Why 'Videodrome' Is Still So Damned Scary (2023)

While body horror hasn’t slowed down since its heyday in the 1980s, ever lurching forward with oozing new releases and flesh-tearing hits, the king of the subgenre returned after a long period of absence in 2022 with Crimes of the Future. That director is, of course, David Cronenberg. Arguably his most famous film, The Fly, had Jeff Goldblum interact with his own fingernail in a way that is simply too much to reproduce here. Despite – or maybe because of – the extreme gore and unsettling sexual themes, The Fly was a commercial success in 1986. It also fared well with critics, who identified this story of a man losing control of his body as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis. Cronenberg himself never fully agreed with that interpretation, as it was potent but limited in scope. Everyone has a body, and everyone’s been afraid of some part of it. This is what body horror taps into, and Cronenberg’s films are a testament to its potential power.

One can imagine The Fly as a hybrid in itself, of the director’s two previous films, Videodrome and The Dead Zone, both from 1983. The Fly took the heartbreaking drama – and commerciality – of the latter and the terrifying, bloody imagery of the former. Videodrome, in fact, rivals The Fly for being the quintessential Cronenberg, as a feast of indelible sights and troubling ideas. As a character notes in the film, “It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous.” However, its ambiguity brings it closer to a film by David Lynch, where the viewer isn’t always sure if what they’re seeing is actually happening. Body horror movies like The Thing or Society typically require that whatever fleshy transformation isn’t a dream, but permanent and awful. The “hero” of Videodrome, Max Renn (James Woods), wraps his hand around a pistol, which responds by sending metal tendrils through his flesh, and that may or may not be real – but it has a philosophy.

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What’s Going On in ‘Videodrome’?

Max is a producer at Toronto’s CIVIC-TV, Channel 83, who trafficks in softcore pornography. With the help of his assistant Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), he picks up a pirate signal from Malaysia that displays forbidden imagery, “Videodrome,” and has it broadcast. “It’s just torture and murder,” he says. “Very, very realistic. I think it’s what’s next.” His prediction is put to the test when his new girlfriend, radio host Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), glimpses Videodrome and finds the sadomasochism arousing, soon determined to find out where it’s produced. Hearing it may not be in Southeast Asia but rather south of the border in Pittsburgh, Max is adamant that she not go. After she disappears, he begins to suffer headaches, and can’t distinguish reality from televised reality, which Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) insists are one and the same. As he tells Max via videotape, “the television screen is part of the physical part of the brain,” and Videodrome isn’t just realistic, its signal is growing a tumor inside Max’s brain.

Why 'Videodrome' Is Still So Damned Scary (1)

What Is the Message Behind 'Videodrome'?

When Martin Scorsese saw Shivers, he was shocked and depressed by it, but found himself “thinking about it and talking about it to anyone who would listen.” This was David Cronenberg’s first movie, funded by a government program, and Canadian taxpayers weren’t happy about footing the bill for a movie that disturbed the director of Taxi Driver. Given that Videodrome is about film imagery that causes actual damage to people’s brains, it would seem that David Cronenberg is signing his confession. Was he buying into the moral panic that produced the “video nasties” of contemporary Britain? Of course, Videodrome was awash in just as much gore and sensation as any outlawed film on that list, so maybe the confession is signed in crayon. Is Videodrome a moral fable or a middle finger? A villainous element invokes the moral decay of modern society, the Japanese are making Western inroads with soft power. The movie is saying a lot, but is it taking a position? And then, of course, there’s Max, transformed by Videodrome into an assassin.

Identifying David Cronenberg in the Layers of ‘Videodrome’

The gun now fused to his body, he’s first sent to kill his colleagues at Channel 83, and then Brian O’Blivion’s daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits), who manages to turn Max against his boss, Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson). These two sides in opposition ought to give this riddle some parameters, and we may find Cronenberg between the two extremes of self-criticism and uninhibited filmmaking. As Bianca O’Blivion says of her father, “the monologue is his preferred mode of discourse,” which may as well be about a movie director. She goes on to characterize Brian’s relationship with Videodrome as purely scientific. He theorized that the signal was the key to humanity’s next evolutionary step, but Convex wanted to weaponize it and killed him. Just the same, Cronenberg is fascinated by the potential of film to create powerful imagery and leaves the moral messages up to the viewer.

However, even if the violence of Videodrome is apolitical, it’s so specific and strange that it must be purposeful. A man’s body is torn apart by a massive tumor, and Max’s stomach opens with a vagina to receive a living, breathing VHS tape. On paper, it’s ridiculous, but in context, it’s horrifyingly alien. Videodrome doesn’t come from Malaysia or even Pittsburgh, and its seeming masters are victims of it. In this way, the signal is part of a world in which greater, unknown forces reach out and touch people’s minds. As Max navigates the scummiest-looking Toronto ever committed to film, he wades through inescapable proof of that “cultural decay.” An angry man bangs on his girlfriend’s door, issuing violent threats; did this entitlement come from a sexualized media landscape, or is it vice versa? When Nicki or even Max express arousal at some new perversion, where do these urges come from? Videodrome is so scary because it posits that we’re already victims to something we find irresistible anyway.

Why 'Videodrome' Is Still So Damned Scary (2)

In ‘Videodrome,’ Humans Are Such Easy Prey

Brought to startling life by the effects master Rick Baker, the imagery of Videodrome also requires a human element. Despite that the equation of Videodrome plus The Dead Zone equals The Fly suggests that Videodrome is dramatically flat, Cronenberg imbues Max and his world with ample character. Our video producer is a fierce individualist who knows what he likes and skirts the line of behavior with female coworkers (at least, by 1983 standards), and in the end, is rendered a mindless killer. There’s an interesting scene where, in the throes of his “Videodrome problem,” Max freaks out at Harlan, and then softens and apologizes. Torn between urgency and diplomacy, he interrupts his own offer of a cup of coffee with hurried directions.

When Jeremy Irons won the Best Actor Oscar for Reversal of Fortune in 1991, he made a point to thank David Cronenberg, who directed him in the earlier Dead Ringers. All of Cronenberg’s movies could be described as Acting Olympics, and in Videodrome, James Woods has to, for example, communicate the satisfaction of turning a man’s hand – trapped in his stomach-vagina – into a hand grenade, and he does. “See you in Pittsburgh,” he deadpans before the explosion. This is, indeed, a film about dehumanization. If Videodrome is at all concerned with the humans in the audience, it isn’t interested in answering their questions, but provoking those questions in the first place. After all, the signals may be out there, but why are we so receptive?

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