“The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eyes. 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,” says Professor Brian O’Blivion.
David Cronenberg has made his career as a director of body horror films. For years his films were body horror of the physical kind, but in the last decade or so, he has leaned more towards body horror of the mental kind. Of all the physical body horror films he has made, I would say that the one that best represents the sub-genre is Videodrome (the same one that Family Guy fans know as the movie that James Woods was naked in). Videodrome was the first of two Cronenberg films to be released in 1983; the second being an adaptation of the Stephen King novel The Dead Zone (Cronenberg’s first studio film). Both films share a somewhat similar protagonist in that the protagonist in both films is sent down a path that is not of his choosing, slowly transforms into something different, and must make some difficult, life-changing decisions that will not only affect him, but potentially others as well. I recently had the opportunity to attend a midnight screening of Videodrome at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York City, and it was definitely an interesting experience.
Videodrome stars James Woods as Max Renn, the president of a small TV station that plays sensationalistic programming and who’s always on the search for new “alternative” content. One day he finds a show called Videodrome on a pirated signal off his station’s pirate satellite dish. The show features an Asian woman being whipped and tortured in an odd prison. Max keeps watching more videotaped feeds of the “show” and begins to have hallucinations. He also starts a relationship with Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), a sadomasochistic psychiatrist, but she soon disappears after attempting to locate where Videodrome is shot. After Max is no longer able to distinguish the hallucinations from reality, he goes searching for answers. His quest becomes much stranger as a company called Spectacular Optical becomes involved and Max starts to physically transform into something much different.
The film explores the idea of the new flesh as a fusing of humans and TV, or more generally electronic devices. This is an idea that was certainly ahead of its time since, in a way, this has metaphorically come to pass (consider how many people you see watching TV shows, movies, and other streaming content on their phones or other devices). Videodrome is used by Nicki as sexual stimulation in the film; today there are millions of people who watch internet porn and other “specialty” sites that offer content that will stimulate people no matter how unusual (to put it mildly). Max is being manipulated unknowingly by the makers of Videodrome, and soon develops a vaginal chest cavity. The makers of Videodrome use it to put in “videotapes” that will program Max (a metaphor for being screwed by TV). Eventually, Max is deprogrammed and is able to turn on the makers of Videodrome. He had stored his gun in his body during one of his earlier hallucinations and, once deprogrammed, he pulls it out to use as an instrument to achieve the next step in his “evolution.” At one point, the gun becomes fused with his hand, making Max a weapon that can be used for or against the media (a special shout-out goes to Rick Baker, who created all of the amazing makeup effects). Cronenberg’s film is not one that is easily processed on the first viewing, but for most people repeat viewings will undoubtedly open up the richness of the film. Not too long after that, you may find yourself deprogrammed and exclaiming to the masses, “Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!”