Videodrome (1983) – 31 Days of Horror: Oct 11

by Jovial Jay

David Cronenberg films are always creepy and strange and very primal. Videodrome is no exception.

It’s been decades since I saw Videodrome, so I have nothing but passing memories of what is going on.

Before Viewing

According to the trailer, James Woods starts watching a (Pirate?) TV station called Videodrome. Shortly after he begins hallucinating in such a way that the TV set appears to be alive. The Videodrome signals can get beamed into the viewers head after a while and alter the nature of reality. Then there’s lots of weird things like a gun growing tendrils into a wrist, or a growth coming out of the television screen. It’s almost like this film was designed to be watched when you’re high! I think I’ll skip that part, but I am going to watch the film and report back. So stay tuned, we’ll be right back after this word from our sponsor!

Presented below is the Trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - HalloweenAfter Viewing

Videodrome is as ambiguous as it is trippy. Max Renn (James Woods) is a producer on a local UHF channel, CIVIC-TV, in Toronto, Ontario. His station is always looking for unique shlock, low grade infotainment, and soft-core porn to boost the stations ratings. One day he discovers a pirate signal from a station in Malaysia, called Videodrome, showing a woman being tortured and abused by two masked figures. No plot, no change of scenery, just graphic depictions of violence.

Max appears on Rena King, a talk show about media, along with Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry) and Dr. Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), who only appears on television, if he can be broadcast on a TV screen. Nicki and Max develop a strong attraction to each other and they quickly make their way back to his apartment. Nicki discovers the Videodrome tape that Max has, and is sexually aroused by it. The two make love, which includes Max piercing Nicki’s earlobes, when Max hallucinates that they are actually on the Videodrome set, instead of his bedroom.

Investigating further into what Videodrome is, Max discovers that it’s not actually being broadcast from Malaysia, but Pittsburgh – and that Brian O’Blivion is somehow linked to it. Nicki tells Max she’s going to go to Pittsburgh and audition for Videodrome. He begs her not to. His hallucinations continue to grow in frequency and intensity.

Max visits the Cathode Ray Mission, a shelter that brings TV to the homeless, looking for O’Blivion. He meets his daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits) instead. She informs him that her father is deceased some 4 years now, and any messages he gives have all been pre-recorded. She also tells Max that Videodrome is causing his hallucinations and that she is at war with them for control over the minds of North America.

Max continues following the trail to Spectacular Optical Corporation, the company behind Videodrome run by Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson). They’re outwardly an eyeglasses company, but also have secret military contracts. Convex “programs” Max to kill the owners of his TV station by inserting a bio-mechanical videotape into Max’s abdomen. Convex plans to use CIVIC-TV to broadcast the Videodrome signal into thousands of homes, inducing hallucinations and thus controlling the population.

Max rebels with the help of Bianca and turns on Convex, killing him in front of a convention full of opticians. On the run from the police, Max hides in an abandoned fishing vessel. There he discovers a TV set, broadcasting a message from Nicki, who never returned from her Pittsburgh trip. She tells Max the only way to continue is to kill the “old flesh” in order to make way for the “new flesh.” The TV shows Max what to do. He raises the gun to his head – “Death to Videodrome! Long Live the New Flesh!” – and kills himself.

The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.” – Brian O’Blivion

Where to start? This film is so amazingly out there! The best place may be examining some of the subtext. Cronenberg appears to be creating a story that is critical of television and the television watcher. Max feels like he needs to offer his viewers ever more salacious content to satisfy their demand. But are they demanding it or is he pushing the content on them? Then there’s Brian O’Blivion, who has transcended our reality. He is a prophet of the new age of the Cathode Ray Tube, a tele-vangelist, if you will. His speeches remind me a lot of Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher and professor focused on mass media, who most famously said, “the medium is the message.” Opposite O’Blivion, who wants to enlighten viewers, is Convex and the folks at Spectacular Optical, who is set to release a virus-like program into viewers minds and burn down the whole system. I can’t tell for certain which side Cronenberg falls in with, but he seems to lean more towards O’Blivion and his crew.

Then there’s the nature of Max’s hallucinations. One exposure to Videodrome starts his hallucinations, and they grow the more he’s exposed. According to Dr. O’Blivion, the visions he started seeing caused a tumor, a new appendage, and not the other way around. This “new flesh” is a third-eye, allowing the recipient to transcend the mortal life. It allows the person to become one with the signal and take all their experiences from their television viewing, negating actual experience. Max is told that he is moving into this new realm with his hallucinations, prior to getting “hijacked” by Convex and his cohorts. How you interpret this depends if you believe the visions that Max is seeing as reality or whether they are just his own perceptions of his interactions with reality.

Is Max really able to store a gun in his belly, or does he just internalize the need to secret his weapon from others? Does Convex really stick a video tape into Max’s abdomen, or maybe this is Max’s rationalization for subliminal messages he’s been receiving from Videodrome. He is, after all, involved in the video business, and his currency are those tapes. It seems pretty apparent that Max does kill his partners at CIVIC-TV, and also Convex, but the ending of the film is less clear.

Max receives the message, on a TV set that happens to be in an abandoned ship, from a woman that was probably killed by Spectacular Optical, that he should kill himself. Max is so obsessed with Nicki that he previously hallucinated an intimate encounter with his television set, as a surrogate love machine. Is it conflicting messages from O’Blivion and Convex that cause Max to shoot himself? Or is it a hidden message from Convex and Videodrome sneaking back into Max’s consciousness, tricking him into killing himself? A third possibility is maybe the message from Nicki is really Max’s subconscious trying to regain control over a system that has been “rebroadcast” by various pirate signals. The act of shooting himself is a suicidal mercy-killing, to avoid being the pawn in others’ mind games.

There’s so much more to unpack, but this write-up does not intend to be a term paper on the film. Whatever your interpretation of Videodrome, it presents quite a plethora of choices, allowing the viewer to read in as little, or as much, they want to.

Assorted Musings

  • A great quote from Dr O’Blivion that is very prophetic. Replace television with computer, and you get the idea: “Of course, O’Blivion is not the name I was born with. That’s my television name. Soon all of us will have special names…names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate.”
  • Barry Convex is a humorous name applied to the man who runs an eyeglass company. Eyeglass lenses can be concave or convex in shape.

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