David Cronenberg’s speculative nightmare glimpses into the then and the now
James Woods’ smut-peddling CIVIC-TV partner, Max Renn, having fled a very public and gruesome assassination, retreats to a sleazy hideaway on the fringes of nowhere. Amid the gloom, a television set winks into life. Staring back at Max is the salacious Nikki Brand (note the surname), the sultry gatekeeper to a further reality who becomes the visual motivation for Max and his newfound loyalty to a cause that he barely understands. Brand is there to guide Max into the illusory realm she inhabits, a life beyond life. He has reached, as Nikki explains, “the beginning of the new flesh,” is finally ready to go all the way. A mirror image of Max appears on the television set in front of him, a tutorial for his transcendence that ends in an explosion of human entrails crashing through the screen. Imitating what he sees, Max aims a quasi-organic mish-mash of revolver and hand at his temple. As serene as the vision that preceded him, he repeats the act. This time all we hear is the gunshot as we abruptly cut to black. Death to Videodrome; long live the new flesh!
I can hardly imagine how audiences would have reacted to the mind-boggling climax of David Cronenberg’s eighth feature, a multifaceted social commentary presented with typically warped lashings of disconcerting grotesquerie. What I do know is that very few made it to the theatres on American shores. The first Cronenberg film to be distributed by a major Hollywood studio, Videodrome bombed at the US box office when released on November 25th, 1983, recouping less than half of Universal’s $5,952,000 outlay. Rejected by audiences and loved by the likes of Andy Warhol, the movie was way ahead of its time, exploring themes that hardly qualify as a popcorn attraction for cinemagoers. Not even the appearance of Blondie style icon Debbie Harry ― a ubiquitous pop culture presence and international idol who was just as alluring to the general public as her character is to Max ― proved enough of a draw for a movie that was described as, “simultaneously stupefying and boring” by the Washington Post and “more fascinating than distancing” by Variety — hardly ringing endorsements for a fun-filled night out. Cronenberg had achieved cult success and even critical acclaim with low-budget Canadian films Rabid, The Brood and Scanners, but his transition to mainstream audiences didn’t come easy. Even the director’s relatively conventional adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone failed to make an impact at the peak of the author’s commercial powers. Not until The Fly in 1986 did he manage to make a broader connection with the moviegoing public.
Cinema, particularly the horror genre, would undergo radical changes during the 1970s and early 1980s thanks to a shift in attitudes and the evolution of practical effects. The fantastical days of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster would grow obsolete, supernatural horror giving way to monsters that were much closer to home. In a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate environment of anger and distrust, Americans were becoming much more critical of their own leaders, the nation’s serial killer boom sullying notions of white picket fence America. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre presented villains who reflected the nation’s newfound fears. With Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero would tackle issues such as race and consumerism, capitalism suddenly the target post-50s ‘red scare’ horror. With his own particular brand of ‘body horror’, Cronenberg would ask all kinds of questions that went beyond traditional horror cinema. After years of harmless popcorn scares, the genre had finally come of age.
By the mid-1980s, Civil Rights Movement counterculture had submitted to trickle-down politics, Wall Street decadence, industrial decline and notions of self-improvement, horror largely ditching the social commentaries for a deluge of practical effects depravity. Buoyed by the hegemonic slasher and a whole host of sleazy, low-budget productions with infamy at their core, a plethora of indie producers littered the home video market in a way that, at least for a while, was impossible to regulate. Depictions of graphic rape, the torture and degradation of women, real-life animal cruelty, and what at the time were very realistic portrayals of murder were a far cry from what audiences had been used to. Worse, such films were landing in the laps of kids who had no business viewing them, which was a serious cause for concern for parents who were deeply unprepared for such a sudden, creative onslaught and the cynical, desensitised generation evolving before their very eyes. This coincided with the infamous ‘Satanic Panic’, a hysterical phenomenon that invaded the US suburbs in the early 1980s following the release of Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder’s novel ‘Michelle Remembers’, the first modern publication to link satanic rituals to the abuse of children. Suddenly parents believed that devil worshippers were hiding in plain sight across America, rock music, horror movies and other forms of risqué entertainment taking the flak as the whole phenomenon was sensationalised beyond reason.
