“My early drafts tend to get extreme in all kinds of ways: sexually, violently, and just in terms of weirdness. But I have to balance this weirdness against what an audience will accept as reality. Even in the sound mix, when we’re talking about what sort of sound effects we want for the hand moving around inside the stomach slit, for example; we could get really weird and use really loud, slurpy, gurgly effects, but I’m playing it realistically. That is to say, I’m giving it the sound it would really have, which is not much. I’m presenting something that is outrageous and impossible, but I’m trying to convey it realistically.”–David Cronenberg on Videodrome
DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg
PLOT: Searching for the next level of violent and pornographic entertainment, CIVIC-TV president Max Renn discovers a pirate broadcast called “Videodrome” that depicts the torture and killing of nude men and women in an undisclosed location. Renn is thrilled by what he sees as the future of television, a savage show with no plot, characters, or budget, but his interest in in the program becomes more personal than professional as he watches it with radio personality Nikki Brand and develops his own taste for sadomasochism. Meanwhile, Renn explores the origins of “Videodrome” and its connection to media prophet Professor Brian O’Blivion, whose lectures about the relationship between the human mind and televisual media suggest “Videodrome”’s influence over Renn goes much deeper than he realizes.
- David Cronenberg’s inspiration for Videodrome came from his childhood experiences of watching televisions pick up distant, distorted signals after the local stations had gone off the air. He imagined what it would be like to see something obscene or illegal on the screen, and he wondered whether he would turn away from the sight or keep watching.
- CityTV, a Toronto-based independent television station that controversially broadcast softcore porn movies late at night in the 1970s, was the inspiration for Videodrome‘s “Civic TV.”
- Special makeup effects designer Rick Baker began work on Videodrome shortly after winning the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup, the first award ever given in that category. He was awarded for his work on the film An American Werewolf in London.
- The character of Professor Brian O’Blivion was loosely based on Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of communication theory. McLuhan is famous for coining the phrase “the medium is the message,” echoes of which can be seen in Videodrome. Cronenberg may have been a student of McLuhan’s at the University of Toronto.
- Videodrome was a box office bomb, earning only $2 million at theaters (it cost $6 million to make). It has since become a cult film.
- At the time of this writing Universal Pictures lists a Videodrome remake as “in development.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Videodrome is full of unforgettable scenes, from Max Renn inserting a gun into his stomach to Barry Convex’s death by cancer-inducing bullets, but it is Renn’s sexual encounter with his television that best captures the hallucinatory, philosophical, and disturbingly erotic aspects of the film. After watching footage of Nicki Brand strangling Prof. O’Blivion, Renn is drawn to his television by Brand’s playful but insistent voice, as her lips grow to fill the screen. Soon, Renn is close enough to reach out and touch the device, which throbs and grows veins under his fingers like an engorged organ. Between rasps and sighs, the television says, “I want you, Max,” as Renn caresses its frame, becoming more aggressive and aroused. The screen begins to bulge under Renn’s groping hands as he leans forward, his face disappearing into the screen’s disembodied lips while they slurp and moan in ecstasy. Though Brand initially seduces Renn, by the end the television has become the willing object of his lust. Renn is not a passive observer of the screen, nor is his television a lifeless machine. Rather, Renn’s craving for the television enters the device and animates it, infusing it with so much desire that it is able to desire Renn in return. This giving of life to the mechanical captures Videodrome’s most salient theme, the idea that technology is not separate from humanity but instead represents an expansion upon the human form, a “new flesh” that may either subjugate or liberate us all.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Videodrome is weird from the moment it introduces its titular snuff program, not just because of the violence it depicts but also because of the characters’ casual acceptance of that violence. Renn and Brand’s unreserved fascination with the “Videodrome” broadcast places them in an alternate moral universe, one where murder is simply the next step for television; the viewer is displaced from his or her own ethical reality.
That disorientation only increases as Videodrome takes hold of Renn, inducing horrible visions that further loosen his and the viewer’s grasp of what is real. In those hallucinations, Renn is subjected to brainwashing and disfigurement that warp him on a mental and physical level, shaking the sense of himself that is his most basic link to the real world. In one scene Barry Convex forces a videocassette into the vaginal slit that Renn has grown on his stomach, adding overtones of surrealism and rape to the story. It is an assault on not just the body and the mind but also on reality, an experience that shatters the protagonist and the viewer in a way few other films can match.
