Just a few years into the 21st century, Olivier Assayas wrote in The Village Voice: “Cronenberg’s visionary Videodrome is the most important film of this generation. Time has only reinforced its audacity.” It’s been 25 years since David Cronenberg’s first masterpiece drilled its mutant images into the minds of unsuspecting audiences, and Videodrome is as contemporary and relevant as ever.
You can trace David Cronenberg’s meditations on technology, disease, addiction, and mutation in the body human all the way back to his earliest shorts (Stereo and Crimes of the Future) and features (Shivers and Rabid). Like George Romero before him, Cronenberg’s earliest films brought horror out of the past and into modern life, breaking taboos and barriers of good taste along the way. He makes his ideas physical and visceral, in a way that you can see and almost feel. It only becomes sharper and more resonant with his remake of The Fly, where he charts the transformation in gooey detail that looks like some diseased attack on the human body (it’s been called a metaphor for AIDS) and eXistenZ, a virtual reality game made flesh, where the line between fantasy and reality doesn’t so much blur as dissolve and overpowering artificial stimulus comes back to effect physical reality.
Even his most recent films explore the same ideas, only instead of some outside agent, he focuses on the way violence and emotion play upon our minds and our bodies. In Spider, the human mind creates a reality for its main character because the truth of his actions are too much to handle: psychosis as a kind of evolutionary fail safe, and this reality created from within is as real to him as the physical world. In A History of Violence, the past that the hero Tom wants to ignore and deny, his repressed history of violence, emerges like a dormant virus when he and his family are under threat. And it emerges without thought — it’s pure instinct, like a hardwired reflex kicked into action with the surge of adrenaline. An essential part of Cronenberg’s genius is making his concepts physical, visceral, alive. It’s what makes his ideas so powerful.
Videodrome is an evolutionary leap in Cronenberg’s filmmaking and ideas. His previous film, Scanners, had become a minor hit and a cult film, but it was a pretty straightforward approach to the idea of telepathy as a product of genetic experimentation, with a fairly conventional conspiracy thriller plot. Videodrome takes concepts of disease and mutation as evolution, and of the body’s physical and biochemical response to progress and technology changing too fast to really absorb and conquer, to a whole new level, and twists it in a plot that wraps around itself while it flirts with another central Cronenberg theme: the fascination with and the fear of sex.
James Woods stars as Max Renn, a hustling cable TV entrepreneur in the pioneering days of cable TV who becomes fascinated by a pirate TV signal with brutal yet hypnotic S&M broadcasts. He’s just looking for transgressive thrills to jolt his jaded sensibilities. What he gets is the Hallucination Channel, a subsonic virtual drug transmitted by TV signals. It burrows into the mind and then starts creating its own violent and disturbing images in Renn’s head and designer mutations in his flesh.
Renn’s investigations take to the Cathode Ray Mission of “media prophet” Brian O’Blivion, a kind of reclusive, wacko version of Marshall MacLuhan who speaks only through TV monitors and takes the “guru” part of media guru seriously, and corrective lens entrepreneur Barry Convex (Cronenberg isn’t shy about front-loading character names), a blankly creepy player in a bizarre conspiracy played with a skin-deep, unctuous conviviality by Les Carlson.
On its surface you can read it as a media screed with a drug addiction subtext. The alienating effects of TV and the skewed sense of reality caused by viewing the world through the cathode ray window are central elements of his mind-bending conspiracy thriller, but ultimately it’s a reductive interpretation. Cronenberg uses the fears of television to manipulate an audience as a starting off point for a conspiracy thriller curled around his themes of disease, mutation, and the biological response to technology as evolution. In the words of his own character, Cronenberg makes his visions become flesh, from a vagina-like maw that opens in Woods’ stomach to a gun that burrows into his hand with root-like tendrils. With Videodrome, however, Cronenberg takes his themes a step further than in his previous films. Renn’s ordeal is as much about perception as mutation and Cronenberg never leaves Renn’s perspective. But while we can never know whether Renn is experiencing a mutant leap into the future or a hallucinatory waking nightmare, there’s no doubt that he’s a slave to the signal.
Everything in Videodrome was inherent in Cronenberg’s previous films in primal form, but his ideas and his cinematic explorations take an evolutionary leap with this production and I wonder if the production circumstances encouraged that leap. According to Cronenberg, he had to rush the script into production before he had a final draft due to financing issues. The script evolved during the shoot. His original ending changed. His crew, many of them veterans of previous productions, “got freaked out” by the shoot (Cronenberg’s own words). He was reworking, refining, remaking things during the production, sometimes in the middle of a scene, resulting in both a more instinctual kind of filmmaking and a more organic kind of development. The result is a film with an internal flow and growth that is more organic than narrative.
Rick Baker’s latex and mechanical make-up effects, state of the art at the time, look as dated as the blurry, lo-fi video imagery of the pirate broadcasts. It’s the creative madness of the ideas and the resonance of the visceral images make them nightmarish. Woods is at once charming and sleazy and the jittery intensity and streetwise smarts behind his cable-TV carny attitude makes Max more vivid and passionate than any of Cronenberg’s previous protagonists. Woods makes Renn an innocent at heart, a man fascinated by imagery but unnerved when the fantasies are made real, either in the consensual sex games of Deborah Harry’s seductive radio psychologist or the battering blasts of brutal hallucinations. He makes Renn’s journey as emotionally compelling as it is harrowing and alien. “Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!”
[This essay grew out of a presentation I made at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle and a subsequent review written for Amazing Stories]