Spewed up between the headaches of Scanners and heartaches of The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg’s mediafried semi-satire is a pivotal film in his career. Universal’s involvement brought the then-cult director further studio interest; the era of The Fly and Dead Ringers followed.
More crucially, Videodrome was his last original script until 1999’s eXistenZ and a crystallisation of his obsessions up to that point: rich in splatter-happy “freaky stuff”, conceptual ballast and droll reflections on his run-ins with moral crusaders, it still feels quintessentially – in his preferred phrasing – “Cronenbergundian”.
As James Woods’ grot-TV peddler Max Renn investigates pirate S&M channel Videodrome, his transformation into a TV-controlled hitman provides icky images: a flesh-gun; a ‘man-gina’ video slot in his belly.
But Cronenberg tempers the grue by smartly predating 1984’s Video Recordings Act, his conspiracy narrative threading a “what if?” premise through Philip K. Dick-ian layers of reality: what if the censors are right and film can warp minds and realities? Cronenberg’s answer is “total transformation”.
Cronenberg scrupulously blurs realities: as Renn stresses he’s looking for “something that’ll break through, something tough,” a movie poster behind him screams “Something” in blood-drip font, casting doubt on the reality of his world while anticipating the frights to come. Debbie Harry’s Nicki Brand stubbing out ciggies on her breasts, a man exploding with tumours... the horrors are pretty horrible but Videodrome isn’t without wit.
Cronenberg establishes an arch tenor with his knowing character names: Barry Convex, Brian O’Blivion. And is the “Closed For Alterations” sign on the Cathode Ray Mission’s door a gag given Renn’s altered state? Howard Shore’s score and Cronenberg’s slow-pan camera set a tone of creeping dread, but a razor-sharp satirical sensibility haunts the film’s fringes.
As Cronenberg stretches the censor’s illogic to reality-breaking point, he stretches audience interest too: later work offers more heart to keep viewers emotionally involved. But the ambiguous final shot is a smart head-teaser, leaving questions about what the “new flesh” might consist of.
Videodrome’s prescience is reflected in films that still scratch at the itches of virtual living: he doesn’t have a vaginal VCR in his tummy, but Mark Zuckerberg’s isolation at The Social Network’s close isn’t far from Max’s endgame. So it’s a shame the BD isn’t complemented by extras – a film this pivotal demands new flesh on its bones.