Betamax Blues: David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) – Blu-ray review
Long live the new flesh? Not when Cronenberg’s unflinching assault on the extremities of media and violence remains scarier and more relevant than found footage or torture porn.
(David Cronenberg, Can, 1983)
It’s the curse of many films to be so pertinent and accurate in dissecting the trends of their time that they quickly date. Some, however, just get more relevant and Videodrome – although obviously conceived as a satirical comment on the phenomenon of the video nasty – makes for an equally effective looking glass in the age of torture porn and found footage.
The film is proof that it’s the intellectual software rather than the visual hardware that makes a classic. Only the early 80s Betamax trappings date it, but ironically the use of lumpy video cassettes and wood-panelled TVs give the film a suitably surreal iconography that’s far more resonant than would have been possible with DVDs and flatscreens. In many ways, it’s aged far better than Cronenberg’s more recent foray into virtual reality, eXistenZ and its themes apply just as much to the age of YouTube and the dark Web.
That this is so is because Videodrome is the centrepiece of Cronenberg’s career, simultaneously the culmination of his early, self-penned body horrors and the start of his maturation into brooding, complex psychodramas. On the one hand, like Rabid or Scanners, the film is centred around a clandestine scientific organisation, is replete with none-too-subtle social satire (Brian O’Blivion, meet Marshall McLuhan), and is chock-full of icky, stomach-emptying imagery.
On the other hand, this is the first Cronenberg film to work as a character study, prefiguring later, more abstract work like Dead Ringers or Spider. The film’s psychological effectiveness is helped no end by Cronenbrg casting a decent actor – James Woods, scarily intense throughout – in the lead role for the first time, paving the way for career-best performances by the likes of Jeff Goldblum and Jeremy Irons.
The story is also a perfect interweaving of Cronenberg’s perennial themes of psychological and physical disintegration, sex and technology. In fact, these are linked together with such contrivance that it could almost be a parody of a Cronenberg film were it not so relentlessly disturbing. It works partly because the subject matter is so provocative, but mainly because Cronenberg immerses the viewer in the experience so completely.
This is a brilliant study of voyeurism because, with the film visually composed of screens-within-screens, the audience is compelled to join in with the film’s seedy’s protagonist. Max Renn is the ultimate alpha male (check out the name), thriving on sex for profit and lust, and the film is barely ten minutes old when he succeeds in getting the woman, something that takes most movie heroes the entire running time. But now Cronenberg gets to subvert this perfect fantasy – having shown the audience what it is to be the predator, he then makes Max the prey. First, his conquest turns out to be more interested in being her own master; thus neutered, it’s only a matter of time before Max grows a vagina-like wound through which he can be “raped” by videotape. Few movie romances, it’s fair to say, end like this.
The mindfuck is enhanced by Cronenberg’s decision to tell the entire story from Max’s perspective, which becomes somewhat problematic when he starts hallucinating. It could be argued that Cronenberg is cheating, but for this film such a complete blurring of reality and fantasy is entirely apt. The lack of structural cohesion is appropriate to Max’s descent into madness. The distorted reality echoes the thematic concerns over the power of visual media.
Most importantly, the narrative form helps to ensure that the film is never easy. Videodrome overwhelms the spectator, disorientates and confuses, and so demands that it be taken seriously – the perfect riposte to accusations of making video nasties. At a time when the horror directors tend to simply sit back and provoke controversy from in-your-face WYSIWYG gore, Cronenberg is more insidious. He’s asking: what do you think? Does this turn you on? There are few horror movies that involve the audience to quite the same extent, which is why it’s still one of the genre’s finest achievements.