It’s that time of the year again. The month of October is upon us. So to celebrate, we at Full Circle Cinema put together another curated, month-long series with Screen Screams. This year, we will be checking our clocks as we wait in anticipation for the forbidden delight we call “the midnight movie”. And with midnight movies comes a variety of projects that are perhaps too niche for the masses. Today, it’s time to dive into one of the coveted works of certified genre master David Cronenberg, Videodrome.
I got the wrong impression of Videodrome. Having seen only three Cronenberg films – the transcendent The Fly, the underrated Maps to the Stars, and cerebral eXistenZ – I thought I had an idea of what I got myself into with Videodrome. Social commentary drenched in body horror, yadda yadda yadda. Initially, I felt disappointed in my first viewing. Not only was the body horror light, but the film itself was also tamer than I expected. Then, the following day I kept thinking about it. And thinking about it. The true horror in this film, turns out, lies under the hood.
Cronenberg centers Videodrome around Max Renn (James Woods). Though he runs a UHF television station, he’s nothing more than a pornographer. On a daily basis, he looks for whatever shows he can to titillate his hungry hedonist audience. He becomes intrigued after receiving a tape of a show titled “Videodrome”, which features ostensibly staged torture & death. Max seeks out this show and finds not only are the acts onscreen real, but they’re also part of a vast and insidious conspiracy.
So much of Videodrome is sloppy, seemingly aimless. As a man’s descent into madness it feels lackluster. Much of its “body horror” amounts to James Woods making out with a television screen and someone placing a VHS tape into his abdomen. Woods’ performance is not even close to the kind of crazed spiral you’d usually want out of this sport of picture. Yet still, waking up the next day the film had nestled into my brain. What gives?
Key to my enjoyment comes from a class I took in university. Calm down, readers, I’m not going to espouse some kind of half-remembered philosophy from a course sat in years ago. Promise… hopefully. This course was called “Rhetoric and Cyborgs”. Kind of a blow-off elective, but I did pick up one key aspect. The idea that with all of our technology nowadays we are effectively becoming cyborgs dependent on such things. They are part of us.
The media can portray a similar sentiment. Although some see technology as a boon to progress, elevating humankind, Videodrome posits that one can weaponize media as a means of control. The show “Videodrome” is designed to control its host, for a purpose much above the level of the common civilian. Max Renn isn’t supposed to be a crazed protagonist. He is us.
Max is a kite caught in a tornado, though not in explosive ways. He keeps on looking for ways to go deeper into the mystery, and continually ends up a pawn of one (or many?) organization(s) looking to use it for control… or ascension. Is Videodrome a way of inducing hallucinations that could lead to the betterment of the human race? Or is it way to destroy those who seek out its carnal desires? In truth, neither of these questions matter.
The real answer is that Videodrome is a microcosm of how media can make people fall down the rabbit hole. Constant search for answers to the grotesque can lead a man down a dark path. It can break his reality. Cronenberg, as it turns out, is not going for the visceral. The cerebral is on the menu. Although there are clear hallucinatory sequences, Max’s reality never veers too far off the beaten path. His reality changes slowly. By the end, his world doesn’t look so different to him, although for us it is a nightmare reflection. He takes actions that he wouldn’t have even considered because of what he now believes.
For this day and age, Videodrome remains starkly relevant. The mistrust of truth in the mainstream media leads people to seek out fringe media. Blind faith in the mainstream media leads to another kind of warped existence. We all follow objects of our own titillation, such as Renn with Debbie Harry’s sultry Nicki Brand, who’s worthy of an article of our own. Following them too far, getting lost in the pursuit of the truth, will destroy what we know.
What I’m trying to say is that Videodrome isn’t at all what I wanted; it’s what I needed. Too often films are lauded for their “deep” messages that don’t speak to much of anything, but Cronenberg hit on something universal here. Perhaps the provocative images of many midnight movies aren’t here, but the anarchic spirit of giving you an experience that can’t be replicated in other works of art lives on. Love live the new flesh. – James Preston Poole
Videodrome is now available on home video and digital HD.