The very first time I watched Cronenberg’s Videodrome, about 4-5 years ago, I completely lost my mind. I was still in the “IMDb Top 250” stage of movie-watching and had also never seen a Cronenberg film. I was far less seasoned in horror movies as I am now; in fact, I caught this movie completely by chance as a late-night viewing on Turner Classic Movies. And once again, it really blew my mind. Never before had I experienced something so relentlessly hallucinogenic, with a plot structure that is just so bonkers in comparison to everything I had gotten used to. It quickly became one of my favorite movies and remains so to this day. After buying the Criterion Blu-Ray, I try to rewatch it as often as possible, perhaps in some silly effort to completely wrap my mind around it. Yet needless to say, Videodrome is much more stubborn than that.
For those who aren’t familiar with the narrative of Videodrome, it is essentially centered around a TV channel that broadcasts the torture and murder of anonymous individuals for hours at a time, all within a mysterious red room. That’s really all I can say about it, in order to adequately contain the sensationalist aspect of the film. Much of the movie revolves around the relationship between the voyeur and the material they are ingesting. In the movie, this is reflected in the protagonist’s (James Woods) moral responsibility; in our world, it’s our – the viewers’ – willingness to take pleasures in the images on our screen, no matter how depraved. And believe me, this movie can get pretty subversive, as reality (or at least, ‘reality’ in how the protagonist perceives it) becomes to crumble and become more and more ambiguous in multiple respects.
And ambiguity, here, comes in the form of sex. We’ve got televisions that swell and moan with pleasure, phallic guns, and throbbing VHS tapes, among other strange occurrences. It’s as if Cronenberg successfully presented to us all those dirty, utterly unspeakable images that dwell in our psyche. As a so-called “advanced” species, we are conditioned to believe we are above such animalistic instincts. Thanks to the advent of television and, specifically, the conception of Videodrome, we may finally be able to stop repressing.
In some respects, I’d be willing to say that Cronenberg predicted the future with this one. Videodrome, the channel, is presented as a way for individuals to satisfy themselves from intense violent urges. At the same time, however, it shows how desensitized we have come, being able to accept such atrocities on the screen, simply because it’s apparently taking place in Malaysia and, therefore, far and far away from any chance of it directly affecting us. Is it really any different these days, what with our current internet-centered society? Now being only in my 20s, I can’t speak for how life and times were during the early 80s, when this film was produced and released. It is interesting, however, that the film’s dismantling and overturning of its sense of reality almost mirrors how we’ve come to become so tied to the “artificial” reality that technology constructs, so much so that it literally becomes part of our every day of living. The popularity of Facebook exemplifies this, as does a vast array of other forms of social media. This makes the suggested voyeur-content relationship all the more disheartening, as it shows that we aren’t quite as distant from technology as we want to believe we are. This, I believe, is what the filmmaker suggests, and he does so magnificently through his flawless marriage of image and context.
It goes without saying that the practical effects in this film are absolutely amazing. There are quite a few images that still strike terror in my heart to this very day. But although Cronenberg is frequently hailed at the king of the body horror subgenre – a subgenre in which he seems to almost completely dominate – it would be misguided to place this movie within such confines that the horror genre implies. Sure, the genre is very loose in many ways, but there’s undoubtedly many elements of sci-fi, thriller, and even film-noir going on here (I understand the latter isn’t a ‘genre’ per se, but for argument’s sake it’s got a rather distinct and commonly employable style). Along with its undoubtedly deranged plot structure and lack of willingness to spoon-feed, the flick also avoids fitting into neat categories quite so easily. I was even reconsidering whether I’d want to add this to my Halloween Horror Party list, but I decided for it since I just really wanted to write about this movie.
In the end, Videodrome‘s indistinctness, in its many forms, is what devises the vast majority of the true horror found here. The indistinctness in its plot structure. The utter incoherence of its plot itself. The ambiguity in much of its imagery, combining sex and violence in dangerous ways. Us never knowing and never being told where reality ends and surreality begins. And finally, the fuzziness in regards to what it all means. I myself am still trying to make heads or tails of it, and have probably only repeated in this review what others have stated many times before. However, I think that’s what makes the experience so strangely beautiful – like reality, like technology, the experience is as subjective as they come.
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