Sunday Editor’s Pick #2: Videodrome (1983)

by on January 16, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Jan 22 at 6:00 at Museum of the Moving Image event! [Program & Tix]


We here at Alt Screen are very obvious very excited about MOMI’s Cronenberg retrospective (Jan 21 to Feb 12). Why not stay after the double feature of early rarities for his postmodern masterpiece?


We love the pop-art inspired theatrical trailer, but here’s the rarely seen teaser:


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

This 1983 shocker by David Cronenberg comes about as close to abandoning a narrative format as a commercial film possibly can….Never coherent and frequently pretentious, the film remains an audacious attempt to place obsessive personal images before a popular audience—a kind of Kenneth Anger version of Star Wars.

Chris Cabin for Slant:

The enemy, as it seems it always has been, is within in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, but its violence, its gore, and its torrential mayhem is hard to miss. Influenced by the writings of Marshall McLuhan, this 1983 vision of the intermingling ideas and functions of technology, the mind and “the flesh” is, like a great deal of Cronenberg’s work, endlessly fascinated with decay, bodily fluids, wounds, and growths, all of which come to bear in one form or another on Max Renn (the great James Woods), a forager of outré entertainments at Civic TV, a sleazy alternative television network in Toronto he helped found; the station’s motto, “The One You Take to Bed with You,” is more ominous than goofy.
But where softcore pornography would effectively crawl up the ass of any major network exec and start biting as if it were its last meal, Renn is bored by shots of Asian women pleasuring themselves and congenial Roman orgies. He wants something more intense, tougher, and he thusly goes about roaming the airways with techno-pirate Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), who comes across the eponymous “show.”



The New York Times’ Janet Maslin on the 1983 theatrical release:

When Max Renn, the hero of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, stumbles across a Malaysian television station that appears to be broadcasting pure sex and brutality, he is stunned. “Torture, murder, mutilation!” he exclaims. “Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant, and almost no production costs. Where do they get actors who can do this?” Later on, in a cooler moment, he contemplates this new form of programming and murmurs, “I think it’s what’s next.”
Max is a video entrepreneur, someone who considers it his business to give people what they want, however sordid or sleazy that may be. In Mr. Cronenberg’s universe, which is often very clever and inventive, this doesn’t make Max an evil man. It merely makes him unprincipled, and therefore vulnerable to the wicked machinations of others. In Videodrome these abound. So does poetic justice. Max is eventually turned into a walking personification of the sexual, violent, media-mad exploitation to which he has contributed.


Even Variety got on board:

Dotted with video jargon and ideology which proves more fascinating than distancing. And Cronenberg amplifies the freaky situation with a series of stunning visual effects.


Sean Axmaker reminds us of Olivier Assayas’ appraisal in the Village Voice:

When I first heard the Pistols and the Clash, it was as if the world was being toppled: Nothing could be the same again. They returned to music a certain violence that had been watered down in progressive rock. I realized that it was the language of my generation, that it could provide an escape from everyday torpor. I started writing screenplays around this time and was asking myself: What is the cinematic equivalent of punk? I found it in horror films: John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977), Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977)—genre movies made on a shoestring, with an anger, intensity, and sense of transgressive freedom. Cronenberg’s visionary Videodrome (1983) is the most important film of this generation. Time has only reinforced its audacity.

Axmaker’s own take:

Videodrome is an evolutionary leap in Cronenberg’s filmmaking and ideas. His previous film, Scanners, had become a minor hit and a cult film, but it was a pretty straightforward approach to the idea of telepathy as a product of genetic experimentation, with a fairly conventional conspiracy thriller plot. Videodrome takes concepts of disease and mutation as evolution, and of the body’s physical and biochemical response to progress and technology changing too fast to really absorb and conquer, to a whole new level, and twists it in a plot that wraps around itself while it flirts with another central Cronenberg theme: the fascination with and the fear of sex.

And did we mention that Debbie Harry stars as a talk-show celebrity with a kinky predilection for sexually masochistic encounters? Because she totally does.


For their double-disc DVD, the good people at the Criterion Collection (re-)published a trifecta of essays by Carrie Rickey, Gary Indiana and Tim Lucas (editor of the excellent Video Watchdog).



