‘Videodrome’ (1983) 650 Word DVD Review

July 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

Score: 4 out of 5

Videodrome is about Max Renn (James Woods), the president of a pornography TV channel in Toronto, Canada, called CIVIC-TV. Max is looking for the next big thing in televisual, x-rated programming – something that’s a little more edgy than the rest, that has “teeth”. In a stroke of luck, he does manage to find something. With the help of Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), the company’s electronics engineer, they manage to pick up pirate signals coming from, what they think is, Malaysia.

They pick up Videodrome: a snuff programme which sees contestants being tortured against an orange background in some anonymous room. Max becomes convinced that this is it, and he gets Harlan to record a tape of the show for him to watch back at home. He watches it; he likes it, but, soon after, he begins hallucinating, and all manner of strange things start happening to him. What Max doesn’t realise is that Videodrome isn’t just a snuff television programme; it’s far more dangerous than that: it’s a philosophy.

It’s funny that while watching Videodrome I was reminded of some unpublished Phillip K. Dick short story. It has all the ingredients: conspiracy, evil corporations, horror, alternate realities, paranoia and drug use. It’s why I was kind of surprised that when I clicked on the imdb page I found, lo-and-behold, Dick didn’t write it – it was all Cronenberg.

And this is what he’s always been able to do so successfully; he converts all the immediacy, energy and action of a high concept, sci-fi short story into the medium of cinema. As with The Fly (my review here), which he would later go on to direct and co-write, Cronenberg has, again, made this jump with masterful precision. (He almost makes it look easy.)

Cronenberg, once more, displays his flair for body mutilation and transformation, and, as with eXistenZ, he adds a great deal of not-so-subtle sexual imagery. Considering the film is focused on sex and violence, and how we are affected by these two things, it all works very coherently with the story. While characterisation is a little lighter here than in The Fly, the part of Max Renn is a likable, if slightly sleazy, everyman; his reactions to what’s going on are believable and understandable, and he provides a strong anchor for the audience to relate to. I should also mention that Deborah “Blondie” Harry also co-stars in the film as Max’s love interest. She’s well-cast in the role as Nicki Brand, the sexy, masochistic psychiatrist Max falls for, but she doesn’t have much time on screen compared to Woods.

Videodrome isn’t so much about characters, though, as it is about concept and about plot, and on both levels the film excels. In depth characterisation is sacrificed for pace, of which the film moves at lightening speed, and the story twists and turns in unpredictable and intriguing ways. The film brushes against a multitude of science fiction themes but always steps away just in time before exploring any one of them in too much depth. This might be taken as a critique of the film being shallow, but that’s not it at all. Cronenberg cleverly hints at what’s going on without spelling it out; he allows the concepts themselves to be explored in the mind of the viewer; he always calls to question “What if…?” but he never answers that question, and, by doing this, he creates an atmosphere dense with anticipation. We never really know what’s going to happen, moment-to-moment, and we want to know – but we’re also afraid to ask.

Videodrome is another fantastic piece of work from a brilliant director. It is intelligent and entertaining at the same time, is conceptually exciting and has its own distinct signature about it, even when put alongside the body of Cronenberg’s other work. It’s quite possibly my favourite film of his to date.

(640 words.)

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