Original trailer for Videodrome
COMMENTS: Near the beginning of Videodrome, a talk show host asks, “Don’t you feel [violent and sexual] shows contribute to a social climate of violence and sexual malaise?” The perceived link between misanthropic art and moral decay drives the debate around explicit media, such as violent video games, pornography, and even films like Videodrome, but the protagonist Max Renn (James Woods) glibly dismisses it by saying his network’s shows are “a harmless outlet for [his audience’s] fantasies and their frustrations.” However, Cronenberg’s film refuses to put the host’s question aside so easily as it depicts a snuff program that sends its audience, Renn, on a path towards sexual deviancy, and later killing. In Videodrome, we see the media moralist’s fears realized in a world where fictional depravity becomes monstrous reality.
But Videodrome is no mere cautionary tale, as its anxieties about video’s blossoming relationship with mankind are matched by an interest in what that union of man and machine may unlock within us. While Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson) uses video technology to warp Renn’s mind and turn him into an enslaved killer, the same technology is used by Bianca O’Blivion (Sonja Smits) to free Renn and initiate him into another reality, one where his deadly hallucinations have the power to save him from his corporate foes. Video even promises to save Renn from death itself by making him an immortal member of the “new flesh,” but only if he “kills the old flesh” through the act of suicide. Whether this promise is genuine or a false pretense for a final media-inspired act of violence, this time against Renn himself, is unclear. Renn’s fate, much like the ultimate impact of violent and sexual media on society, is left open to debate.
For a film so concerned with the moral and existential implications of media, Videodrome’s protagonist is strangely uncritical about the programs he produces and consumes. Renn fast-forwards through pornographic videos and then rejects them for broadcast because they are “too soft,” revealing the sexual malaise he’s accused of promoting. It’s only when his employee, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), unveils footage of torture from “Videodrome” that Renn finally becomes excited, marveling at the video’s low production costs and its lack of plot and characters. He praises its realism, and thereby reveals his own cynical opinion of the real world: that it’s an arena of meaningless abuse maintained through a parade of anonymous killers and victims. “The world’s a shithole, ain’t it,” says Renn, and the discovery of “Videodrome” just verifies his belief. Renn doesn’t worry about his shows corrupting society because, as he sees it, it is already corrupt.
However, that worldly attitude falters when the violence and sexuality Renn has witnessed on-screen meets him face to face in the shape of Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry). If Renn is a man who has seen everything, then Brand is a woman who has done everything, not just once but often enough to become deadened to the experience. That numbness is shown through the bags under her eyes and the listless way she sears her breast with a cigarette, as though she’s bored with the pain before the ember even touches her skin. Brand’s mounting need for stimulation drives her towards masochism, where sex and violence unite within the pursuit of excitement at any cost, and even that isn’t enough for her. Her shameless and unquenchable appetite flusters Renn, yet that shock soon gives way to boyish curiosity as she hands him the cigarette and invites him to burn her again. Renn may defend his network by pointing out the line separating fantasy from real life debauchery, but he crosses that line with Brand so easily that it might as well be invisible.
Actually, Brand is a hallucination created for Renn by Videodrome, and when he takes her home his fantasies and reality have already merged. As Renn learns from Bianca, Videodrome contains a hidden signal that induces a brain tumor in the viewer, and the tumor creates visions that are shaped by the footage concealing the signal. The violent sexuality of Videodrome’s snuff program accordingly creates visions of a wanton and self-abusing partner for Renn, a gift to the forbidden desires served by his choice of programming. Those visions return again and again without any musical or visual cues to announce them and separate scenes of hallucinations from reality. Neither Renn nor the viewer can find the line between the two because, according to Videodrome, “there is nothing real outside our perception of reality.” Renn’s video-inspired hallucination of Brand therefore doesn’t represent a fantasy mistaken for reality, but rather a fantasy that has become his reality.
Brand proves her realness through her intimate relationship with Renn, which gives her an undeniable humanity. The real Brand dies before her date with Renn, but the hallucinations of her that appears instead seem no less alive as they writhe, sigh, and bleed in his arms. Even as the visions become more bizarre, with Brand changing from a woman to a face on Renn’s television, they retain that sweaty, throbbing sense of reality through Rick Baker’s practical effects. The television’s frame turns to flesh before Renn’s eyes, and the screen becomes supple like a breast at his touch. Instead of disproving Brand’s humanity, her transformation into Renn’s television transfers that humanity to the machine and makes it human too.
