When you wake up, what’s the first thing you do? Do you get in a good stretch? Brush your teeth? Check your phone? It almost seems like a given, but we assault our minds daily with an abundance of images and raw sensations, sometimes before we do anything else. At times, it can feel like we live between the borders of our screens.
In the early 1980s, society was stressing about the effects of a different screen: the television. The previous decade had seen restrictions on the small screen slowly relax, and while TV was making strides in handling politically-charged subject matter, it was also becoming far more comfortable showing bare skin and crimson guts, an evocative combination that didn’t go unnoticed by a certain Canadian auteur. In 1983, David Cronenberg released his magnum opus, Videodrome, a transgressive masterpiece that gazes through television screens at humanity’s infatuation with its own depravity… and manages to glimpse 40 years into our future as well.
Despite releasing in the early ‘80s, Videodrome first tasted life as a similar script Cronenberg wrote in the ‘70s called Network of Blood, itself a thread from the director’s childhood. As a kid staying up late in Toronto, he used to accidentally catch transmissions from stations in Buffalo, both scaring and enticing him with the promise of disturbing content. That fascination didn’t go away as Cronenberg came into his own as a filmmaker, and eventually the steady successes of his previous hits earned him a chance to make what might very well have been his most bizarre project yet.
If Videodrome were to be vivisected, then Max Renn (James Woods) would be the film’s pulsating heart. As the sleazy president of CIVIC-TV, he peddles shlock-exploitation films and softcore pornos until his satellite pirate Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) picks up a transmission of something much, much more real. From the moment Renn lays eyes on Videodrome, he practically thrums with half-concealed excitement at the senseless and brutal violence depicted on it.
Both the script and Woods’ performance nail Max’s particular brand of deadened sensationalist; someone who’s become so overstimulated by the mind-numbing “content” he’s selling that only something as abrasive and shocking as Videodrome could give him a fix. When he meets the sensuous and alluring Nicki Brand (played by Blondie vocalist Debbie Harry), the intensity of their sadomasochistic carnality seems like it might engulf them whole. Instead, their shared inability to leave well enough alone spirals into an obsession with the Videodrome transmission, and the dangerous secrets hidden behind the fuzzy video feed.
Cronenberg is fascinated by the paradoxical falseness yet simultaneous reality of cameras and screens, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the character of Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) – an eccentric media analyst with knowledge of Videodrome’s origins, but who exclusively makes appearances through video-cassette tape. When O’Blivion, staring straight at us from 1983, confidently declares that one day everyone “will have special names designed to make the cathode ray tube resonate,” it’s as if the movie is reaching through time to evoke an era of usernames and handles. Like a cinematic Nostradamus, he accurately predicts today’s social media landscape, where anyone can carefully cultivate a perfect image of their life designed to project a specific identity to the world.
But the abundance of cameras aren’t just turned inwards. Just like CIVIC-TV’s business practices, the internet has created an age where every moment of life, no matter how intimate or mundane, can be turned into a spectacle. It’s entirely possible to see a human being take their first breath online, and in so many frustrating and horrific situations, it’s far too easy to see someone’s last. In fact, it’s possible to exist in perpetuity from beyond the grave; long-deceased celebrities still have social media accounts kept active, a point grimly prophesied by the reveal that Brian O’Blivion has been dead the entire time, kept alive through archival footage by his daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits).
So what happens when you consume a never-ending torrent of perfectly curated sensory overload every single day? Well, according to David Cronenberg, you contract a nasty brain tumor that, in turn, induces some truly gnarly body horror hallucinations, brought to life by none other than special-effects royalty Rick Baker. It’s nearly impossible to point to a single film as the pinnacle of Baker’s legendary work, but his collaboration with a team of mostly 20-year-olds in Videodrome produced some of the most iconic images in his oeuvre – including a sensual, gasping television set, a fleshy, phallic firearm, and a corpse that quite literally explodes outwards into a throbbing mass of cancerous cell tissue.
And yet, despite all the visceral and imaginative violence, the real horror comes from the implication of the phantasmagoria of Max’s experience: his exposure to a digital reflection of reality has so totally altered his mind that even his everyday perception of the world has been affected. Cronenberg takes this a step further with the ultimate reveal that Max was intentionally exposed to Videodrome by Harlan and the show’s producer, Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson), who weaponize him as a political assassin with even grander hopes of genocide. As surrealistic and nightmarish as the film’s presentation is, somehow the idea of a bad-faith political actor using a digital space to mobilize a dangerous radical force doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.
Like many of Cronenberg’s movies, the relationship between technology and humanity portrayed in Videodrome isn’t insurmountably cynical. On the brink of sealing his fate as a brainwashed proto-fascist assassin, Renn is graciously deprogrammed by Bianca O’Blivion and given the chance to fight back. In a bold sentiment echoed by Cronenberg’s most recent film, Max chooses to transcend his corrupted physical form, understanding the potential of the screen as both an anti-fascist tool but also an expression of being. The first time we ever see Max, he’s being coaxed awake by a television in the background, and in the end, he’s eased on to the next life by one as well – he exists entirely between the margins of the screen.