The works of David Cronenberg have always been a draw for me, flaws and all. Given his fondness for depicting grotesque body horror, which has made me squirm on more than one occasion, it would probably be fair to assume that I am just a glutton for punishment. The real reason, however, is that The Fly and A History of Violence, both masterpieces in my mind, were the first two films I ever saw by the director, and recently I have been seeking similar highs within his catalogue. Admittedly, this sets an unfairly high bar in my mind, but it has also allowed me to comprehend Cronenberg’s growth as a director, which is illustrated best in his 1983 feature Videodrome, his subsequent feature to 1981’s Scanners.
The film’s opening scenes introduce us to Max Ren (played by a very dynamic James Woods), station president for a small network TV channel, who is actively seeking edgy smut films depicting a staged blend of sex and violence, as he believes it is “Better on TV than on the streets,” and is the future of popular television. In his search, Max encounters Videodrome, a pirated signal depicting sadistic torture in what Max believes is a staged environment. The further Max investigates Videodrome, he begins to suffer hallucinations that progressively blur the lines between reality and perceptions of the mind, which all seems to be connected to a greater conspiracy.
In my decidedly mixed review of Scanners a number of weeks ago, I commended certain elements of the film’s craftsmanship, specifically Cronenberg’s signature use of body horror and the practical effects used to achieve these visuals. But the practical effects are not enough to save the film from being a thematically uncertain, ultimately hallow affair. This is anything but the case with more measured and methodical Videodrome, whose impressive practical effects (for the time) even serve the film’s themes.
These themes are effectively presented through Cronenberg’s uncannily prophetic screenplay. Cronenberg questions the lengths to which we are willing to go to be entertained, as we slowly become desensitised to what has become “the norm,” and consequently seek to further push the boundaries of sex and violence on television. However, what is most interesting is the way in which Cronenberg’s style of horror melds with the film’s most prominent theme: the extent of man’s relationship with technology. Cronenberg’s observations are deliberately superfluous and his visuals grotesque (there goes that word again!), albeit not just for cinematic reasons, but to also drive home the film’s thematic ideals through excess.
Videodrome carries the undeniable mark of a director beginning to grasp his true artistic potential. Admittedly, the film’s greatest flaw lies in its otherwise strong screenplay, as Cronenberg mishandles proper contextualisation of Videodrome for the audience, and so it remains a rather vague concept, which is forgivable nevertheless by virtue of the film’s many thematic, technical, and visual qualities. Most importantly though, Cronenberg confidently presents his thematic ideals whilst understanding that sometimes the best way to draw one’s attention to social issues is to not always provide the answers, allowing audiences to instead form opinions of their own. George A. Romero was surely impressed!