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The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Thirteen: Videodrome (1983)

Long live the new flesh. If you are a follower of David Cronenberg, that mantra becomes like a “secret society” greeting. It’s not as well-known by the general public like, for instance, “Be afraid, be very afraid” from 1986’s “The Fly”—which was arguably David’s biggest hit at the box office. But “long live the new flesh” serves a different purpose. It labels you as hardcore Cronenberg. And 1983’s “Videodrome” was the beginning of the true golden period for David as a filmmaker. It was the validation that he really was much more than a genre director. And it was after the release of this film that many realized he would be hailed as one of the greats (some would argue it began earlier with 1979’s “The Brood”, but I’ll save that for a future Chronicle “entry”). David was 39 when “Videodrome” was released, and 69 for 2012’s “Cosmopolis”. Here’s hoping that he doesn’t lose his touch in his 70’s as he struggles to cast and finance “Maps to the Stars”(Rachel Weisz is the latesy casualty, but Robert Pattinson reportedly remains committed to the project). But if he does—it’s been some 30-year run. “Videodrome” gives us 35 year-old James Woods as Max Renn in a high voltage rat-a-tat-tat performance as the head of a Toronto-based television station. It also stars gorgeous “Blondie” icon Deborah Harry(who knew then that she was 37 at the time!)as Nicki Brand, a local radio host who interviews Renn early in the film. It’s a tricky and slippery little devil, “Videodrome” is. I’ve revisited it several times over the years, upon each trip finding certain things a little bit different and others a little bit meatier. But I can’t quite get a hold of all of it, which may be one of the tricks up its sleeve. It’s said that when seeing this particular film, horror maestro John Carpenter(“Halloween”, “The Thing”)first commented that he felt “Cronenberg is better than all the rest of us combined”. No bonus points for realizing that I’m in agreement with him!

Max Renn(Mr. Woods)runs CIVIC-TV, a Canadian UHF television station. It specializes in sensationalistic programs featuring gratuitous violence and softcore pornography. But Max wants to find something new to try to garner a bigger audience. And he thinks he’s found it when pirate satellite dish engineer Harlan(Peter Dvorsky)shows Renn snippets of a show he’s intercepted called “Videodrome”. Harlan claims that it broadcasts near Malaysia, and that he can only capture a few minutes at a time before the images disappear. “Videodrome” depicts naked men and women being tortured and killed on a set consisting of an orange, fleshy-looking wall, and a floor with a drain and a large puddle of water around it. There is no “real” dialogue, just screams and cries of terror. There is no discernible plot, just whippings and proddings with electric devices. The “cast” perpetrating the violence wear cloth hoods and remain mute. Renn finds it disturbing, but brilliant. He sees dollar signs if he can get this show broadcast on his station. It would be low-budget and therefore overhead would be minimal. He pleads with Harlan to find more information about it. Soon after this, Max appears on a radio program where a group discusses sex and violence in the media. The radio show is hosted by Nicki Brand(a not-bad Ms. Harry)who admits to having a sadomasochistic side to her. Also appearing is analyst and philosopher Professor Brian O’Blivion(Jack Creley)—but only via a television screen to ask and answer questions. Renn is immediately attracted to Nicki, and they begin a sex-fueled romance. He ends up showing her tapes of “Videodrome”, and she is instantly aroused. She also likes to cut herself and have Max burn her with lit cigarettes. Soon, Harlan informs Max that the station that broadcasts “Videodrome” scrambles its signal to cloak its actual location. Harlan now believes that the show is broadcast from Pittsburgh. So, Nicki decides to travel to Pennsylvania to try to obtain material for her radio program. When she fails to return, Max has another friend use her connections to investigate “Videodrome” and she finds out that the broadcasts are real—not staged violence. She informs Max that the show is a front for a burgeoning political movement, and that Max should stay away from it. She also divulges that Brian O’Blivion has some knowledge about “Videodrome”. Max locates O’Blivion’s offices at the Cathode Ray Mission, a shelter where homeless folks are given food, clothing—and large doses of broadcast television in separate office cubicles. Renn meets with Brian’s daughter, Bianca O’Blivion(Sonja Smits)—who shockingly informs Max that her father has been dead for years. Bianca has been keeping his spirit alive by deceiving people with help from thousands of pre-taped videos of himself. Bianca also tells Renn that “Videodrome”‘s signal causes brain tumours that bring on hallucinations. By that point Max has already “imagined” his home television set breathing, pulsating veins and taking on a life of its own. And then when he finds the conspiratorial web getting ever deeper and more complex, he begins to have serious trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. Then things really get weird. Paranoid, too.

The scope of Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” is vast, and he would revisit the themes throughout his career, perhaps most glaringly in 1999’s “eXistenZ”. You want body horror? There are abdominal slits where video tapes are inserted. There are guns that produce tendrils that turn it into an extension of a man’s hand. There are exploding televisions filled with organs and intestines, and humans that burst open to reveal their cancerous growths inside. “Videodrome” has body-horror in spades. But it’s cerebral, as well–provocatively exploring the destructive nature of television in our lives. It also correctly “predicts” the proliferation of “reality” programming years in advance. The now legendary Rick Baker devised many of the effects and make-up for this film. Howard Shore supplied the creepy music compositions and we are solidly in the cinematographer Mark Irwin section of Cronenberg’s career—they both turn in exemplary work. And Ronald Sanders typical edit avoids leaving an ounce of fat—“Videodrome” falls just short of 89 minutes, uncut. Oh, and Carol Spier’s production design is out-of-this-world. “Videodrome” is an ambitious mindfuck, and the film world sat up and took notice. Box office was tepid—audiences didn’t know what to make of it. But its cult reputation has flourished over 30 years. “Long live the New flesh”—indeed. Btw, this is the one-year anniversary of the start of The Cronenberg Chronicle, with this thirteenth entry. Those keeping score at home will note that there are just five films left, so this project is scheduled to be completed sometime in the month of September. I stated earlier that we’ve been in the 3 decade DC “golden period”. Soon we will turn focus to his filmic infancy. Many of you are certainly thinking “M.L.’s only given ONE film(in the baker’s dozen presented, so far)a grade less than an A-. That’s all about to change. Hey, DC wasn’t a genius from the get-go. Even I realize that. In fact, I don’t believe there’s anything that will rate higher than a B+ in what’s left of his oeuvre. Alright, maybe one. But at least one C grade will make an appearance too. The man is not perfect, after all. In fact, there are enough loose ends in “Videodrome”(for me)to keep it away from the solid A category. But it is, without question, close enough. And from here, David was truly on his way.   Grade:  A-  

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2 comments on “The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Thirteen: Videodrome (1983)

  1. Love, love, love me some Videodrome! It was my introduction to Cronenberg and I’ve never looked back. Looking forward to your thoughts on Shivers; you’re certainly passionate about the great Canadian auteur!
    Cheers, Jordan.

    • Ironically enough, Jordan, I used to identify Scorsese as my favorite director until I began getting immersed in the world of Dave Deprave beginning around 1988 with “Dead Ringers”. “Videodrome” is a knockout, but I believe I’ll always call “D.R.” his masterpiece. It’s hard to believe that the 18-film journey I began with the Cronenberg Chronicle is coming to a close! Just two to go. Watch for “Rabid” in August, followed by “Shivers” in the month of September. Thanks for checking in! ML

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