Following up David Cronenberg’s cult success with films like Scanners and The Brood, the Canadian master of body horror released Videodrome in 1983. Upon release critics loved it, admiring the bold statements and visceral nature of the film, but general audiences weren’t sure what to make of it, and it’s remained a cult classic ever since.
Infamous artist Andy Warhol even called it “the Clockwork Orange of the 80’s”. So in honor of its 40th anniversary, we wanted to take a look back at Videodrome, why it was so innovative, and why it remains perhaps even more relevant now versus the early 80’s.
Down the Nasty Rabbit Hole
The film stars James Wood as Max, a TV producer of a local UHF TV station. In order to keep his business afloat, Max is constantly searching for potential programming that will set his channel apart from all the others. After all, as even Max admits, his local channel doesn’t have the same resources as the larger networks, so in order to survive in the market, he must offer something that no one else is: sex and violence.
He then receives a mysterious series of programming called “Videodrome” which appears to be nothing more than just snuff. The more he consumes it, the more intrigued he is, but it also leads him to question his own sanity, especially when he starts to unravel a massive conspiracy theory about the nature of Videodrome and what its sinister purpose really is.
With the help of famed makeup artist Rick Baker, Cronenberg absolutely delivers with body horror as well. As the plot becomes more and more surreal, we’re treated to some delightfully grotesque imagery of things like a pulsating beta max tape (that looks like it’s breathing) being inserted into Max’s skin as it peels apart.
Like most David Cronenberg films, you come for the gruesome body horror gore, but stay for the deep philosophical and socio political statements in the subtext of the film.
Entertainment vs. Desensitizing
It’s no surprise that this movie was released in 1983, during the initial wave of slasher films in the horror genre that caused a moral panic among parental and religious groups. Videodrome tapped into that debate at the time by way of Max openly admitting that featuring sex and violence as a form of entertainment was merely good business. And more than that, it wasn’t his fault that that’s what the audience demanded.
Neither the film, nor Cronenberg, are necessarily on the side of censorship (look no further than any of his movies). But within Videodrome is a complex and mature exploration of the dangers of becoming too desensitized. We justify the most violent and disgusting of violence and gore, but it’s usually because it’s attached to a piece of art. And it would be difficult to make the argument that what Max is consuming is art, now that it’s just moved into snuff territory.
However, the film is a cautionary tale of how we could easily go down that path if we’re not careful. The horrific images of Videodrome conjure up hallucinations in the person consuming it, and as we see with the character of Professor O’Blivion, these hallucinations have the ability to grow an entirely new organ (at first mistaken for a tumor) in the brain, as the body’s way of adapting to this new grim reality.
It’s a theme that David Cronenberg would again explore in his more recent film Crimes of the Future; where humans began evolving to consume synthetic plastics because of the massive contamination of them everywhere on the planet.
While Videodrome was certainly relevant during the early 80’s due to the slasher boom, as well as the technological boom in terms of home video; it’s arguably just as if not more relevant today. At the time 80’s consumerism was in full swing, and the film comments on how people were increasingly living around and based on their forms of entertainment. And in the 40 years since, that issue has increased exponentially.
With things like viral videos on YouTube and TikTok and “social media influencer” as an actual profession, the line between reality and surrealism that Videodrome toyed with has only gotten more blurred. Not to suggest that a remake would be needed or warranted, but one could do a similar movie today exploring the same ideas but through the lens of modern internet culture, and how we increasingly live online.
At one point in the film, Max discovers that Professor O’Blivion was actually dead, but had recorded thousands of hours of tapes of himself so that he could appear to still be alive and interact via his usual manner. If this isn’t a precursor to the idea of “uploading” once’s personality to an AI to survive after their death, what is?
As always, Cronenberg is a master of his craft, and there’s a reason even his older films like this live on and continue to amaze new audiences and inspire filmmakers. In the years since its release, Videodrome has proven that it was very much ahead of its time in 1983, and remains even more relevant now than it was back then.
What did you think of Videodrome? What are some of your favorite David Cronenberg movies? Let us know in the comments!
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