Max Renn (James Woods) is the President of cable channel 83 named Civic TV. Specializing in X-Rated content as a TV station, Max is always looking for the next shocking content to attract viewers. On a TV show panel he defends his content choices by being a small station and needing to survive. On the same panel is Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a pop culture analyst and philosopher who rants that TV will one day replace reality. Max increasingly finds himself seduced by the ultimate depraved entertainment service called Videodrome.
It’s shown to him by Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) who works in the pirate sector of the station, picking up broadcasts from around the world. It is a series of transmissions featuring snuff films, video recordings of rape and torture scenes that play at infrequent times throughout the early morning hours. Once completed the video transmission ends and the service ceases to exist. Max finds that the show is being broadcast out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and not Malaysia as previously believed. Through a series of meetings Max comes to find that some truly dark forces are behind Videodrome though we never truly get to identify who these people are.
Videodrome is a visually stunning and inventive graphic horror film presented in a science fiction format that represents a world as frighteningly real as our own. David Cronenberg directed the film in 1983 and is considered a cult classic in many film circles and one of his best and original works. He’s able to craft a narrative that builds it’s dread with each increasing beat of the plot and elevate the story while keeping it interesting. A lot of aspects to juggle while the film progresses and Cronenberg handles it effortlessly. Max meets with Bianca (Sonja Smits) the daughter of Professor O’Blivion, who passed away some time ago, it is revealed that he died on the operating table where a brain tumor was attempted to be removed.
Discussing Videodrome, she informs Max that the video transmissions carry a malicious signal which infects the viewer with a malignant brain tumor. As Max watches more of the Videodrome tapes, unable to stop now, the more he hallucinates horrible and terrifying bodily changes. His stomach opens up like a narrow canal, just enough to add and remove objects with great agony like his gun. From here the story takes many wild turns with outstanding visuals that horrify and entertain like nothing I’ve seen.
Cronenberg made a thrilling satirical horror film that penetrates the height of our worst fears and marvels at the depths we might very well sink to. James Woods gives a commanding physical performance as Max who is thrown from one extreme situation after another. To the point of Videodrome becoming his reality by providing hallucinations in his every day life, Max struggles to separate what is real from what is not.
Displayed throughout the film are these great metaphors of being mindlessly entertained. That those of us that do seek out the depraved aspects of live video, could be condemned because of it as one of the antagonists say in the film “Why would anyone want to watch a show like Videodrome?” In a reminder that perhaps Max is someone who’s culpable for all the content he’s watched and broadcast.
Unraveling the conspiracy despite things not being completely clear, we end up in a strange place with Max, potentially developing super powers and potentially just being crazy, we’re left to sum up the wild experience of Videodrome. It’s an incredibly entertaining, out there, visually inventive, paranoid examination of our relationship to technology but more importantly entertainment.
I feel it would make an instructive double feature with either Network (1976) or They Live (1989). How the powers that be will ultimately seek to utilize these tools to control and manipulate the masses, how we will fall prey to that which mindlessly captures our attention. The film’s narrative plays really well into the paranoid thrillers of the 1970’s like Three Days Of The Condor (1975), The Parallax View (1974), and The Conversation (1974). All we know is that Max and the rest of society are pawns in these power games without a real ability to know what’s going on. There are too many hints littered throughout to hone in on any answer. The CIA, NATO, private organizations, who knows?
It haunts the viewer watching as the credits roll that we don’t know anything that we’ve seen is certain. The film is exciting but a deeply troubling viewing experience that shakes the core of our certainty and expectation.