Videodrome

I live in a highly-excited state of overstimulation
★★★★★
Released: 
1983
Director: 
David Cronenberg
Starring: 
James Woods, Deborah Harry, Jack Creley, Sonja Smits, Leslie Carlson
The Setup: 
Guy happens onto snuff channel and ends up getting a little more than he bargained for.
Discussion: 

I saw this several years ago, like when I was in college, and did NOT like it. Hello, it's GROSS! Since then I have became quite a Cronenberg admirer, so it was clear that this one had to come around for reassessment at some point. And while I can see that there is much here to admire, I still didn't really like it.

We open with James Woods as Max, getting his video wake-up from his assistant Friday. He is one of the partners in Civic TV's Channel 83, which shows softcore and suchlike, and calls itself "the one you take to bed with you." Max busies himself with finding material for the channel, and we see him peruse a softcore video called "Samurai Dreams," in which a Japanese woman uses a dildo. One can just imagine the fun Cronenberg and friends had shooting that. He shows it to his partners at the station, and none of them are impressed. It's too "soft," and Max wants something "tough." He has a contact who constantly tries to detect broadcasts they can use, and he has found this show called Videodrome, behind a very serious firewall [of sorts]. It shows a woman being tortured in a red room. Later, when Max asks when the plot kicks in, we discover that there is no plot—it's just straight torture and murder, that's it. He tries to find out its source so he can put it on the air.

In the meantime, Max appears on the Rena King show, alongside Deborah Harry as Nicki Brand and appearing on TV, Professor O'Blivion. Max is smoking on the air [and chain-smoking through the whole first half], and starts hitting on Nicki pretty hard, right on the air. I got a little bit of a laugh from how they two of them just keep talking and flirting while Rena is trying to interview Professor O'Blivion. This scene is where we start to spew thematic exposition in every direction: Max puts anything that will get ratings on TV, but hides behind a philosophy of "better on TV than on the streets." Nicki, a radio therapist on CRAM [is that supposed to be a joke?], does think there's too much going on out there in the world, and says one of my favorite lines that is just dying to be taken out of context: "I live in a highly-excited state of overstimulation." Then Professor O'Blivion—Cronenberg at least has the sense to have him say that's not his real name, but what's the others' excuse?—only appears on TV, because he thinks that TV has become the retina of society, and says that what people experience on TV is real to them [patently untrue], and other hoo-ha about how TV is taking over society.

So Max and Nicki have a date and she pulls out the videodrome tape and wants to pop it in while they do it. Turns out she's into getting hurt during sex [her name, nick[i] brand, refers to two things that she has done to her], and we see Woods piercing her ears while they do it. I TOTALLY remember the controversy over this [and other scenes] back in the day. I found it distinctly unpleasant to sit through, as well as unbelievable that an adult woman who is a masochist hasn't pierced her ears yet. But whatever, I'll play along. What I DID like—REALLY like—is this low-budget but quite effective transition into hallucination. We close in on Max and Nicki as they're getting it on, then with a cut [that I didn't even notice the first time] we start to pull out again, and we are in the red room from Videodrome. It's so long that you don't notice the cuts, and the transition into the Videodrome room, accomplished simply by slowly turning the lights up, works wonderfully because it looks as though the room actually APPEARS around them. I was super into it. Anyway, Max realizes that he has started to hallucinate. The next time he sees Nicki she gives herself a cigarette burn [also distinctly unpleasant], and says she's going to Pittsburgh to audition for Videodrome, because "that show was made for me."