Well, I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it’s tactile, emotional or sexual. And I think that’s bad.Nikki Brand
Of course, this played into the hands of conservative politics, which is always looking to rob people of their civil liberties and suppress creative expression, the kind that didn’t sit right with Ronald Reagan’s hypocritical and wholly self-serving ‘return to family values’. What followed was a media-driven assault that looked to prosecute filmmakers accused of polluting the minds of a generation. In an era of Reaganite Christian values, the slasher came under fire from influential critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who would even call out the makers of controversial Christmas slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night just prior to marches from parent groups that saw the movie pulled from theatres in a matter of days. In a period of industrial obsolescence, the UK would even ban 72 movies outright, a list dubbed the ‘Video Nasties’ by a tabloid media who were only too willing to push prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s similarly draconian narrative. The working classes were not best pleased with being made redundant in an era of pitiless global expansion and joblessness. A police state mentality ensued amid widespread protests and the abolishment of worker unions, censorship hysteria winning back a section of voters as Thatcher, in-line with her American ally, championed “a return to Victorian values”. This was textbook manipulation based on fear. It was as if horror had transcended the realms of fiction to become something much more tangible and dangerous.
Horror wasn’t the only taboo industry pushing boundaries, though some things are better left unsaid. During the early-1980s, Cable TV would expand to include niche channels that catered to sexual tastes that were viewed as unseemly, the emergence of extreme and easily accessible pornographic material a cause for concern for a generation who had never imagined such a world. As documented in the wonderful Boogie Nights, pornography also became cheaper and more widespread after making the jump to video, the emergence of explicit, hardcore content and kinks such as sadomasochism a source of shame for a generation who likely harboured similar desires but were unwilling to flaunt them in public. As Que Spaulding, head of sales for racy cable network Escapade would tell The New York Times in 1981, ”There’s no doubt that when you offer this sort of material you’re serving two masters. One master is what the subscriber wants, which he’s not always willing to admit. The other is that elusive ‘they,’ which could be the city council, the church or even your own conscience.”
These are the themes at the centre of Cronenberg’s techno-surrealist head-scratcher, a visual banquet of sordid extravagance that plays out like a particularly bad acid trip. On one side we have Max and the smut-obsessed zealots of CIVIC-TV, a die hard rabble so desensitised to sex and violence that they’re always reaching for the next level of immorality. In the titular Videodrome, Max seems to have found the furthest reaches of experience, an interactive outlet that blurs the lines between fiction and reality, a fantasy that soon becomes an ideology. On the other side is Videodrome producer Barry Convex, who through his programming aims to afflict viewers with fatal brain tumours, thereby eradicating North America’s cultural decay and obsession with all things sex and violence. What ensues is a political battle not unlike the one occurring in reality, a fever dream of subterfuge and assassination that takes on a more literal perspective.
Videodrome‘s unlikely protagonist is the personification of an 80s man. Gone are the Christian loyalties and staunch family values of past generations, replaced by a sleazy singleton with an unhealthy fascination with the perverse. Max is a partner at CIVIC-TV, a morally corrupt station which deals in porn and advertises itself as ‘The one you take to bed with you.’ The trouble is, Max is just as susceptible to his product’s brain-rotting fascinations, watching until the early hours before rushing off in search of his next potential thrill. Seeking a product which truly pushes the boundaries, Max illegally scans overseas satellites for lurid material and eventually stumbles upon Videodrome, a seemingly authentic snuff production operating out of Pittsburgh. Before long Max is hooked, and when he meets Debbie Harry’s sultry sadomasochist, his fascinations take on a whole new reality, leading him along a murky path of wild hallucinations, surreptitious mind-control and ideological servitude.
