David Cronenberg’s 1983 opus Videodrome has lost none of its edge in the quarter of a century since its initial release.
The fact that the cutting edge technology depicted in the movie is cable TV and video cassette recorders surprisingly doesn’t date the movie at all. Cronenberg has no interest in the details of technology. What he’s interested in is what technology will do to us, how it will change us. The specifics of the technology are irrelevant. The line between reality and what the media shows us started to become blurred long before 1983. As early as the 60s soap opera stars were being approached in supermarkets and addressed by fans who were unable to make the distinction between the actors and the characters they played.
James Woods plays Max Renn, a sleazy media entrepeneur who runs a cable TV station, a station that specialises in softcore porn and violence. Max is always on the lookout for something edgier, something harder, something that the competition doesn’t offer. When his satellite dish picks up a program called Videodrome, a program that offers torture and murder that seems so hyper-realistic that it may or may not actually be real, he is convinced he’s found a winner.
Appearing on a TV talk show, Max makes the acquaintance of radio personality Nicki Brand, who hosts the Emotional Rescue radio show. She admits that, “I live in a highly-excited state of overstimulation.” Back at his place she is looking for porn videos (which she likes because they get her in the mood) when she discovers the Videodrome cassette. She decides that she was born to appear on that show. Nicki’s sexual tastes are decidedly masochistic - she enjoys things like burning herself with cigarettes, and being cut by her lovers.
But Videodrome comes with a price, and the price is that it triggers an uncontrollable series of hallucinations. Max finds himself in a world of conspiracies, of shadowy organisations intending to use Videodrome for political purposes, of mysterious media gurus who exist only on TV, and there seems no way to stop the hallucinations. And he’s developed a vagina-like opening in his stomach, into which objects such as video-cassettes can be inserted.
Science fiction is notorious for making embarrassingly mistaken predictions about what the future will be like. Videodrome is scary because its predictions have ended up being so chillingly close to the truth. We do have cable TV stations specialising in murder as entertainment - after all, what else is CI if it isn’t that? The combination of sex and technology was a particularly bold prediction in 1983, when concepts like cybersex hadn’t even been thought of (this movie came out a year before another Canadian, William Gibson, first popularised the idea of virtual reality and cyberspace in his novel Neuromancer).
The main criticism leveled at this movie has always been the incoherence of the plot. But anyone looking for a coherent plot has missed the point of the film. Everything is seen from the viewpoint of Max Renn, a man who lives his life switching back and forth between reality and hallucination, existing in a society in which the line between reality and media is fuzzy enough to begin with. And Cronenberg sticks relentlessly to Max’s point of view - there is no comforting explanation at the end where we discover what was reality and what was fantasy.
Of course if you’re going to dispense with logical plotting you’re going to have to rely overwhelmingly on the power of the images, of the mood, and of the acting. Videodrome has more than enough strength in those areas. The images are as unsettling as ever. Effects such as the breathing video-cassettes and the TV set with Nicki’s face emerging from the screen still work perfectly. James Woods (who can at times overdo the edgy thing) is perfectly cast as Max. Debbie Harry is extremely effective as Nicki, bringing a disturbingly kinky eroticism to her performance.
The 1970s had seen a series of science fiction horror movies exploring similar themes of technology merging with humanity and mimicking reality, movies such as Westworld and Demon Seed. Cronenberg takes these ideas to their logical extreme in Videodrome. A great movie. Long live the new flesh!