I saw Videodrome fairly early on in my teenage years, being a fan of David Cronenberg’s oeuvre before even the wild popularity of The Fly sent him into the film director stratosphere. A couple of years later I owned a copy of the VHS as part of my ludicrously large horror collection and watched it numerous times. Since that tape disappeared into the ether though I don’t think I’ve watched it since, although I’ve always had fond memories of it and thought it was one of Cronenberg’s best early movies.
Finally watching it again now it struck me with one question: how on earth did I watch this film when I was thirteen or so and understand a jot of it? All the scenes that I remember we’re still there, plus the great central performances from James Woods and the alluring and mysterious Debbie Harry and the weird graphic imagery. But it was like watching the film with fresh eyes. I’d always found the main plot a bit murky and people’s actions confusing. Now, I understood it as clear as day. And of course this makes perfect sense: it’s great that the teenage me got some pleasure from Cronenberg’s films but he is an adult director making adult pictures with adult themes.
Videodrome concerns James Woods as a cable television programmer who works for some sleazy station way down on the TV Guide options (Channel 83! That’s better than ITV2 nowadays) who is always looking for more, er, interesting shows to draw in an audience. Finding little more than soft core porn to titillate or bore his viewers*, his bespectacled boffin assistant comes across a grim, fuzzy show called Videodrome which by all accounts seems to only concern itself with showing naked women being tied up to a wet, electric wall and beaten to death. Somehow this show is hypnotic to anyone who views it and Woods feels he needs this to boost his ratings. However it starts to have some weird ass side effects on him.
Essentially Videodrome is a whacked out Conspiracy thriller but even then there is so much more going on. There have been endless articles on Cronenberg’s study of body horror so I won’t go on about them much here (although how I never knew that the wound in Woods’s stomach was vaginal just shows how naive my young self was). Okay the familiar theme of the body taking over the man is here but also,as the film progresses, what grabs me the most is how Woods as a human being was no longer in control of his his own life but used as a puppet for various fractions own ends. The broadcasters of Videodrome want to make him a weapon against any number of real or potential enemies in order to gain power. Those who fight against them want to use Woods for their own ends. The so called “new flesh”, the rebellion against Videodrome, is no better than the alleged corporate villains. Woods becomes dispensable in their existential game of chess: a pawn for one side, stolen to be used on the other.
Then there how Videodrome appeals to some very deep dark desires and needs of the sexually active adult. When Debbie Harry’s Nikki sees the programme for the first time she is not horrified by it but turned on. Granted we later find out that there is some form of transmission to the brain underneath the main video signal which would make any viewer become addicted to it, but for Nikki this is tapping into the sexual dispensations she already has. I do wish Nikki had been in the film for more screen time. It’s not long before she’s setting off to audition for Videodrome (surely a bad career choice) and outside of the hallucinations we never see her again. It’s not just that Harry gives a terrifically multi layered performance but that whilst Woods quickly catches on that Videodrome is something not to be messed with, Nikki, fascinatingly, embraces it, even at the cost of her own destruction. Of course it would be a different story but it could have been interesting to see if Nikki realised the error of her ways or if her apparent demise was something she welcomed as part of some kind of psychological destiny. Perhaps if Videodrome had been made now we would have found out more as the movie would have been several hours long rather than the amazingly tight ninety minutes we have here.
There is no denying that all the videotape horror does feel positively antiquated upon viewing it now. I mean, I work with people who have never even experienced VHSs and they think DVDs are a thing of the past. However, whilst the medium for transmitting imagery into our brains may have changed over the past 34 years, the themes that Cronenberg is talking about here sure as hell haven’t. There is the Videodrome itself, stimulating and intoxicating the viewer into a state of addiction the same way watching porn at home can and does to people now. Whilst it’s programme mostly deals with torture and murder, Woods is naive enough to think they are just really good actors. Nowadays it is taken as a given that someone having sex on the internet is really having sex, when someone is beheaded they are really beheaded. There is also the character of Doctor Brian Oblivion, the creator of the Videodrome, waxing lyrical about how a personality is more real on television than they are in real life. This may have been a stretch in 1983 but in this world of YouTube sensations and internet celebrities maybe Oblivion was right – Donald Trump entire public persona was created on TV and in Tweets, and now he’s the most powerful person in the world.
Not only did Cronenberg seem to be writing about social attitudes towards media in the future, he was also showing how his film making would change in the future too.Production wise Videodrome is a big step up from his previous films. The movie he made immediately before this was Scanners and, as successful as it was, it still had an aura of B-movie about it. Not so Videodrome. Now, despite the sleazy apartments and sound stages, the art direction and general look of the film is exemplary. Make up effects are super realistic – well, as realistic as a stomach virgina or TV spilling intestines can be – and this is all headed by a disturbing soundtrack and that starry A-list turn by James Woods.
Videodrome may be set in the world of videotapes and cable TV, neither of which exist any more, but it’s also a timeless classic.
*There’s a hilarious Japanese softcore porno involving a geisha and her dildo doll that is less sexy than primeminister’s question time.