When you sit down in 2010 to watch a movie filmed in 1983, there’s always a chance things won’t pan out well. Maybe the script has aged poorly, or the acting. Maybe the special effects are cheese-laden. Maybe there will be too many references to the time. So it was with some trepidation I sat down to watch David Cronenberg’s “classic” sci-fi thriller, Videodrome.
Videodrome centers on Max Renn (James Woods), who runs a small cable channel, CIVIC-TV, somewhere in or near Canada. I’m not sure which, for sure.
Renn is trying desperately to find something sensationalistic to pull viewers away from the major networks. He goes to visit Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), who operates a pirate satellite dish. Together he and Renn are trying to find television programming of questionable ethics which to purchase. Harlan says he has found one such program in Malaysia called Videodrome. The program seems to be senselessly violent. A person is brought in to a red room wearing a red robe, and is then simply flogged and beaten for the duration of the show. Renn wants to see more.
He hunts down Bianca O'Blivion, who runs the Cathode Ray Mission on behalf of her deceased father. Renn believes she can help locate the show. Her father was a devout television man. So much, in fact, he believed the population would someday think the lives of people on TV were more real than an individual’s public life. Bianca eventually tells Renn that Videodrome is actually infused with subliminal mind control.
The rest of the film follows Renn as he tries to hunt down the show. His repeated viewings of Videodrome cause him to start hallucinating. His television tries to bite him. A VHS tape growls at him. He wakes up in bed with a corpse, only to find out later there is nothing more there than a pillow. Despite its 25+ years of age, none of these effects look terribly outdated. This may be because they are hallucinatory. Hallucinations don’t necessarily have to look real, do they? In addition, even though Renn’s hallucinations are integral to the action, the effects don’t have to carry the film. A superior plot and Wood’s acting bear that particular burden.
The story becomes so involved and twisty it is impossible to try and sort out here without giving away huge chunks of the film. There are bits about TV as mind control as a weapon. There are human mutations. Questions are raised about what Renn is and isn’t hallucinating. There’s plenty of sex and violence on TV and how it reflects in our lives.
This doesn’t necessarily mean there is a heavy subtext about television, in particular, sex and violence in television, and how it alters our view of reality. There could be, or Cronenberg could be subtly poking fun at people who believe this particular point of view. Or it could have simply given him a great idea for a great sci-fi/horror film. It doesn’t really matter, because the movie itself is fact paced and mind-bending enough it doesn’t have to rely on a socio-political subtext to be entertaining.
Before Videodrome I had seen two Cronenberg flicks, History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Both of which I thought had promise, but were ultimately mediocre do to some weaknesses in plotting and pace. I almost skipped ever seeing Videodrome because of this, but when I was looking for horror films to review, it popped up as one of the more well received. I’m not sure how snugly it fits in to the horror genre, but it definitely has an unsettling atmosphere. Once it really starts rolling, it doesn’t feel dated at all, and that is probably one of the most telling aspects of a great film.
Written by Ryan Venson