in Shocktober

Videodrome (1983)

I remember the first time I watched Videodrome. I was excited about the prospect of seeing a film so crazy. Not unlike sleazy cable programmer Max Renn (James Woods) and his excitement for the latest lurid TV show. Then I actually watched the film and I was bored and confused. Now I’ve watched it again and was less bored but just as confused and didn’t realize this film was kind of misogynistic too, but damn if I don’t love watching James Woods pull a gun out of his stomach.

As I previously stated, James Woods plays Max Renn, the president of CIVIC-TV, a Toronto UHF television station specializing in sensationalistic programming. What is “sensationalistic” programming? According to this film, shows about Greek orgies and Japanese erotic soap operas. Proud of his reputation as the king of smut, Ren appears on a daytime talk show to defend his station’s programming. There he meets another guest, a radio psychiatrist—basically Frasier—Nicki Brand played by Debbie Harry from Blondie. Nicki finds herself attracted to Ren’s brashness and they later hook up in a gross love scene where we see Debbie Harry get turned on by being pierced with needles and have to stare at James Woods’ butt.

I’ve seen Debbie Harry act a few times and always felt she had an intense screen presence but she’s little more than a prop in Videodrome. Renn is such a pig to her the first time they meet and yet she falls for him. I guess you could say her attraction to the sordid Renn is akin to Renn’s attraction to violent and oversexualized TV. People like what they know is bad but it feels wrong. Cronenberg has always been hit or miss when it comes to writing women and this is one of his misses.

The plot concerns Renn’s obsession with a show he finds scrabbled via satellite called “Videodrome” where people are realistically tortured and abused to near death. Renn seeks out the channel but soon finds after prolonged exposure to the channel he has reading the line between reality and fantasy with the brutal images of his TV world melding with his own.

Renn also makes contact with a professor on TV known by the alias of Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) who informs Max television will supplant life. The metaphor feels quaint by today’s standards when you consider the internet, not TV, took over the role of the media/technology that would consume our lives.

What follows is a disjointed mystery of Renn trying to find and understand Videodrome. At one point he meets people who claim they must use Videodrome to send a broadcast out to the country to purge the people by giving them brain tumors. Oh, and there’s a part where James Woods pulls a gun out of his stomach and shoots a man who explodes into cancer?

I’ve seen this movie twice and have no idea if any of this is supposed to be real. I assume it’s supposed to be ambiguous but I could just be stupid. There is a great deal of hallucination on Renn’s part and you’re never sure who Nicki really is when she starts appearing on Videodrome as another victim.

I hate to say it but Cronenberg is kind of a weird, sex pervert. He’s a great artist and I enjoy many of his movies but the guy has some gross fantasies when it comes to sex. Maybe he does this to disturb but I feel he also does this to express some kind of weird commentary on sexuality. Not sure but it’s not always easy to watch.

One thing I can say is this film has amazing special effects from seven-time Oscar winner Rick Baker. Videodrome features a pulsating TV, pulsating videotapes, pulsating gaping wounds and pulsating tumors. A lot of pulsating. One thing I’ve always enjoyed in Cronenberg films is his fascination with turning inorganic objects into organic lifeforms. Like the monster sex type-writer from Naked Lunch.

Videodrome is a good concept and it’s ambitious in style and approach, but it’s a mess. The story feels unfinished or like a short story stretched out too thin for its own good. It’s as mainstream as you can make an avant-garde film. I can admire it from a visual standpoint, maybe an academic standpoint, but as pure entertainment, It’s better saved for after your regularly scheduled programming.

TV rots your brain…