Videodrome (1983)

Throughout the eighties, David Cronenberg proved himself as a prolific and provoking director. In The Fly and The Brood he explored Freudian ideas through the horror genre. In Videodrome, he tackles social issues, mainly the intersection of media and pleasure. Here, he creates a prophetic work that supposes that television would come to shape and distort the way people would view the world.

Max Renn (James Woods) works for a cable company that specializes in the naughtier material audiences might want to see. While he typically searches for hardcore pornography, after stumbling across a wayward cable signal, he records a bootleg of a new kind of sensation, Videodrome, a film that goes well beyond the bounds of normal porn.

David Cronenberg uses this setup to make some predictions about society’s future. His most disturbing and spot on vision is that idea that general sexual deviance will no longer be enough for those pushing the bounds of pain and pleasure, that eventually they will want something more simulating than just sex, but also an added component of violence, one of the most heightened and sensualized acts the television can provide.

What Cronenberg prophecies is the rise of popularity of torture porn. It’s the next big thing, the hot little secret that is ready to explode. While Cronenberg teases the idea that this little violent porno would be a hit, I don’t think he would expect the widespread popularity of something like Saw or Hostel. However, in Hostel’s credit, it is a film that tries to condemn such pleasures, but it also offers those pleasures in far more detail than Videodrome does.

Cronenberg is also concerned with how these images would affect an audience. He repeatedly brings up the idea of the television as the mind’s eye, shaping not only perceptions, but desires. He does take some of his conclusions about media effects to an extreme, but it does certainly provoke the notion that media can be a very potent tool.

This last act is where things become unhinged. The film transforms from a critique of media, to something strikingly similar to the media form it’s trying to mock. The last thirty minutes feel like a particularly bizarre The Twilight Zone episode, and less of that scathing social critique and analysis of all that came before it.

This shift can be seen in two ways. Either Cronenberg decides to quit taking the themes and ideas of the film seriously and just have fun or he’s suggesting that at some point that bit of fiction that exists inside a box eventually shapes the way audiences go about living their lives. Perhaps it’s not as extreme and hallucinatory as the events occur in Videodrome.

Whether or not Videodrome works will depend on how one takes the last act. Up to that point it’s a disturbing and fascinating film that slowly blurs the lines between media as simple deviant consumption and as a force of manipulation. This being horror, some of the ideas are heightened, exaggerated and manufactured in fantastical ways and yet it’s still a provoking and thoughtful look at a legitimate media issue.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing