Videodrome (1983)

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Nearly thirty years on David Cronenberg’s viscerally sci-fi thriller still packs a major punch. Ahead of it time on themes such as the power of technology (the internet), the blurring of the lines between fiction and reality on TV, and consumerism. It is a film very much in the moment yet looks and feels truly timeless.  It works so many more levels than is first apparent.

At the heart of the twisted plot is the usually fire breathing James Woods playing against type as seedy, but confused television programmer Max Renn.  Max is constantly searching to push the envelope of taste, by broadcasting hardcore films on his station. One day he is introduced to an obscure show entitled Videodrome with virtually no plot and consists of a naked woman tied up in a room being beaten almost to death by a couple of guys. Renn is intrigued and wants to know more about its origins. On a chat show Renn meets an attractive young lady Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) who he asks out on a date. Later back at Renn’s place the couple view a cassette of Videodrome which arouses Nicki and makes her want to get involved. After Nicki does not return from a trip Max decides to find out more about Videodrome, but is warned by softcore feminist Masha (Lynne Gorman) that the show has a political agenda and in fact might be real. Max receives a tape from Bianca O’Blivion (Sonja Smits) whose father Brian first started the project.  After viewing a message from Brian about the future of television Max starts getting scary hallucinations which affect his day to day life.

The picture perfectly builds, with the tension levels creeping up with the help of horror maestro Rick Baker’s fleshy special effects make up and a chilling score from Howard Shore which reverberates around the whole picture and leaves a sense of unease long after it has finished. Add to this a tight, thought provoking plot, which blends sci-fi and horror, but remains true and uncompromising throughout then you have quite a package.

As well as Woods neatly controlled, deadpan but vivid turn as Renn (those facial features become more sweaty and unhinged as the film moves along), Deborah Harry excels in one of her early big screen roles (she also appeared in low budget film noir Union City in 79). Nicki is very much the moral centre for Max to rethink his choices. As he is both turned on by her energy, however also concerned and bemused by her actions, Brand becomes the ultimate test for Max to overcome his demons.

Another question posed by the satire is, are the general public the true villains or the people actually feeding them the filth? This is brought to mind in a scene where Barry Convex (Les Carlson) asks Max “What sort of a mind would watch a sick show like Videodrome”. An even more telling moment is when Renn shows up at Bianca’s residents clearly possessed, when informed by O’Blivion that he’s there to kill her Max simply replies “No, No, I’m Max Renn, I run civic TV, I don’t kill people” (spoken in a unsure tone). 

The wild finale may or may not be a copout depending on one’s perspective, but for me it leaves you with more questions than answers, which sends the loudest message of all.

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, Leslie Carlson
Runtime: 87 min
Country: Canada

Film Rating: ★★★★½

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8 Comments
  1. Miguel Rosa says

    Videodrome is an example of a real mind-bender. Accept no flashy modern substitutes when you’ve got the real stuff!

    It’s a pity Cronenberg has become a respectable, Oscar-baiting director.

  2. Keith Beard says

    That is very harsh. The way I see it Cronenberg is always a director trying to move forward and finding new ways to tell a story, we saw that with the likes of Crash, Dead Ringers and Spider. And with his last two films he is doing something different to those, I don’t think he sees it as more comercial move just different.

    I actually think History Of Violence is one of his top five movies, and is chellenging and different in its own way, it just so happens than it was made on a bigger budget than most of his films, and attracted a wider audenice, but I don’t think that was planned. Estern Promises I except was a step in the wrong director and I hope he gets back on track with his next feature.

  3. Kevin Matthews says

    Great review. I love Cronenberg’s filmography and love this movie.

  4. Miguel Rosa says

    OK, maybe I was a bit harsh 🙂

    But Crash, Dead Ringers and Spider are vintage Cronenberg: dark journeys into memory, identity, madness, fantasy.

    A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are just gangster movies, anyone could have made them.

  5. Keith Beard says

    I will tell you why you are wrong about AHOV, because its not a gangster flick really, its a fleshy comic book crossed with a moral fable about acts of Violence in popplar culture crossed with Cronenberg’s anwser to a western.

    There is no way just anybody could have done it, because Cronenberg is stamped all over it both in the style of the movie, and the gut wretching set pieces. Whats really clever about the film is the way the mood changes on someones actions instead of a plot development, the whole think fizzys nicely under the selface. The two sex scenes are key for me, both actually have a purpose beyord just what you see.

    Also I ask how ofton do you see four such awesome performances in one film than those of Bello, Mortensen, Harris and Hurt. They make the film worth seeing alone.

  6. Tue Sorensen says

    What *is* the point of the sex scenes, then? I never understood that.

  7. Keith Beard says

    Well the second one when he attempts to rape her is just kind of his other persona breaking out. There are two points to the early one, firstly it is a way of setting the mood and tone for the darkness which is come, and also it is a way of showing the couple at their most happiest, before strange things start to happen. And just like the sex scene in Mulholland Drive it is beautifully shot!

  8. Tue Sorensen says

    Well, I don’t actually remember those scenes in AHOV well enough to discuss them in detail, but it makes sense that his other persona was breaking out.

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