Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1983) Part One

8. Videodrome

Following “Scanners'” success, David Cronenberg would receive something he had never gotten before: Interest from major studios. “Videodrome” would be produced in Canada but distributed by Universal Studios, giving the director the kind of wide mainstream exposure that had largely alluded him before. The director delivered a film to the studio that was pure Cronenberg, steeped in heady ideas and grotesque body horror. Audacious, ultraviolent, kinky, and extremely weird, “Videodrome” was destined for commercial failure in 1983. (Especially after Universal bumped it from a plum Christmas release date to an underwhelming February date.) In the years since, it has become one of Cronenberg's most highly respected feature. Personally speaking, it's my favorite of his.

Max Renn runs CIVIC-TV, a low-end cable network somewhere in Toronto. CIVIC-TV attracts controversy for the content it airs, such as softcore pornography. Renn loves the attention and constantly seeks out more outrageous programming, most of which is pirated by his employee, Harlan. One day, Harlan brings Max a program called Videodrome. The show appears to be nothing but footage of people being brutally tortured in the same room. Max loves it. He even shows it to his quasi-girlfriend, masochistic radio personality Nikki Brand. Soon after he sees Videodrome, Max begins to experience strange hallucinations. The program soon pulls him into a surreal war between two factions, that corrupts his mind and mutates his body.

Cronenberg's previous films were frequently subjected to censorship. His movies were often cut by the MPAA and other local regulatory boards, with “Rabid” and "Scanners" even being deemed “video nasties” in the U.K. The director had seen his films condemn for their violent and sexually explicit content. With “Videodrome,” Cronenberg directly confronted this controversy. The movie outright asks if watching violent images corrupts the mind. Max Renn's initial answer to this question is shallow and dismissive, saying he specializes simply in escapism. Cronenberg's own answer is more complex. Because, in “Videodrome,” violent images literally do corrupt the mind. The Videodrome program masks a secret signal that causes brain tumors in its viewers. Even before realizing this, Max hears people refer to Videodrome in hushed tones. Those that pursue the show mysteriously disappear. In Cronenberg's movie, morally bankrupt television really is bad for you.

But the director's point goes deeper than that. His goals are ultimately satirical. Videodrome, we discover, is a tool produced by moral crusaders. The program is extremely violent precisely to attract the people interested in that kind of stuff. Brainwashed by the snuff show, Max Renn is then sent out to eliminate his own television company. To help cleanse the world of moral decay. The film mocks puritanical crusaders who wish to censor salacious films and television as evil villains in their own right. Yet Max's superficial statement that extreme content is mere escapism isn't supported either. Cronenberg's film, more than anything else, seems to suggest that viewers should consume all their entertainment with a critical mind, neither condemning nor shrugging off the images they watch.

This is just one facet of “Videodrome,” easily Cronenberg's most ambitious film. The film also asks why viewers seek out extreme images in the first place. Max's date, Nikki Brand, is into S&M. Being cut and burned is sexually exciting for her. (This is in stark contrast to her wholesome public image as an advice columnist.) Early on, Max expresses dissatisfaction with CIVIC-TV's regular programming, saying he's looking for “something tough.” Videodrome gives both of them what they need. The film freely mixes sexual and violent images. The tortured contestants on Videodrome are always nude, for example. Max freely participates in Nikki's sadomasochistic tendencies. As in “Shivers,” there's no line separating the visceral thrills. Taken in a meta context, “Videodrome” almost comes off as Cronenberg admitting there is a sexual thrill to depicting extreme violence in movies. Let's stop pretending sadism isn't a regular part, or even a big motivator, of the horror movie experience. This genre is built on dark, cheap thrills.

“Videodrome” makes a lot of sense as a follow-up to “Scanners.” Both are conspiracy thrillers, about protagonists swooped up in secret wars neither knew existed previously. “Videodrome,” however, adds an extra layer of ambiguity. Because he's suffering from hallucination, we're never entirely certain of the reality of anything Max experiences. As Max goes deeper, the situation grows more extreme, suggesting the majority of the film may be part of his hallucination. This surreal edge allows “Videodrome” to subvert the conspiracy genre's conventions. Turned into a human VCR, Max can be re-programmed as easily as slipping a new tape inside. It also excuses the convoluted plotting typical of such stories. If “Videodrome's” plot doesn't entirely make sense – it does but it may take a second or third viewing to grasp it all – that's okay. The movie is part waking nightmare, allowing for some odd or sudden plot twists.