Open up for me, Max. I’ve got something I want to play for you.Barry Convex
Our engagement with the movie’s increasingly abstract events hinges almost entirely on the performance of its lead player. Whatever you think of a 21st century Woods, regularly criticised for his outspoken political views, no one can play the wildly frenetic subject of jaw-dropping conspiracy quite like him. In Videodrome, he allows the surreal, unimaginable visuals and hallucinogenic developments an acutely intimate and deeply unsettling edge, becoming the total personification of a ceaseless, barely distinguishable nightmare that weaves in and out of imagined and unimagined realities. It’s a truly astonishing performance. Harry is also inspired casting. Playing the provocative fashion icon is something that comes naturally to her for obvious reasons, and who better than a universally influential pop culture symbol to effectively communicate Videodrome‘s left-field philosophies? She is the ultimate motivator, the kind of cool, sensual creature who makes political assassination sexy. Lust and sexual attraction are great human motivators, and, much to the downfall of the increasingly obsessive Renn, Harry inspires both in abundance, becoming the irresistible focal point of his increasingly unstable existence.
Videodrome is absolutely teeming with sexuality, the most universal form of self-imposed conformity and the root of human self-denial. Rick Baker’s sexually-oriented practical effects, some of the most affecting of the era, sweat and pulsate from every frame, the lascivious nature of Max’s physical manifestations cutting to the bone at a time when the AIDS epidemic had exploded across America. The moment when Max licks Nikki’s blood off a needle that she uses to pierce her ear, bathed in lubricous sensuality, opened up wounds beyond Baker’s visuals during a highly sensitive and utterly terrifying period of sexual self-loathing. The Reagan 80s kissed goodbye to the drug-fuelled, free love of previous decades, a fact reflected in the increasingly abundant slasher, a sub-genre that punished kids for embracing sexual experimentation in violent ways that were unprecedented. Baker’s hypnotic visuals transform seemingly inanimate objects into living, breathing entities that consume absolutely, a notion that was hugely unsettling back in the early 1980s for all the reasons mentioned.
After being exposed to Videodrome, Max begins to hallucinate in ways that fuel his desires, submissively crawling towards his television set as technology purrs and pulsates at his every touch. When the line separating fantasy from reality begins to dissolve, Max goes in search of infamous recluse Dr Brian O’Blivion, a philosopher who publicly describes the television screen as being ‘the retina of the mind’s eye’. In one of the movie’s most disturbing scenes, Max’s chest develops a vaginal cavity which doubles-up as a front loader for his taboo tape collection, material which offers violent or sexual relief the way ‘video nasties’ did a whole generation, mirroring the base desires of a society plunged into moral shame. When Max is recruited as an assassin by the political figures behind Convex and Videodrome, his semi-organic handgun becomes a phallic representation of the medium’s grip on our thoughts and actions. The movie presents a reality beyond the suggestive, one that explores the constraints of flesh and matter, questioning the further self through an unholy matrimony of living tissue and mind-altering technology.
Such a concept didn’t come easy from a visual perspective, Cronenberg always looking to push boundaries when it comes to body horror. Baker’s jaw-dropping contributions were some of the most difficult of his entire career to the extent that much of what was suggested in the script proved impossible, forcing he and Cronenberg to collaborate on the fly. “I got the script for Videodrome, and it had all this crazy-ass stuff in it, and I was like, “How the hell am I going to do this?” Baker would recall. “And there was some stuff, actually, that I couldn’t do. There was stuff in the script that, I just said to David, ‘I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can do it as it’s written. But I can do this.’ “That was a mutated version of what he had, and again, with David, it was a real collaboration. He was great about really listening to what I had to say, and it was more like, ‘I can’t do it as written, but I think this gives you basically the same idea, if you do this and that’, and he was cool. ‘Here’s what the flesh gun should be, I think it should do this'”.
