, deviant sexuality is seen as an enticing experience, and perhaps a rewarding one. It's also placed in contrast to the more traditional physical relationships that it replaces, and we feel the absence of tenderness, or at least of tenderness unaided by technology.
Is it a contradiction that the films of David Cronenberg, one of cinema's most unrelentingly horrific fantasists, point over and over to an underlying sentimentality? Not at all. In Videodrome, free will is under siege, and it may seem that Renn is punished by his willingness to experiment, which leads to his decimation by repeated exposure to the "Videodrome" signal. You could say that Videodrome becomes a cautionary tale about the perils of watching trash TV and consorting with "bad" girls who want you to raise welts on their breasts — but Renn does eventually save the world, so his dark side isn't all-consuming.
In fact, Cronenberg's message is more nuanced, and favors the examination of material that we find disturbing or seductive. As Max starts his descent into the world of "Videodrome," one of his acquaintances, a peddler of bad softcore, warns him away. "It has something you don't have, Max," she tells him. "It has a philosophy — and that's what makes it dangerous." So in an indirect way, Max is chided, not for being aroused by the S&M imagery, but for being ignorant of the deeper currents running beneath it.
Interestingly for a man with so much on his mind, Videodrome represents Cronenberg's last foray into wholly original material. Almost immediately, he adapted a Stephen King novel (The Dead Zone), remade a 50s horror flick (The Fly), and then riffed on a nonfiction tale of twin doctors (his 1987 masterpiece, Dead Ringers) before venturing into an overdue adaptation of Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs had long been an influence), a horribly misguided version of M. Butterfly (redeemed mainly by the game presence of ace thespian Jeremy Irons), and a very darkly compelling visualization of J.G. Ballard's notoriously unfilmable Crash. His upcoming picture, eXistenZ, is an original yarn on the subject of virtual reality videogaming that may veer back into hallucinatory territory. I can't help but think of each new film as a new chapter in "the Cronenberg project." Since I grew up on these movies, I may be predisposed to love them — but I still think it's hard to imagine a more thoughtful or accomplished series of investigations into the dark side of the modern day.