Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983), written and directed by David Cronenberg.


It works on anyone who watches it. But why would anyone watch it?

Max (wonderful James Woods) runs shabby Channel 83 on local cable, featuring violence and soft porn. He's looking for something edgier and more transgressive, both in his life and for station programming. He gets the programming by pirating a satellite feed of unknown origin: "Videodrome", featuring really real-looking torture porn and executions. Sick stuff.

In his life he starts dating Nicki Brand (pop singer Deborah Harry). "Nicki" because she likes to be cut, and "Brand" because she wants to be burned with cigarettes. Get it?

He begins to suffer horrific hallucinations and we can no longer distinguish external reality from his mental states. It's not clear the film intends to separate the levels of reality and nightmare. It sets up problems that are not solved, but ambiguous oracles are the best.

The grotesque body-horror prosthetics are pretty amazing: fake-looking but scary, all done with physical effects, obviously. Memorably, Woods gets a large vaginal slit in his stomach where he keeps a Walther PPK and betamax tapes. (I'm convinced this was the beginning of the end for Beta in the half-inch format war).

This is a new level of sophistication for Cronenberg, although like all of his early films it has a cheap and clunky look. That's not bad -- cheap can be scary. Woods kicks it to a higher level. He's quick and funny, but also lost and tormented.

A lot of artists -- those with a line of BS -- congratulate themselves on their courage in putting out provocative and challenging material. But if they encounter outraged pushback they retreat into "it's just paint (or marble or film); why be so serious?" Cronenberg is bolder and more honest than that. Do images alter the viewer? Of course they do. Let's explore that.

I never quite follow the plot. Max seems caught in a war between Convex (who is pushing Videodrome) and the O'Blivions ("Death to Videodrome! Long Live the New Flesh!") But isn't the New Flesh created by the Videodrome signal?

You can see this as a dark reversal of Christian revelation. In theology "New Flesh" would be the glorified body the soul has in heaven. Cronenberg is always about transformations gone horribly wrong. Unlike David Lynch, I don't think he has a heaven: it all looks hellish to me.

Misc notes:

Howard Shore score. Another Toronto guy: he got his start with early Cronenberg.

Filmed in Toronto and inspired by an actual cable TV station and local characters.

Criterion Blu-ray with two pieced together commentary tracks: (1) the director and cinematographer, and (2) James Woods and Deborah Harry. Some interesting material but I can't say any of it gave me a new understanding of the movie.