Since his very first feature Shivers (also known under the much better title They Came From Within), David Cronenberg has authored a filmmaking career most notably concerned with the human body and its total annihilation. From the gnarly head explosions of Scanners to the gruesome transformation of The Fly to the perverse fetish for car accidents in Crash, it is impossible to quantify the impact of Cronenberg’s robust and diverse body of work on body horror, a subgenre he significantly helped pioneer into existence and legitimacy. It’s also indisputable how totally unique his body horror is on its own. Few filmmakers have ever matched the dreamy unreality and tactile weirdness of even his most questionably successful works – his bizarre take on virtual reality in ExistenZ is still instantly recognizable as a Cronenberg film, complete with multiple levels of hallucinations and a fleshy video game console that one plugs directly into their spine with an umbilical cord.
Yet perhaps no single film in the Canadian auteur’s oeuvre is as singularly masterful as Videodrome, a true masterpiece that unites his characteristically grotesque body horror with one of the most thoughtfully direct meditations on how technology disfigures us into its image every day. At a brisk 89 minutes, the film concerns the dubious character of Max Renn (James Woods), a television executive for an exploitation channel looking for new objectionable content to boost his ratings. Max deals primarily in softcore pornography and hardcore violence, so it’s no surprise that when his channel’s technician stumbles upon a creepy snuff production called ‘Videodrome’ that the sleazeball is all over it. “It’s just torture and murder. No plot, no characters. Very, very realistic. I think it’s what’s next”, he says at one point to a concerned client.
Shortly after watching this program, Max begins to experience surreal visions. A videocassette comes alive in his hand, his TV begins to breathe and expand, and most disturbingly his chest grows a vaginal slit (later revealed to be purposed for the insertion of VHS tapes, naturally). All of these visions seem to be caused by the pirated ‘Videodrome’ broadcast, which – spoiler alert – turns out to be a brain tumor-inducing television signal that causes its viewers to have vivid, nightmarish hallucinations. Worst of all, the shadowy corporate executives behind the creation of this signal intend to broadcast it all over North America, in some kind of vaguely totalitarian attempt to control public consciousness.
Videodrome’s plot is clearly absurd, but it’s precisely that untethered dreaminess that allows Cronenberg to explore the implications of what’s ultimately underneath all this exaggeration and surrealism – the blurring of corporate interests, technology, and the human body (more precisely, the mind). A surface-level reading of the film would contest that it is a condemnation of proliferated violence and sexuality in our television and cinema. By engaging with this morally dubious content viewers are opening their minds to corruption and disfigurement – in this case the effects are even physically manifested in a brain tumor.
However, while these common critiques of explicit media are a central undercurrent to the film, they are most assuredly not on their own its thesis. For ultimately, as iconic 20th century thinker Marshall McLuhan would state, “the medium is the message”. Understanding this philosophy is central to understanding Videodrome, and perhaps no better passage of its script sums it up better than this:
“The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. 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.”
What this dramatic monologue contests is that the very act of watching television is opening one up to its “corruptible” effects, reshaping how one views the world and reality itself. The people who control the medium of television itself are easily capable of controlling the minds of its viewers. In Videodrome, this notion of control is exaggerated to be an insidious brain tumor that places one susceptible to outside programming – once Max has been properly dosed with Videodrome signal, he becomes a corporate assassin for the nefarious company behind its creation (rendered visually as these villainous businessmen inserting VHS tapes into his aforementioned abdominal slit). Obviously this an extremely horrifying idea, but one that has incredible credence given the ways present society has found technology manipulating its consciousness over the past couple of years through social media (one need look no further than the rise of the radical conspiracy group QAnon to see this stunning distortion of reality in practice).
Cronenberg’s work has often located its bodily anxieties in the way technology has and continues to alter it, and for good reason. Technology, in its purest form, aims to extend the abilities and senses of the human body – it enables us to do more, experience more. Optimistic futurists (like many controversial CEOs in Silicon Valley) often exclusively champion the beneficial effects of these changes while ignoring or even hiding the possible negatives. Videodrome pushes back on this hungry advancement of technology at all costs, asking us to at the very least pause and consider the ramifications of media’s growing symbiotic relationship to our private lives. The slogan for Max’s channel is literally “the one you take to bed with you”, displayed next to a comic picture of a person in bed with their clunky 1980s TV – it probably isn’t too much of a stretch to realize that the natural conclusion of this idea has already arrived in the last decade. These anxieties have not at all diminished in the nearly 40 years since the film’s release, only proving themselves more urgent in the age of smartphones and the instant exchange of information on social media.
In the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, one of the key arguments made by the movie against social media validates just what Videodrome was so terrified about in 1983 – that this new, unchecked technology is slowly reshaping how we think and act every single day. In Cronenberg’s film, this transformation is sudden and violent, but truthfully the scenario with which we find ourselves today is more frightening: a gradual, almost imperceptible change in our behavior caused by having a powerful vector of instant information (and misinformation) in our pockets at all hours of the day. Like many others, I have experienced this disturbing reprogramming in my own life. After recently uninstalling most social media apps, I still find myself – weeks later – impulsively reaching for those tiny spots on my cell phone screen where they used to reside.
All horror resides in the blurring of boundaries, and perhaps central of all boundaries is the distinction between self and other. Nothing is more significant to one’s psychological welfare than confidence in their own identity, and when that sacred line is breached the implications can be nothing less than disastrous. At its foundation, Videodrome is a shocking word of warning to both its contemporary audiences and the future, insisting on nothing less than resolute vigilance to the disorienting and constantly evolving dangers of information technology. Our society is in jeopardy when we have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction, truth from lie. Once we lose the ability to think for ourselves, we are truly lost.