Cronenberg was given his biggest budget yet with “Videodrome.” This allowed the director to craft visions of twisted body horror surpassing his earlier films. The film freely mixes the organic and mechanical. A television throbs and pulsates like a muscle, reacting with erotic bliss to being touched. The body, meanwhile, twists into organic parodies of machines. A slit opens in Max's chest, in which objects can be inserted or removed. His gun fuses with him. First, barbs extended from the pistol grip into his hand. Every time we see the literal firearm after that, it grows more and more organic. Video cassettes and hand grenades also made of twitching flesh appears. “Videodrome” saves its most extreme vision of organic horror for the climax. After being shot with Renn's meat-pistol, the bad guy is torn apart from the inside out by growing, pulsating tumors.

It's seriously fucked-up and for more than just the obvious reasons. Picking up where “Rabid” left off, “Videodrome's” body horror has an obvious sexual element to its imagery. The sucking wound in Max's abdomen is obviously vaginal in appearance. This occurs right as the Videodrome programming begins to corrupt his mind. So he's emasculated just as he looses control. Notably, his hand gun grows more phallic in appearance as he regains control in his own mind, suggesting he's regained his manly aptitude towards self-determination. But Max is ultimately a fool, brainwashed by one faction or another, so it's all a smokescreen. This is further proof that there's a winking element to “Videodrome.” Cronenberg is very aware of his own propensity toward imagery like this. (The movie originally had even more of it, as an alternate ending would've featured a threesome of exotic genitalia.)

“Videodrome” is obviously rooted in the moral panic about violent horror movies central to the 1980s. The film, however, remains oddly prescient in other ways. Meet Brian O'Blivion, a mysterious expert in media that only appears as a recorded messenger. Obviously inspired by Marshall McLuhan, who Cronenberg studied under at the University of Toronto, O'Blivion delivers long speeches about the nature of television. Previously, when rambling, pretentious types like this have appeared in Cronenberg's films, he's been poking fun at them. Yet O'Blivion's ideas are genuinely intriguing. He suggests that, in the future, everyone will have a “television” name. Which seems to predict the rise of Web 1.0 screen names and, later, social media's ability for us to project identities or life styles different from our actual ones. His daughter runs the Cathode Ray Mission, a soup kitchen where television and food are presented as equally essential needs. Later, Max even meets a homeless man who will let you watch a portable TV in exchange for some cash. Compare this to modern internet addiction or Wi-Fi becoming a essential need. Cronenberg suggested, back in 1983, that watching screens would only become an even bigger part of our lives. And he was one hundred percent right.

Max Renn is a challenging role. The character has to come off as sleazy but still somewhat likable. The audience has to be willing to follow him even after his mind is bent in wild directions by the Videodrome signal. Luckily, David Cronenberg found the perfect star in James Woods. “Slimy but still oddly likable” was pretty much Woods' entire mantra as a leading man. He embodies Renn's status as an opportunistic horn-dog with extremely loose morals. Yet, no matter how gross Renn gets – he happily eats up a snuff/porn show and gooses a random secretary at one point – Woods manages to make him charming. This is important because, once the brainwashing begins, Max is the only center the audience has in “Videodrome's” churning sea of hallucinations and mind-warping visions.

“Videodrome” was also a starring role for Debbie Harry, the lead singer of Blondie. Harry had appeared in a few films previously, though usually as some variation of herself. In “Videodrome,” she plays the very interesting character of Nikki Brand. Brand challenges Max's standards for what sex can be before disappearing. Afterwards, she appears exclusively as a purring seductress in his fantasies. That's a role Harry certainly has no trouble occupying. Considering her rock star career, there's something metatextually perverse as her appearing as a televised siren, beckoning our hero to commit murder or transcend his physical form.

The supporting cast, filled entirely with character actors, is also extremely solid. Leslie Carlson plays Barry Convex, the closest thing the film has to a traditional bad guy. Carlson is perfect as the glad-handing businessman, the front for a sinister political movement. He delivers every line, no matter how sinister, with a friendly smile. I also really like Peter Dvorsky as Harlan, the cocky video pirate in Max's employ. Dvorsky also undergoes a transformation from friendly to malevolent as the story progresses, though Dvorsky never looses the puckish edge. Jack Creley is an expert at delivering his reams of esoteric dialogue as Brian O'Blivion, making the odd speeches sound convincing. Sonja Smits is somewhat flat as Bianca O'Blivion, his daughter.

“Videodrome” was probably only the third David Cronenberg movie I ever saw. It blew my mind upon first viewing. The movie's crazy special effects, mind-bending plot, gnarly violence, kinky sex, and intriguing ideas made for a tantalizing combination to my teenage self. Every time I've revisited the film, I appreciate it more. Hopefully “Videodrome” doesn't actually cause brain tumors, because I've watched the movie way too many times. Though way too freaky for regular audiences in 1983, “Videodrome” is now such a classic that there's been talks of remaking it as a slick modern action film. (Thankfully, this has not yet come to pass.) Regardless of what happens, the original remains vital and impressive to this day. Say it with me now: Long live the new flesh. [Grade: A]

No comments: