Videodrome April 12, 2016
The films of David Cronenberg — at least the ones labeled products of the “body horror” subgenre — consistently achieve a certain sort of impressive unpleasantness. Never are they necessarily scary, explosive, or even darkly funny. They stew in emotionless carnage and metallic surrealism more ominous and disturbing than directly intense. We sit as uncomfortable, sullen witnesses, prone to wincing. There isn’t much else to do. Cronenberg's products are eerie without the eventual emotional crescendo we might expect in a typical horror closer. They don't feel like horror films so much as they do more-inexplicable-than-usual nightmares we'd rather forget than dwell on.
I give props to Cronenberg for making fright-fests incomparable to his peers. But I can't bring myself to particularly like Videodrome. It’s too abstractly unpleasant, eager to displease. But it does what it sets out to do effectively, which is to devise a TV satire more reflective of a macabre tale of terror than, to be broad, Network. Whether you take to it is up to fate; I just so happen to be one of the few who feels the need to take a hot shower and watch a couple of hours worth of ‘90s sitcoms after viewing, just to get the grime off me.
Videodrome stars James Woods as Max Renn, a TV producer who runs CIVIC-TV, an underground Canadian station that specializes in the spotlighting of softcore pornography and brutal depictions of staged violence. He knows exactly how to cater to sick audience fascination. His world lights up when he accidentally discovers Videodrome, a plotless television program from Asia which looks and feels like snuff. Torture and murder are its most prevalent features. It must be phony, Renn tells himself. But in the context of a David Cronenberg film, we know that this mostly likely isn’t the case. Renn, too optimistic in a profession which should be cutthroat, envisions the program as being the future of twisted television.
Before making the final decision as to whether he should air the program or not, though, Renn makes the regrettable mistake of becoming a series addict. As it turns out, the feed is coming from a mysterious location in Pittsburgh, and has, similarly to the supernatural tape in Ringu, dramatic physical and mental impact on the viewer. Shortly after his introduction to Videodrome, Renn begins having bizarre hallucinations, ranging from images of his TV set coming to life to his stomach turning into something reminiscent of a VCR. Things only grow more grotesque the more Renn delves into the situation.
Videodrome’s plot thickens as it wears on, covering its inflicted devastations in government conspiracy, media dependency, and forthrightly strange malice. Their blending together leaves us distinctly uneasy. We're never frightened but our hearts go aflutter. There's a feeling of all-powerful danger following our every move, unable to be stopped. Enigma is key to the fears imbued in the film, and the more eccentric it gets, the more violent it gets. The more tremulous we become. It isn’t hair-raising in varying bursts; Videodrome has an incessant rumbling of disquiet lingering.
Watching it again sounds about as appealing as only eating undercooked meat for a week; I wouldn’t want to inflict such pain on myself or my readers. My experiences with Cronenberg have been uneven over the years. I love his spectacularly screwy eXistenZ, like his take on the gangster movie, Eastern Promises, and actively loathe his widely praised Dead Ringers. I hold it in high regard. I admire its craftsmanship, performances, imagery. But admiration can only get you so far. B-