Movie Review: Videodrome (1983)

David Cronenberg’s Twisted Classic With James Woods and Debbie Harry

March 12 2007 Categorized Under: Movie Reviews No Commented
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Videodrome (1983)
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits

(out of 4)

I had a brain tumor. And I had visions. I believe the visions caused the tumor, and not the reverse. I could feel the visions coalesce, and become flesh… uncontrollable flesh. And when they removed the tumor, it was called Videodrome.

Futures... made of... virtual insanity

Futures... made of... virtual insanity

My favorite of all Cronenberg movies, Videodrome is a mesmerizing experience, not unlike the kind of hallucinations suffered by its antihero. A horror movie, and at the same time an essay on the ability of video and television to create new worlds – to shape the minds exposed to their signals, the film is fascinating in its depiction of a society’s coming evolution (devolution?) brought on by technological changes instead of natural ones.

James Woods plays Max Renn, owner of a small Canadian public television station with a fondness for the “next big thing” in broadcasting – most notably, sex and violence. Hooking up with a radio talk show host (Harry) with a fondness for kinky S&M, he soon comes across via pirated signal a strange broadcast called Videodrome, which depicts nothing but torture and murder – Snuff TV. But Videodrome is not what it appears to be, and soon Max begins to suffer hallucinations that get increasingly more bizarre the longer he is exposed to the show’s signal. “It has a philosophy” says Max’s friend Masha (Lynne Gorman), “and that’s what makes it dangerous.”

Videodrome - Debbie Harry

Fab Five Freddy told me everybody's high

Once again, Cronenberg shows off his fondness for body mutation (Max develops a vaginal-like slit in his belly, suitable for hiding things like pistols) and biological/technological symbiosis (Max’s gun merges with his hand, massive doses of Videodrome’s signal result in the creation of a brain tumor/organ) but he goes the other way too- infusing technology with biological properties (like Bill Lee’s living typewriters of Naked Lunch, Max’s Beta cassettes pulsate and breathe). There is also discussion on the nature of reality (another Cronenberg staple, seen in Naked Lunch and eXistenZ), as the philosophy of Berkeley’s idealism is touched upon by the movie’s Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley – the movie’s Marshall McLuhan), who has died from Videodrome exposure but communicates from the dead via videotape:

A new outgrowth of the human brain will produce and control hallucination, to the point that it will change human reality. After all, there is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there?

Videodrome - James Woods

Pulls in more viewers than CSI

The film’s messages are thorny – Cronenberg seems to be taking the side of his detractors who bemoan him for the violence and sex in his movies. Does constant exposure to violence really change the viewer’s behavior patterns? Or does it simply render the viewer numb and susceptible to more dangerous suggestion? (The film’s villain Barry Convex, played by Leslie Carlson, refers to S&M as opening up certain receptors in the brain, allowing the signal to sink in, although we are told that Videodrome could be broadcast under a test pattern). I definitely noticed a kind of detachment to Woods’ performance, which seems intentional – as his condition progresses he becomes less the character of Max and more of a blank slate, stuck in receive mode. We don’t so much place ourselves in his position as we observe and follow him – to his inevitable destination as brainwashed assassin. Speaking of brainwashed, there’s a great sequence involving Brian O’Blivion’s “faith-based” ministry called “Cathode Ray Mission”, where the city’s homeless are herded into cubicles to watch television, to “patch them back into the worlds mixing board” as Bianca O’Blivion (Sonja Smits) says. Eerily prescient, despite Cronenberg’s assertions that he wasn’t trying to play prophet, and smart in its theological application of TV culture.

While the gore in the film is plentiful and impressive (still superior to most CGI garbage being thrown out today), it doesn’t function as the film’s raison d’être; it fits the movie’s hallucinatory tone. It also adds to the feeling of chaos and confusion – and like in the denouement where the “body” dies to give rise to the “new flesh”, we can never be sure that we are really seeing what we are seeing. But that’s part of Videodrome‘s charm – it’s about a new way of seeing (“The eye is the window to the soul” as Barry Convex quotes da Vinci) and it ties to the rise of a new religion (the new flesh and its required death/rebirth). An entertaining and challenging film; I see no reason why 20 years from now it shouldn’t be just as timely as it is today, in the age of the Internet.

– Bill Gordon

Videodrome - Play For You

homeboy got played!

The Criterion Collection does it again with the 2 disc DVD set in a case made up to look like a Betamax cassette, with 3 good written articles and two audio commentaries – one track by David Cronenberg and another track by James Woods and Debbie Harry. In 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the film has been digitally restored and looks great. My only complaint is the lack of Dolby Stereo, but I can at least run the mono track through simulated surround on my receiver. A really cool short called “Camera” is included (featuring Les Carlson again), and disc two has a new documentary, an audio interview with special effects maestro Rick Baker, the Samurai Dreams/Videodrome footage featured in the movie, trailers, and finally, a kick-ass roundtable discussion featuring Cronenberg, John Landis, and John Carpenter. This is an amazing release.

NOTE: Blu Ray version now available.

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