Understanding Videodrome is essential to understanding the concept of the Cronenbergian. Released in 1983, two years after Cronenberg’s internationally successful Scanners (1981),Videodrome embodies everything that has come to be associated with the director’s body-horror phase. However, unlike Cronenberg’s previous body-horror films that centre on the diseased body, such as Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979), Videodrome is more cerebrally oriented. The disease in Videodrome manifests itself within the mind, and does not, as in his previous works, stem from an external contagion. The film’s focus on thought and perception marks Videodrome as a turning point in Cronenberg’s oeuvre. With a much heavier emphasis on character, Videodrome somewhat departs from the conventions of the horror genre and embarks on themes that have come to dominate Cronenberg’s films of late: Spider (2002), A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), for example, are primarily psychological thrillers.
Max Renn (Woods), a small-time cable television producer in Toronto, lacks scruples as much as he has – and is driven by – ambition. When Harlan (Dvorsky), Max’s resident satellite pirate, locks in on a Pittsburgh-based signal featuring sadomasochistic sex, Max is thrilled by the commercial possibilities and sets out to find the people behind the signal known as Videodrome.
Max meets the attractive Nicki Brand (Harry), who introduces him to a variety of kinky sexual games. His obsession leads him to Brian O’Blivion (Creley), a media expert who only exists on television, and his daughter, Bianca (Smits). Max is soon drawn into a nightmare of hallucination, mind control and identity fragmentation. It becomes apparent that Max is – and has been all along – at the mercy of a sinister Orwellian conspiracy of business interests that devised the Videodrome signal as a means of entering and altering the minds of anyone exposed to it. By the time Max makes this discovery, it seems too late for him to do anything about it.
With the release of Scanners, Cronenberg was quickly elevated to the status of an international cult director. The film’s financial success, as well as the admiration it garnered from renowned American directors like Martin Scorsese and horror guru John Carpenter, granted Cronenberg a relatively symbiotic relationship with Hollywood. Videodrome, produced by the Canadian Film Development Corporation and distributed through Universal, was filmed entirely in the director’s native Toronto; however, unlike other films of the period that disguised their Toronto location, Videodrome flaunts it. The city plays itself in the film. The anarchy, seedy style and seething technology of Videodrome all come together convincingly within its Toronto setting. Added to this is the marked influence of Toronto-based media and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, originator of the phrase “the medium is the message.” Indeed, the character of Brian O’Blivion appears moulded after the controversial scholar whose work became the cornerstone of media theory from the 1960s until his death in 1980, only two years prior to the start of production on the film. McLuhan’s work on how media penetrates the human senses appears to inform the most grotesque of Videodrome’s visuals.
Although praised by some critics throughout North America for its ingenuity and awe-inspiring special effects (produced by Rick Baker), Videodrome tested poorly with audiences, underperformed at the American box office, and was picketed in Ottawa for what was deemed misogyny. After its negative was accidentally destroyed, devastating Cronenberg, the film soon disappeared from sight. Only Videodrome’s cult fans saved it from oblivion. Soon after its dismal release, the film gained a vibrant life on the new bootleg video market – a market that coincidentally drives much of the film’s narrative. Betamax and VHS tapes of the “infamous” film were exchanged and distributed by fans in a manner not unlike that through which the character of Max Renn disseminated Videodrome’s message – by showing it to people in his home.
Videodrome is one of David Cronenberg’s most profound and accomplished films – a searing vision of a society trapped within its own, often incoherent technological illusions. At the same time, it is a telling portrait of an “innocent” Canada, bedevilled by media that’s not of its own making. Max Renn, the television entrepreneur, is more interested in disseminating images created by others than creating and disseminating his own images. The film, with its themes of videocracy, desensitization and the disconnect between mind, body and media, still speaks to a current context.