Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: David Cronenberg
Produced by: Claude Héroux
Starring: James Woods, Sonja Smits, Debbie Harry, Peter Dvorsky, and Leslie Carlson
“Television is reality, and reality is less than television.”
Is David Cronenberg a psychic? In 1983, when he wrote and directed Videodrome, did he see bachelors with their rose ceremonies? Could he sense there would be people racing across the globe, willingly stranded on deserted islands, or tone deaf and singing their hearts out live on camera? Were there visions of Joe Millionaire and Donald Trump dancing in his head? I don’t know. But watching Cronenberg’s weird little masterpiece now, you would think he was Nostradamus.
Max Renn (James Woods) is a television producer looking for the next big thing to keep audiences from surfing past his channel. He stumbles across the scrambled signal for a show called “Videodrome.” What he sees on the screen calls to mind photos of the Abu Grab Prison atrocities: men with hoods over their heads; women chained, beaten and raped for the cameras. Renn doesn’t know what to make of it, but he likes what he sees. No plot. No script. Just…real.
Max’s S&M-obsessed girlfriend, Nicki (Blondie singer Deborah Harry), gets hooked as well. “I wonder how you get to be a contestant on that show,” she ponders aloud. After her audition, Nicki goes missing and Renn attempts to find the source of the transmission. What he discovers is a hallucinatory world where televisions live and breathe, and men can be programmed to mutate into biological weapons.
No matter what the role, James Woods is always fun to watch. Here, he gives one of his finest performances. In the beginning, he’s a professional sleaze with his hair slicked back and a self-confident, defensive tone of voice. As his life nose-dives into nightmare, however, he becomes a sweaty, nervous wreck, and his eyes clearly convey the horror that we feel while watching these events unfold. Debbie Harry does a fine job in her first acting role. As a singer, she knows how to use her voice to convey an emotion. As a talking head on a monitor, she makes the simple phrase “come to Nicki” sexy and terrifying at the same time.
Director Cronenberg gives the film a dark, cold look that fits perfectly with the nihilistic view of the story. The script appears to have been heavily influenced by the writings of William S. Burroughs. It may not make total sense (especially the last half hour), but Cronenberg’s views on television are crystal clear: it’s a drug, a highly addictive poison that gets into your veins and grows like a cancer over the years—essentially changing who you are. These metaphors are given gory life by Rick Baker. The Oscar-winning artist creates veiny televisions with pulsating screens, a slit that opens in Wood’s chest—ready to have a throbbing videotape thrust into it, and a hand that morphs into a tumor-shooting pistol. These special effects were state of the art in 1983, and they remain impressive still today.
In fact, the issues raised by Videodrome are more relevant today than ever before. Cronenberg may not be a psychic, but any horror fan should definitely see this film in their future.
“Long live the new flesh!”
4 out of 5 stars