Posted February 20, 2011 by William Dunmyer in Cronenberg

Revisiting 1983’s “Videodrome”

I saw “Videodrome” when it originally opened in early 1983. I was 18 an in my first year of college. While watching the film, I remember sensing that a good portion of it was going over my head.

As one of the characters in the film says, “It has a philosophy.” I felt “Videodrome” and generally the work of writer/director David Cronenberg had a philosophy that I wasn’t intellectually developed enough to understand.

Well, now I’m developed enough, and revisiting the film almost 30 years later was for the most part a letdown.

Cronenberg did have some ideas when he put “Videodrome” together — but not many. Mostly the film is just an entertainment, and a silly one at that. Cronenberg has had a number of phases in his unique artistic career, and during the 1980s he was interested in science fiction and horror of the cheesiest sort. “Videodrome” in many aspects is prime cheese. The cheap gore effects and ultra-cheap sets are as laughable today as they were in 1983, and many of the plot developments also produce chuckles. Initially, I thought the use of junk horror, junk sci-fi, and sado-masochistic softcore porn were ironic. But now I believe that Cronenberg just found these things fun. I certainly don’t begrudge an artist the pleasure of immersing in B-movie cheese and softcore porn, but it doesn’t interest me greatly. Shallow fun is fun, but it’s not interesting.

But what of the philosophical elements I detected in the film when I first saw it? They are there, but they’re minor. The film can be thought of as a slightly humorous meditation on the anxiety felt by many in the late 70s and early 80s about the ever-increasing amount of television people were watching. This was the time when people were beginning to have a TV in every room in the house. Many people couldn’t fall asleep without the comforting glow and white noise of the TV screen.

On a personal note: I was impacted by this anxiety, so much so that I decided in 1985 to eliminate TV from my life. I have never had a TV in my home since. (In the last couple years, I’ve taken to watching some TV shows on the computer. But I’ve not had an actual television since 1985.)

This anxiety about life lived in front of the TV grew more intense when video-recording technology suddenly appeared. In one of the fastest adoptions of new technology in human history, in the space of about one year every household above the poverty line got a machine to record TV shows onto videotape. This allowed ordinary people to watch pretty much whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. Hollywood also recorded much of its content onto videocassette, and VCR rental shops opened up everywhere. There was so much video content available that one wondered if people would ever leave their houses again. Let’s also not forget that the early 80s is when MTV appeared, leading many teenagers to spend entire weekends in front of the television. (I was one of those teenagers.)

There was also a terrible anxiety about the proliferation of unsavory material. Ultra-violent horror movies were immensely popular at the time. This genre even got its own name: slasher movies. (I was a huge fan of slasher movies, incidentally.) Hardcore pornography also became more accessible than ever, being as easy to rent as a copy of “Friday the 13th.” Many asked, what would be next? Snuff TV? It certainly seemed possible in the wake of “Faces of Death,” a popular shockumentary that included footage of actual killings of animals and some footage of human carnage taken at the scene of highway accidents.

“Videodrome” tapped into these anxieties – but also exploited them. Here are the basic outlines of the film’s plot:

• The main character (played by James Woods) is co-owner of a small TV station that broadcasts softcore porn and slasher movies.

• One day he happens upon a partially scrambled video signal that appears to contain footage of actual torture and murder. There are no credits. The transmissions just open with the title “Videodrome.”

• Shortly after viewing Videodrome, the man begins to hallucinate that televisions and videocassettes are coming to life. He also hallucinates that there is a gaping hole in his abdomen, resembling the slot where one inserts a videotape. (He’s a VCR, get it?)

• He contacts a “media prophet” who uses the (laughable) pseudonym Brian O’Blivion, where he learns that the Videodrome signal induces a brain tumor to grow in the viewer. He also learns that he was exposed to the signal intentionally, as part of a master plan to rid North America of the kind of people who would watch snuff TV. The masterminds then take over this man’s mind and get him to assassinate their enemies.

• Then he is killed by a television. (Yes, a television comes alive and shoots him. It looks as ridiculous as it sounds.) At this point, the film spins even more ludicrously out of control. The man’s body dies, but he takes new form as “the video word made flesh.” In the last 10 minutes, he several times spouts the slogan, “Long live the new flesh.” Then the film is over.

• Oops, I forgot the softcore porn. The man gets a new girlfriend (played by Deborah Harry), and they explore S/M sex while watching Videodrome. As a form of foreplay, he pierces her earlobe with a long needle. She also turns herself on by burning her breast with a lit cigarette. Did Cronenberg find this interesting on some level? Perhaps. But I think really he just found it to be a turn-on. Much of the film is just titillation.

Is “Videodrome” a serious work of art? I would say no. One open question remains, however. I know that Cronenberg studied Literature and has had major interest in the work of William Burroughs. (Cronenberg made a film version of Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” in 1991.) I haven’t read much of Burroughs’ work, but what I do know of it reminds me of “Videodrome.” There is a chance that “Videodrome” is to some degree a homage to Burroughs, or inspired at least in part by Burroughs. A careful look at “Videodrome” from that perspective might prove illuminating.

But one shouldn’t have to read other material to appreciate a film. Each work of art stands on its own. Standing on its own, “Videodrome” doesn’t add up to much more than goofy, B-movie fun — and not much fun at that.

Furthermore, I suspect that even after one did a thorough investigation of the Burroughs connection, one would still conclude that “Videodrome” was only a minor achievement.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.