In fact, the television is even more intimately connected to Renn, and therefore more human, than the hallucination of Brand. Renn selects videos based on whether or not a show fits his tastes, and so television becomes a vessel for the man’s inner life. His imaginings are then projected onto the screen, as with “Videodrome”’s snuff program, creating visual experiences that intensify the urges behind them. This process, by which the television registers and then vividly manifests the viewer’s desires, integrates television so deeply into the mind that Cronenberg pictures it as part of the human brain: “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye,” Prof. O’Blivion (Jack Creley) says. “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.”
In Videodrome, the line between television and humanity blurs alongside the line between fantasy and reality. Television is so close to man’s desires that it becomes a part of man, and the fiction it creates from those desires is so immediate that it becomes reality.
The idea of television as a part of the brain and shaper of reality is embodied in Renn’s tumor, an actual growth in the brain that “produce[s] and control[s] hallucinations to the point that it will change human reality.” With the tumor representing television, the hallucinations created by the tumor become a metaphor for videotapes, which are themselves a sort of vision and alternate reality. After encountering “Videodrome”’s snuff show, Renn is subjected to hallucinations of sex and violence until he is finally transported onto the set and experiences the show himself. However, Renn had felt absorbed by the show even before the hallucinations, already believed its content was reflected in the world around him. Watching “Videodrome” places Renn within the world of Videodrome, not just through hallucinations but also by reaffirming his desires and biases. He sees sex and violence mingled on-screen and echoes that combination in his fantasies; he sees his cynicism projected on-screen and gorges on it, letting it become his truth. By indulging its audience’s fetishes and preconceptions in that way, and inviting no alternate perspectives, all television threatens to immerse the viewer and become his or her complete reality.
Yet while television panders to the viewers, it may also serve hidden forces of wealth and influence that wish to exploit them, and therein lays the danger of “Videodrome.” What separates “Videodrome” from other shows is that it has a philosophy, a hidden plot to control and cull society’s perverts by broadcasting its sinister signal through their televisions. Possession of their media means possession of them, not by physical force, but by reshaping the reality they inhabit.
“They can program you,” says Bianca about Convex and his company. “They can play you like a videotape recorder.”
With the power of Videodrome behind him, Convex tells Renn to kill his colleagues, and in response Renn’s hand turns into a gun. Contrasting the transformation of Renn’s television into an organic being, Videodrome has turned Renn into an unthinking weapon. By surrendering to the seedy pleasures of “Videodrome,” Renn also surrenders himself to the corporate interests behind the program and becomes an instrument in their agenda.
When Renn arrives at Bianca’s door to kill her, though, she undoes his programming with her own tapes before sending him back out with a new mission, to “use the weapons they’ve given you to destroy them.” Renn soon hallucinates himself turning Harlan’s hand into a live grenade and filling Convex with tumors, returning the harm they’ve done to him several times over. Whereas Videodrome used Renn’s hallucinations as a trap, one that would make him susceptible to control, Bianca’s tapes turn them into a weapon against oppression. Video lets Renn imagine resisting the corporate forces aligned against him, and simply by imagining it he makes that resistance possible. The creative potency of video seems to make Renn the author of his own fate, the director of his own film, and therefore free to write his own ending.
But it’s unclear whether Renn is really himself at that point or if he’s just fulfilling Bianca’s will, all the while remaining under Videodrome’s spell. When Renn’s television reappears before him with Brand’s face across its screen, it offers Renn transcendence at the cost of his own life. It’s the familiar holy promise of death and resurrection, but instead of faith in God, it demands faith in video. The media prophet Prof. O’Blivion exhibits such faith while being immortalized as a collection of videotapes, and Brand televised ghost also claims that “death is not the end,” but their reliability is uncertain. “Watch, and I’ll show you how it’s done,” says Brand before projecting a vision of Renn shooting himself in the head, an act that Renn immediately mirrors. Has Renn entered a higher plane of existence by shedding his mortal shell, or is he only copying something he saw on television? For the viewer, as with Renn, it is a question of faith in video, a question of whether the art can truly change reality for the better or only has the power to lead the viewer astray.