Despite focusing on mediums that have since become outmoded, Videodrome continues to flaunt its relevance, proving deeply prescient almost half a century later. Some of the technology may seem a little dated ― back then, our clunky speculations promised robots in every home and very soon we’d all need mansions to accommodate our increasingly sophisticated gadgets and skyscraper home computers ― but the film’s themes, based on the idea that technology is a medium for change, but also a conduit for manipulation, are as relevant as ever. The movie, which also questions mediums as tools for systematic propaganda, presents us with devices that subliminally install political ideologies and promote mass indoctrination. The latter is nothing new. Cinema is inherently fascist, television and film sophisticated conduits for promoting such ideologies. In 1988, famous linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, along with American economist Edward Herman. The book proposed what would become known as the Propaganda Model, a study of how propaganda and systemic bias function in the corporate mass media as a means to communicate political ideologies to mainstream society. Today, the internet is an open canvas for fake news, and modern political leaders feel much more comfortable in the realms of celebrity, using social networking platforms to promote their narratives and sell their ‘brand’.
Protagonist Max is drawn to, and ultimately consumed by, an almost purgatorial realm of transience. Replacing modern technological fancies are the now outmoded mediums of television, VHS (or Betamax, which made it easier to create Baker’s practical effects, to be specific), and the kind of gaudy virtual reality headsets that belong in a museum, but the film’s sentiments and social commentaries are thoroughly enduring, evolving to levels that are much more sophisticated and frightening. During the film, Max is devoured, quite literally, by the alluring images beamed through his television set. His hand, mutating into a mechanical/flesh hybrid redolent of a gamer’s joystick, becomes a deadly weapon, as, through a life-threatening genetic mutation, does Max himself. Like laptops, smartphones and the Internet, these are intensive nodes of attention that absorb Max absolutely, all-consuming environments that forge an impression of life beyond the conventional. The film explores the relationship between the screen, the retina and the mind, foretelling a technological portal into further existence, the kind we are living today through social media platforms and immersive virtual reality gaming.
The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.Brian O’Blivion
Rather than embrace a future in which automation makes our lives easier and more satisfying, Cronenberg presents it as yet another outlet for human corruption. Not only does Videodrome challenge our dependency on technology, it predicts our fetishization of mind-numbing devices and the insidious nature fundamental to all modern technology. Shaped by the all-seeing eye of Big Brother and weaned on notions of Doublethink, Thoughtcrime and Newspeak, pre-digital, Orwellian dystopia ruled with an iron fist, presenting us with societies which are monitored intensively, which are forced to conform against their will among a paranoid community of spies and misinformation. Not in his wildest, most twisted dreams could Orwell have predicted life in the 21st century, a time when conformity is essentially self-imposed, when privacy-invading devices masquerade as glamorous consumer products that, like Max, we crave uncontrollably. We conform thanks to a sense of vanity imposed through advertising, but also out of necessity due to the kind of planned obsolescence that sees technology bettered gradually, providing us with new model iPhones and next generation processors faster than we can consume them.
Is Max’s gun any different from a joystick, a remote control or a smartphone? You have to ask yourself that question as you watch his unwilling descent into submission, conformity and madness. Almost four decades after its release, Videodrome is as relevant as ever, not only due to our growing fascination with an overabundance of modern technology, or the parasitic relationship we have developed with it, but because of the growing influence that the mainstream media has on society and the sophisticated model of propaganda that has now been established. Today, it is through television and the internet that elections are won and lost, that heroes and villains are forged. It is also where false information is passed off as truth, moulding our thoughts and opinions and feeding our prejudices.
In Videodrome, Max is tricked into believing something that simply isn’t real, but because he is exposed to that something day after day, he has no choice but to accept what he sees, and in the end comes to embrace it in spite of himself. When Max ultimately conforms to the murderous whims of Convex, and later Videodrome, as the two sides wage political warfare, it is an inserted VHS tape that communicates their instructions, sending him on a path of mindless destruction that promotes action over will, fanaticism over reason. When lascivious business associate Masha (Lynne Gorman) returns with information about the little-known snuff purveyor encroaching on Max’s freedoms, she warns him about their surreptitious nature. “It has a philosophy,” she tells him. “And that’s what makes it dangerous.” But in the end, we become a danger to ourselves.