Friday, September 18, 2015

Movie Review: Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983) written and directed by David Cronenberg

In this early film of horror master David Cronenberg, James Woods plays cable TV station owner Max Renn who is looking for new, edgier content to get more people watching his channel. He rejects offers of a Japanese Samurai sex show and of an ancient Roman orgy. He is intrigued by a pirated satellite video feed seemingly from Malaysia of a show called Videodrome, where people are tortured by masked men in a red clay room. There's no plot or ongoing characters but Max can't stop watching. He starts tracking it down and begins having frightening hallucinations where inanimate objects start having organic qualities and his own body starts to change in grotesque ways (but is that only during the hallucination?). The line between reality and hallucination blurs for him and the viewers. So there's a lot disturbing body horror in the movie, much like Cronenberg's remake of The Fly.

The more interesting and more disturbing part of the movie is the corruption of his soul. At the beginning of the movie, Max is looking for horrifying exploitation content for his TV channel but he assumes Videodrome (like other TV productions) is faked--they are actors who aren't really being harmed. He goes on a talk show where the host challenges his broadcasts as debasing but he counters that it gives people an outlet for their aggression or sexual desires without harming others. He starts dating Nicki Brand, another talk show host, who is turned on by violence and harm, even showing some scars on her shoulder where previous boyfriends have cut her. When she watches Videodrome, she thinks she was born to be on it. Max is horrified by the idea. As the movie continues, he discovers more about the show and multiple people warn him to stay away from Videodrome. But the hallucinations start to change him personally. He becomes a battleground for a war of ideas between the broadcasters of Videodrome and those working against it. The ending is ambiguous which can be frustrating for the viewer but leaves a lot of room for interpretation and discussion.

There's also a suggestion that the effects of Videodrome are a next step in human evolution, creating a new flesh and merging humanity and technology. The idea is hinted at several times but doesn't get anywhere. The ending is ambiguous on this point as well.

More than just the ending is ambiguous. Several parts of the film don't make sense, making me wonder if Max was still hallucinating or not. The movie, for me, isn't so much a coherent whole as it is an interesting spark for considering various ideas such as the influence of entertainment, the role of technology in life, and the need for treating others both physically and psychically with dignity (because otherwise, things get really, really messed up!).

Parental advisory: There is a lot of graphic sexual content, violence, and gore and would easily be NC-17 if rated today. Minor cuts were made back in the 1980s; I watched a restored cut which only added two minutes, and those two minutes add a lot, if the description of the cuts from the director's commentary is accurate. This movie is for adults only, and those with a high tolerance.

I was inspired to watch this by the excellent podcast series (which is also available on YouTube) The Flicks that Church Forgot. At one point in his review of the movie, he tells listeners to stop if they haven't seen the movie and don't want to be spoiled. I had this movie in the back of my mind for a while, so I did stop and watch.

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