Videotapes are no longer cutting edge technology, but Videodrome’s broader examination of media, morality, and existence itself remain deeply relevant. The increasing portability and utility of media players has made them nearly inseparable from people, like they have actually become an extension of the human body. The technology to produce and distribute video is still creatively and socially powerful, and the variety of content being produced is wider than ever. There are news programs catering exclusively to niche politics, shows appealing to every esoteric interest, and sexual material that indulges any conceivable fetish. The temptation for viewers to immerse themselves in the videos of their choosing, to escape from the wider world into an isolated reality of their own making, has become even stronger. The influence of corporations and other forces over media remains too, though, as does the possibility that media may be used to indoctrinate the viewer with the ideas and values of another. Videotapes may no longer be ubiquitous, but we still live in the world of Videodrome.
Meanwhile, the question surrounding violent and sexually explicit media still remains. Do they foster a culture of corrupted morals, or may we find something worthwhile within them instead? This is a question for the viewer, a question of what he or she gets out of watching graphic television and films. It’s the question that Cronenberg poses to both Renn and the audience when Convex spitefully asks, “Why would anybody watch a scum show like ‘Videodrome’?”
As before, Renn is glib in his response and claims he only did it for “business reasons,” leaving the question still unresolved. Cronenberg doesn’t offer an answer, and so he leaves it to his audience to search for one, to ask themselves why they’d watch something like Videodrome. It’s an invitation to forego mindless consumption and truly look at media, seeing not just what’s on the surface but also what’s really inside. After all, Videodrome is about the power concealed within a video, both to enslave a mind and possibly unlock its potential. If we ask why we’re watching and what we’re receiving from the experience, then maybe it becomes possible see that power at work and understand its effect on us. Maybe then we can use that power instead of being used by it, see our screens without losing sight of ourselves.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
OFFICIAL SITE: Videodrome (1983) – The Criterion Collection – Criterion’s Videodrome page includes the trailer, hilarious negative reviews from test screenings, and three exhaustive essays on the film from Tim Lucas, Carrie Rickey and Gary Indiana
IMDB LINK: Videodrome (1983)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Matt Singer: Videodrome — Ebert Presents – IFC’s Matt Singer calls Videodrome “the most prophetic science fiction movie of the last thirty years” in this segment from “At the Movies”
understanding.media – videodrome – A short blurb and annotated bibliography for Videodrome, with some working links
Universal Sets Adam Berg to Helm ‘Videdrome’ Remake – Deadline reports on the planned Videodrome remake
Excess and Resistance in Feminised Bodies: David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Jean Baudrillard’s Seduction – Postmodern academic essay that is slightly more lucid than the title suggests
Videodrome (Comparison: R-Rated – Unrated) – (WARNING: disturbing images). An explanation, with stills, of what was cut from Videodrome to earn its R rating. An additional 3 minutes of footage had to be cut for the film to earn a certificate in the UK.
Videodrome: Studies in the Horror Film– Tim Lucas’ book-length study of the film
Videodrome – Jack Martin’s Cronenberg-approved novelization of Videodrome
DVD INFO: As usual with Criterion releases, Videodrome (buy) is presented in the best audiovisual fidelity possible, with special features spread across two discs; arguably, the specialty releasing company outdid itself with this edition, which is often cited as one of their most impressive sets. Besides the usual beautiful booklet and collections of trailers, promotional materials and behind-the-scenes stills, the movie comes complete with two sets of commentaries, one from Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin, the other by stars Woods and Harry. There’s a thirty-minute making of doc, an interview with special effects genius Rick Baker, and “Fear on Film,” a 1982 roundtable discussion between Cronenberg, John Carpenter, and John Landis. Need more? The set contains footage from two of the film-within-a-films: the complete Samurai Dreams, the Asian porn film Renn rejects as too soft, and seven minutes of raw fake snuff footage from the “Videodrome” pirate broadcast (with Cronenberg commentary). There’s also Cronenberg’s 2000 short film “Camera.” As an extra bonus, the 2-disc set even comes in a box mocked-up to look like a Betamax videocassette.
The 2010 Blu-ray release (buy) includes the same features.
Videodrome is also available to watch on-demand (rent on-demand).
(This movie was first nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who calls it “one of the great strange treats of the 80′s.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
- Videodrome is used in three senses in this essay. When italicized (Videodrome), the word means the movie directed by David Cronenberg. “Videodrome” is placed in quotes to signify the pirate broadcast Renn watches. When not in quotes or italics, Videodrome refers to the abstract entity or idea of the Videodrome. [↩]