Videodrome isn’t my favorite Dave Cronenberg movie – that would be Rabid, warts and all – but it is one of his best. This is a film that predicted the rise of easily accessible pornography and the packaging of sex & violence (really sexual violence) as mainstream entertainment. Mr. Cronenberg missed the advent of the Internet, but everything else about Videodrome is spot-on.
Max (James Woods) runs CIVIC-TV, a cable TV channel. Most of his programming is sex and violence, and he is always on the lookout for new talent. When Max’s tech guy intercepts a cable transmission that consists of hardcore S&M he’s intrigued. All he has to go on is a name: Videodrome.
Max meets Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) on a talk show, where he tells the world he’s doing it a favor by giving people a harmless outlet for their fantasies. Max and Nicki are made for each other. She’s into piercing and he has sadistic tendencies. Their sex scenes are more hair-raising than the special effects which come later; I’m amazed Videodrome got an R-rating, but this was the early 80’s.
Max soon starts seeing things. That’s because watching Videodrome gives you brain tumors. Unphased, he follows a trail that leads to the Cathode Ray Mission, founded by Brian O’Blivion. Mr. O’Blivion is dead, but he’s recorded hundreds of hours of videotape of himself so he’s still around, a sadomasochistic Casper the Friendly Ghost. His daughter is now running the shop. Videodrome and the Cathode Ray Mission are at war, and Max – whose hallucinations grow steadily worse as Cronenberg’s bizarre skin fetish rears its head – is stuck in the middle.
Videodrome was way ahead of its time. My only quibble is that a few of the special effects are cheesy and don’t do this movie justice. James Woods does a great job playing Max, a sleazy operator and pornographer who samples his own wares. Max isn’t nice, but here’s a dirty little secret: lots of times people aren’t nice. In a way having an unlikable hero makes Videodrome easier to watch, as Max loses his agency and becomes a meat package ripe for programming, deprogramming and reprogramming, a victim of the boob tube.