SPOILERS > > >
Max finds out that O'Blivion is connected with Videodrome, and is going to check it out, despite being told that he shouldn't. "You know I stay away from the scary stuff," he says, which I thought was funny, as he IS talking about a show that is nothing but torture and murder. He goes to the Cathode Ray Mission, a creepy mental hospital / homeless shelter that parks its residents in front of TVs. He meet's O'Blivion's lovely daughter, Bianca, and that night she sends him a tape. It breathes in his hands. Oh, I forgot to tell you that when Friday delivers the tape, Max freaks out and smacks her hard twice—once seeing Nicki in her place—and she responds, in an unperturbed voice "Geez, you scared me!" I thought this was crazy, as personally I don't stay that calm when somebody smacks me, but we soon find out it was a hallucination. Anyway, after the breathing, O'Blivion comes on and says that he started having visions, and the VISIONS created a tumor, and the tumor was removed and it became Videodrome. By the way, the 'drome' refers a sort of arena. Suddenly O'Blivion is killed, and the executioner is Nicki! She calls to him and soon his TV [which has Atari 2600 controls and a cartridge of "Combat" on top!] is breathing as well. This leads to the famous [and pretty good-looking] sequence when the screen is pulsating and Max presses his head into it. One unfortunate aspect is that while Debbie Harry is undoubtedly ridiculously cool, she does have rather prominent front teeth, and the kind of close-ups her mouth gets here had me thinking "Max, don't slice your ear open on that thing!" rather than about the serious intersection of morality and technology I think we were supposed to be thinking of.

After finding out that O'Blivion has been dead for 11 years, and his appearances are just assembled from the thousands of hours of videotape he left, Max watches more O'Blivion tapes, then opens his shirt to find that he has a big vagina-like opening there. He's been hanging out in his living room with a gun in his hand [now WHY does he do that?] and inserts the gun into his belly for safekeeping. Then the hole closes up. The whole thing is disgusting, but I like another really good and simple effect, which is that Woods apparently really has a ridge in the middle of his belly, so when they take off the appliance and take it down to just makeup, it really looks as though you are watching the hole close up before your eyes.

So then he is contacted by Barry Convex, the guy who apparently runs Videodrome. Turns out that the guy who first showed him Videodrome was planted two years before in order to bring Max into the operation. They want him to kill his partners and give then control of his channel. He retrieves his gun from his handy belly storage unit, and his hand grows to be part of it—it's a handgun. Convex puts a videotape into Max's belly, and this put him under their control. There are several more twists and turns, but they barely cohere together, and you can have the fun of discovering them on your own.
< < < SPOILERS END

This is one of those movies that is notable for the brilliance of its invention as opposed to how well it works as a complete piece. Because it barely works. There is much material that can be found on how Cronenberg was writing and re-writing this right up until the last day of shooting, and it shows, because as I'm sitting here writing about it in a coherent way, it's becoming more and more apparent that it doesn't really add up. Is it about how watching violence on TV makes you want to enact violence? I think it was at one time. Is it about how TV is a form of mind-control? Is it about how TV is replacing real experience? Is it about how people are becoming increasingly unable to relate to anything that's not on a video screen? It seems to be about all these things, picking them up and putting them down with only the barest effort to tie them together. Luckily for the film, TV is a broad enough target that you can just imply that it's BAD and it'll seem like a coherent statement. But one thing that really started to gnaw at me was; who created Videodrome, and why? Is it really just supposed to be an evolution? And the people who want to broadcast it—why? What do they want to control people to do? They know how destructive it is… it just didn't come together. But again, this film remains in the "definitely should be seen" category just for the brilliance of some of its visions and its general ideas about television and its effect on the brain and body.

I was sent the non-Criterion edition with nothing but a trailer, but WHAT a trailer! It has almost no footage from the movie, but just shows a very quick montage of a lot of images and animation that express the frenetic quality of television. If you get this disc, DO NOT miss it. What else? Woods was fine, I'm glad he takes these roles. Debbie Harry is, of course, Debbie Harry, and no one and nothing can penetrate her unbreakable shield of awesomeness, but she does have the distance and flat reading style of the terrified inexperienced actor. As I said, a lot of the effects are quite simple and clever, although some of them look... like 80s gore effects.

Should you watch it: 

Definitely. But I'm glad I don't have to watch it again.