You could mistake Cronenberg for an accountant. Articulate, mod­estly professorial, and as tidy as his native Toronto (“Relentlessly clean,” boasts the Ontario Ministry of Tour­­ism in a welcome brochure), the filmmaker writes and directs bril­liantly speculative feats of technological and physiological imagination messy with comic prescience. His fans include John Carpenter (“Cronenberg is better than all the rest of us combined”) and Martin Scorsese (“No one makes movies like his”). Yet it was not until the release of his fourth genre picture, Scanners, in 1981, that he became a cult director with fans in the U.S.


Scorsese’s remark is an under­state­­ment: no one else possesses Cronenberg’s warp of mind. His movies are vividly cerebral and vis­ceral, a killer combination in the horror genre, which typically exploits one register or the other. His origi­nality is in visualizing thought via gutsily graphic means and in ren­der­ing unthinkable violence even more extreme through ­hallucinatory abstraction. Cronenberg makes the cerebral visceral and vice versa. Videodrome proposes a vision of the world made flesh, its skin the epidermis of breathing, pulsating, polyresin cassettes.


What am I ranting about? For those unfamiliar with the Cronenberg oeuvre, the simplest description of Videodrome will read like a foreign language. Best to work up to it slowly. To start by recapping Cronenberg’s biography and his quartet of bio-horror comedies, movies of such visionary science that they combine a postdoctoral biologist’s fanciful prognostications with the consciousness razing of a strong tab of acid.


Gary Indiana:

Cronenberg’s dramatization of the interhuman has taken many fantastic forms, from the “game portals” drilled into people’s spines in eXistenZ (1999) to the thalidomide-induced telepathic fusion of the scanners in Scanners (1981), the talking bug typewriters and flesh-assimilating Mugwumps of Naked Lunch (1991), the genetic recomposition of the protagonist of The Fly (1986) that boosts his sexual prowess while gradually transforming him into an insect—eroticism is hardwired into our instinct, and dangerously close to the circuitry of the death wish. The sexual connection compromises and sometimes eradicates our self-preservative mechanisms. In Dead Ringers (1988), one cohesive “self” is divided between two identical bodies, and when one deviates into a discrete set of emotions and sensitivities, they both start to disintegrate. Crash (1996) conveys, viscerally, the libidinal attractions of physical injury and the scars it deposits on flesh, unfettered aggression via technology, and, to some extent, the easy portability of “love” from one arbitrary object to another.


Videodrome, prophetically for 1983 (and looking increasingly less like fiction), shows us a world of technological hyperdevelopment in which people merge with their electronic media. Like an autoimmune catastrophe, the boundary between our bodies and what’s outside them becomes indistinguishable. Like the unwary users of the hallucinogen Chew-Z, who can never come down from their trip, in Philip K. Dick’s psychedelic-era novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, anyone exposed to the Videodrome signal gets sucked into a never-ending hallucination controlled by someone else’s will. Whoever it goes into goes into it: it can bend the subject’s perceptions so drastically that the body itself alters form; its flesh melts into globs, sprouts machine parts, splits apart for use as a storage area. You can even patch a video into the person’s brain by inserting a cassette in his stomach.



And last but not least Tim Lucas:

In 1981, it seemed to me that a new era of fantastic cinema was upon us. With this in mind, I persuaded an editor at Heavy Metal to accept an essay I wanted to write about the new generation of horror specialists, which I planned to call “The Shape of Rage” (after a psychological manifesto that figures in the plot of David Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood). It was a housebound project—with me interviewing George Romero, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and makeup artist Tom Savini, all by telephone—until fate intervened and sent Cronenberg to Cincinnati on a promotional junket for his latest film, Scanners.


Which segues us nicely into this fascinating interview, via the YouTube channel of the video rarities clearinghouse Revok:


In 1982, while working at Universal studios as a publicity and marketing specialist in the horror and science fiction genre, Mick Garris produced and hosted this 26 minute roundtable discussion between David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and John Landis. All three were working on projects at Universal at the time and this piece was originally created for Universal promotional purposes.


Part 1 of 3:

Part 2 of 3:

Part 3 of 3:

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