As we descend deeper into the rabbit hole of our increasingly intimate relationship with screens, this crepuscular realm where more of our interaction with the world can be done in physical privacy, while privacy itself has become more public and interactive, a movie shot in Toronto 30 years ago, about a exploitation cable executive who dabbles in obscure pornography and winds up using a stomach vagina as a weapons storage device, has emerged as one of our seminal reference texts.
Videodrome (1983) is both prescient and personal. Along with The Fly (1986), it’s among the most idea-saturated and emblematic works from the singularly imaginative David Cronenberg. Yet it’s anything but ponderous; fleet and funny, perverse and propulsive, it’s a genre buffet: speculative fiction fused with horror fused with neo-noir, at times downright pulpy in its heavily underlined portent. Think of the moment where Nikki Brand (Blondie’s Deborah Harry) brands her breast with a burning cigarette, and Max Renn (James Woods), her lover and our anti-hero, repeats, “Don’t, Nikki, don’t,” as he reaches hungrily out to take a pull.
If what transpires after the taboo TV image-induced hallucinations override Max’s mind and body resists breezy synopsis, the set-up is relatively straightforward. Weary of soft-core costume porn, Max, president of Civic TV, “the one you take to bed with you,” is looking for “something tough” to give his struggling network an edge. (An amusing bit of overstatement: Max uses the word “something” five times in one short speech to his fellow execs while a movie poster with the word “SOMETHING” in gooey letters hangs right behind his head.) Max finds that special something in a pirated signal showing fuzzy, chillingly unadorned scenes of torture and murder. The show’s called Videodrome. “It has a philosophy,” says one of its characters, “and that’s what makes it dangerous.” Max catches a glimpse and wants more, but the makers of the broadcast seem to want not to be found. At least, not easily.
The signal’s sourced to Pittsburgh—home, incidentally, of George Romero and Night of the Living Dead (1968)—but it turns out access to Videodrome might be found right in Max’s backyard. He seeks out the enigmatic shut-in media philosopher Brian O’Blivion (a character explicitly inspired by Marshall McLuhan), who pontificates about the power of television exclusively from a television—even when O’Blivion appears on a talk show he only does so as a disembodied head on a television. Once Max makes (indirect) contact with O’Blivion, his mind and body begin to succumb to Videodrome’s more troubling, if exhilarating, effects. He discovers a subterranean criminal broadcasting conspiracy. He recognizes his body as a malleable shell and becomes an advocate/terrorist for something called “the New Flesh.” At one point he penetrates a bulging TV screen with his head. Later a guy explodes with pulsating tumours. There are also a lot of dancers in silver unitards and moustaches performing at an optician convention. Things get a little weird.
As influenced by William S. Burroughs as Naked Lunch (1991), Videodrome, whose many progeny includes the hypno-TV conspiracy of They Live (1988) and the killer videotape of The Ring (1998/2002), keeps gazing into the future even now, blurring fantasy and reality, questioning the role of the body in an increasingly digitally manipulated existence. So much the better that the film unfolds in what is so recognizably a Canadian city in the decidedly analogue 1980s, reminding us that its ideas are not indebted solely to Steve Jobs and YouTube. The New Flesh has been creeping up on us for a very long while.