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Videodrome   A+

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 1983
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: David Cronenberg
Cast: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky, Jack Creley.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

Most viewers have one specific movie which terrifies them so much they can hardly watch it, one which cuts bone deep to their deepest unspoken fears. For me, that movie has always been Canadian horror auteur David Cronenberg's 1983 classic, Videodrome.

Highly regarded for his use of visual metaphors to represent visceral conflict between sense and sensation, mind and body, the images depicted in Videodrome are especially clear. When James Woods experiences his fever dream during the film's mid-point, a slippery womb-wound opening up his stomach while Debbie Harry's lips emerge as a pulsating bubble from his television set, it's undeniably provocative. The sexual fetish is made hybrid with visual stimulation. Television alters the perception of the viewer, acting as a drug to fuel their fantasies. Nearly 20 years after Videodrome was shot, it still feels contemporary.

"I am the video word made flesh," is one of the mantras which ripples through the story of sneaky cable television programmer Max Renn (very well played by Woods, who bears a passing resemblance to Cronenberg when trying on pair of glasses). He's looking for material which is new, innovative. Something tough.

Max stumbles across pirate tapes of a raw, seedy snuff program called Videodrome -- no plot, no characters, just pure sexual violence, torture, murder. Very little production cost -- just a room, hooded figures and a screaming female victim who gets beaten to death with chains and whips. The acting, the violence -- it's all so real.

Hey, some people get off on this stuff. Max knows his audience. I mean, he's part of it. So is the chick he's shagging, a radio self-help guru named Nicki Brand (Harry, quite good). She's the perfect match for Max -- a compassion junkie who has to burn herself with cigarettes or be pierced with pins during kinky sex just to feel something. She's really into the perversions of Videodrome, even curious to become a contestant.

What Max and Nicki come to learn is that the Videodrome program is a transmission that stimulates a tumor in the brain, causing bizarre hallucinations. Perhaps created by some underground government branch or radical political movement, Videodrome immerses the viewer into a world without boundaries.

It isn't long before Max finds his personality slowly being stripped away, his mind and body being recreated into an agent for powers greater than himself. Whether or not he is hallucinating this strange new world of flesh as a bio-technical weapon is immaterial.

The Max Renn we knew at the beginning of the film is ultimately destroyed, replaced by something Other. Long Live the New Flesh.

* * *

Too much television will rot your brain, but has anyone stopped to think about it's affect on global culture? The Internet and global communication has changed the way we think, the way we operate in our daily lives. Is it that much of a projection to imagine the effects these new sensory experiences are having on the human body?

With revolting precision, David Cronenberg charts the painful birth of that "new flesh." It's appropriately horrific. Max Renn, in his reincarnated state as assassin, is a product of some strange corporate dealings between television companies -- it's never entirely clear who he's working for. In our climate of mergers and foreclosures, it's difficult to know who we're working for, either. Being a part of the machine, a singular fact of life in the 21st Century, is shown for the horror it is within Videodrome.

There's also hysteria when it comes to our bodies, ourselves. It's not just about gore (courtesy of master craftsman Rick Baker). It's certainly grotesque when that vagina rips its way through Max's stomach or his human hand morphs into a gnarled flesh-pistol, but that's not what makes it scary. The flesh is fragile, malleable. Transformations become sacrilegious -- the body is just not supposed to bend that way. It's unnatural. But what about those videotapes which shiver and sigh when Max touches them? If man is turning into machine, why not vice versa?

Slipped in under the surface is a harsh critique of puritanism in video culture. It's disturbing to consider someone determining what an audience should or should not see, as well as punishment of that audience who enjoys watching what the moral right determines to be obscene. Cronenberg subtly makes his stand, pointing a finger back at the V-chip (as it were) wondering exactly who the hard liners want to protect by eliminating pornography?

* * *

David Cronenberg has never gone out of his way to find innovative ways to shoot his films. If the graphic body violence is explicit, the rest of the presentation is restrained and minimalist. He favors muted colors, textures found in the plastic of car interiors, cinematography which makes use of empty space without calling attention to itself. His actors don't deliver naturalistic performances, instead behaving with that Canadian detachment which pervades the work of Cronenberg and his video era counterpart, Atom Egoyan.

What stands out within his work are the layers of symbolism that hit viewers somewhere primal, in uncharted subterranean areas we're often afraid to touch. While death is not necessarily horrifying (since there's little you can do about it after you die), physical pain certainly is. Distortions of the body enter the realm of the taboo. Accompanied with a life changing experience you might not desire, there's a Cronenbergian attack on the nervous system which proves cathartic.

Some viewers saw Jaws and became absolutely horrified about the thought of a shark devouring them when they went swimming. Others saw Psycho, which had a permanent effect on their experience taking a shower in a roadside motel. Such is the nature of my experience with Videodrome, which alerts me to my fear of assimilation in a rapidly changing consumer culture. As a film critic, the dreadful thought of being afraid of being chemically altered by visual stimulants is a potent fear indeed.

Review published 02.08.2001.

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