The movie where David Cronenberg put it all together—his patented body horror, his eye for conspiracy and sense of dark satire—into one cohesive, bizarre whole to become a serious force in the world of film, Videodrome (1983), still remains one of the weirdest horror/sci-fi combos you’re ever going to find. The themes he touched on earlier in his career—like his distrust, not only of the flesh, but seemingly the world—in films like Scanners (1981) and The Brood (1979) are here in Videodrome, except more mature and pointed. But this isn’t to say toothless by any means, since all the gore and splatter (and then some) one comes to expect from Cronenberg is on full display. It’s a film that manages to dichotomize itself, being infinitely disturbing—with its journeys into sadomasochism and the quite unusual (for lack of a better word) things that happen to James Woods’ character’s body over the course of the film—while being a focused take on our culture’s obsession with television, questioning the nature of reality and what truly exists, and all the while carrying that off-putting, disarming, deadpan sense of humor. There’s no filmmaker quite like Cronenberg and no film quite like a Cronenberg film.
The film begins with sleazy cable TV programmer Max Renn (Woods) looking to outdo his already exploitative channel by finding the next big thing in exploitative, sensationalistic television. What he comes across is a pirated copy of a mysterious show called Videodrome, which is nothing more that the snuff TV, where a contestant is tortured by mysterious hooded figures. Wanting the show, Renn, starts tracking it down, but finds himself slipping down the rabbit hole, since there’s more to Videodrome than it appears at first glance. As the plot unravels in its own appropriately convoluted, conspiratorial way, we’re taken through Cronenberg’s view of the future—paranoid almost on a Philip K. Dick kind of level—where television (as seen in Brian O’Blivion’s (Jack Creley) Cathode Ray Mission) is a religion that acts as people’s only way of appropriately assimilating themselves into society, where our own minds and bodies aren’t even under our control,and where television, media and even ourselves are weapons.
What’s maybe most impressive about Videodrome is not just how prophetic it is, but how malleable it is to today’s world. Whether it be the Internet or Facebook or video games, the themes and concerns brought up by Cronenberg still remain pertinent (Cronenberg himself even attempted updating the film to an extent by tackling the same issues but with video games in his 1999 film eXistenZ, but with less successful results). It’s an astonishing film that retains all its shock and ability to disturb even to this day (I’m trying really hard not to give away what exactly happens to James Woods in the film, since it’ll always be one of the great “what the hell” moments in all of cinema), a film that amazingly manages to maintain all of its own outlandishness without running off the rails, even through its explosive climax.