Max Renn (James Woods) deals in exploitation: he's a producer on a small television station which attracts its audience with a mixture of sex and violence, all very lucrative for those thrillseekers channel surfing in the middle of the night. But he feels he needs to push the envelope that bit further, and broadcast ever more extreme material to ensure ever-growing audiences, and is always on the look out for just such programming. So when his associate Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) tells him he's tuned into such a broadcast which seems to come from outside the country, Renn is intrigued...
The most common complaint about David Cronenberg's Videodrome was not so much that it offended certain sensibilities, although it assuredly did that as well, but that by the final third it had become utterly incomprehensible as Renn's hallucinations take over. But what was too much in 1983 - the film flopped at the box office - looks in the twenty-first century to be all too modern, where much of the popular fiction involves the bending of reality and the concerns over what the effects of mass media which has become ever more pervasive, invasive even, appear to have been cannily predicted by Cronenberg and his fiercely intelligent worldview.
Certainly the technological trappings of the film, the betamax video cassettes and the like, have been superseded by the likes of the internet, but that doesn't mean Videodrome has become irrelevant, as it looks now more like finding a cultural landmark such as television depicted in Renaissance art. In its way, this was the 2001: A Space Odyssey of horror movies, taking the then current, Marshall McLuhan-esque fears over the power of the moving image and how selected areas of that entertainment were appealling to the basest desires in its viewer, whether they be explicit violence or extreme pornography, and bringing them to a new understanding of how the human mind was to be both expanded and corrupted as a result; Cronenberg was evidently a big proponent of evolutionary sciences, and applied them keenly.
Not that all his evolutionary theories were to do with the mind, as with his typical elan he sought to warp the physical world as well. Therefore once Max, who thinks in Woods' superbly sleazy performance that he is the smartest guy in the room when it comes to seedy entertainment, becomes literally infected with the images he sees on the underground Videodrome channel Harlan has discovered for him, it cues the most imaginative special effects Cronenberg and designer Rick Baker could invent within the resources they had (the film was going to be even more extreme, but the money ran out). It was as if William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick had all got together and thought, how can we really mess with the audience?
All the way through Max discovers there's someone worse than himself, and not in a manner he likes. First he meets agony aunt Nicki Brandt (Debbie - er, Deborah Harry of New Wave group Blondie) and she introduces him to sadomasochism he is not quite as enthusiastic about as he might have thought, then the Videodrome footage begins to make him realise all this torture it shows may be real, and then things get weird. While it's understandable that many found the intellectual leaps the director was making alienating, that's not how it plays today as Cronenberg never talked down to the audience, setting out that the war for the hearts and minds of a consumer public may lead the more conservative members to become even more depraved than those they oppose.
Basically, the infernal broadcast is run by those who can only see things getting worse, and spitefully encourage that which in its perverse and unintended way opens up new vistas of existence - the repressives wanted to eliminate any mindset which they saw as contaminating their world, but in effect they provide a landscape where revolution can thrive. Some called this film dangerous, which could be another reason why it has only ever been awarded cult status, with its bizarre murders and hellishly reasonable philosophy. Watching Max find a large vagina in his belly which can swallow videocassettes as if he were a new model of player is not the sort of idea everyone can process, neither is his hand becoming a literal gun, a mesh of sexual and violent imagery that represents the reactionaries' worst nightmare of the end of civilisation they tell us is on the way, but this film bravely, exhilaratingly, insanely asks us if the "New Flesh" is so bad? It's a message of subversion from today made decades ago. Suitably ominous music by Howard Shore.
Highly regarded Canadian writer/director who frequently combines intellectual concerns with genre subjects. Began directing in the late-70s with a series of gruesome but socially aware horror thrillers, such as Shivers, Rabid and The Brood. 1981's Scanners was Cronenberg's commercial breakthrough, and if the hallucinatory Videodrome was box office flop, it remains one of the finest films of his career. The sombre Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone and the hugely successful remake of The Fly followed.
The disturbing Dead Ringers (1988) was a watershed film, based for the first time entirely in reality and featuring a career-best performance from Jeremy Irons. The 1990s saw Cronenberg in uncompromising form, adapting a pair of "unfilmable" modern classics - Burrough's Naked Lunch and Ballard's Crash - in typically idiosyncratic style. M. Butterfly was something of a misfire, but eXistenZ surprised many by being fast-moving and funny, while 2002's powerful Spider saw Cronenberg at his most art-house.