Long Live the New Flesh: Videodrome
Videodrome is a film I first ran into in the mid 90’s on the BBC’s excellent and now sadly defunct Moviedrome show- where Alex Cox (of Repo Man fame) introduced a double bill of thematically similar cult movies. I miss this, actually, as it introduced me to many films that I now consider to be some of my favourites (The Warriors, La Haine, The Fly, Darkness over Tallinn which I need to rewatch if I can ever find the damned thing again), and so forth). However, I have to say that few of them have had the lasting impact on me that Cronenberg’s 1983 masterpiece of body horror had.
James Woods plays Max Renn, a disgustingly sleazy low rent cable channel executive. He’s decided that the future is to show as much filth as he possibly can get away with, and to carve out a niche in a market clearly oversaturated with filth (even in 1983) he needs to find the most extreme “hard” filth that he can. He wades through hours of soft-core smut only to discard it. His TV nerd, Harlan, discovers something that he believes is from Malaysia and gives Renn a tape. That something: Videodrome.
In the meantime, Woods has hooked up with Debbie Harry’s radio psychologist Nicki Brand. She comes back to his place, and decides that she wants to watch some filth- on goes the tape and let the perversion begin. After this point, it becomes difficult to tell reality from Woods growing psychosis, as he follows the trail to the makers of Videodrome (in Pittsburgh) talks to the daughter of the shady Brian O’Blivion, suffers weird and grotesque mutations, and goes on a kill frenzy.
This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, light viewing. It deals with heavy themes and has seriously grotesque (not to mention painful) imagery in it. While Videodrome is an unarguable classic, and it is getting a maximum, it is also not a film that I feel any compelling urge to come back to (I shied away from watching it again before writing this, but as I’ve seen it more times than I care to count, I should be alright). Videodrome contains arguably Cronenberg’s definitive image- James Woods probing at the vagina-type opening on his own stomach with a gun. Actually, much like a Guy Richie film, vaginae appear all over the place- there’s also a VCR vagina for example. If there’s one film that truly defines body horror then this one is it. Videodrome is also as strong in the writing as it is visually. Renn is a marvellously drawn filth merchant, the concept of Brian O’Blivion (I’m trying not to spoil here) is an extremely good one, and the idea of warring factions playing out some sort of techno-sociological battlefield using an unaware Woods as a pawn is also a good one. I suppose that Cronenberg was ahead of the field with the idea of TV being used as a medium of mass control, and if anything Videodrome was probably a touch ahead of its time.
The acting in this film is top-notch. Woods in particular (aside from being brilliantly cast) is superb as the sleazy Renn. He’s a man in touch with his perversions, and as Videodrome draws him in the confusion and psychosis that he manages to convincingly portray is both chilling and unsettling. He had to be good, mind, because the film is shot from his point of view. Sonja Smits, as O’Blivion’s daughter is solid, and Debbie Harry is good as Nikki (whether or not Nikki actually exists is open to question).
Which brings me on to the effects. Rick Baker was the man charged with bringing the nightmare to life, and he does a superb job. These are, again, all practical effects and they are all stomach turning, effective and downright disgusting. Woods mutant “New Flesh” hand in particular is a stunning prop, a gross pustule ridden appendage that resembles neither a gun nor a hand, but instead is some kind of revolting fleshy combination of the two. Baker, it has to be noted, didn’t have as much prep time as he wanted and so the effects are a touch rougher than he wished, but in a film where the line between psychosis and reality is as blurred as this one, that doesn’t matter. This, along with the Thing, represents some truly outstanding effects work.
I’ve said that Videodrome is a film that I don’t feel any particular need to come back to, and I don’t. However, it is a film that I will be watching again in the next few months. It’s a powerful film, and it’s a depressing one but what I find truly depressing is that some idiotic suit has greenlit a remake of it. Videodrome is a film of its time, a remake of it is both artistically and commercially pointless. Fans of it, such as me, will avoid the remake like the plague, and the subject matter is far too extreme to attract a mass following. Furthermore, with the dawn of the internet, the idea of a cable porn show controlling your mind is completely redundant (does anyone even watch cable porn any more?) and as such has dated Videodrome quite badly.
Videodrome is a masterpiece of Body Horror, while also being a masterclass of psychological horror. It’s a disturbing and heavy film, and one that I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone sees once. Because that will be enough. I give it a maximum 4 Changs.
Next up, it’s the slightly lesser, but still effective, The Dead Zone.
The order so far:
- The Scanners- 3.5 Changs
- The Brood- 3 Changs
- Shivers- 2 Changs
- Rabid- 1 Chang
- Fast Company- Orangutan of Doom
Until next time,