In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This fortnight is a big one. Today, we talk about one of the all time great iconic sci-fi movies, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.
The 70s were a crazy time in horror cinema. With 70’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, 72’s Last House On The Left, 76’s Carrie, 77’s Eraserhead, 78’s Dawn of the Dead, and 78’s Halloween, a series of exciting new horror directors announced themselves, pretty much fully formed and ready to, basically, fuck shit up, and fuck shit up they did. Another director from the, up till that point, largely horror devoid Canada was making waves. His professional debut after a few amateur features, Shivers, had been pulled before parliament on obscenity charges for its sexually venereal zombies. His next movie, Rabid starred a hardcore porn actress in another sexually driven zombie feature. In 1979 he directed a movie that took his own experience with his wife joining a quasi religious cult and turned it into one of the grossest and most perverse body horror films of all time, The Brood. It wasn’t until the 80s where we’d see him arrive as the director of masterpiece after masterpiece that we’d know him to become. I am, of course, referring to David Cronenberg. After Scanners became a compromised if effective production, Cronenberg would direct his first films for a major studio, for Universal, Videodrome, and for Dino de Lorentis, The Dead Zone. Both came out in 1983. Videodrome was not an easier production than Scanners but its ramshackle nature makes it one of the edgiest and least safe feeling of Cronenberg’s 80s work. It is one of the most iconic cult horror films of all time and its influence looms incredibly large over horror.
Videodrome follows venal TV exec Max Ren, played by a delightfully, if a bit too authentically, slimy James Woods. On the critic’s commentary I listened to by Tim Lucas he called James Woods ‘Jimmy’ because they got so close on set. Max Ren’s day to day consists of waking up to an automated reminder recorded by his secretary including all the things he has to do that day, then going in and watching as much softcore pornography as he can get his hands on, (including a wooden dildo only featured in the unrated cut, to my best knowledge), and deciding whether it should run on his television channel. One day he picks up a pirate signal depicting a clay room, and people are tortured in it, and that’s the whole show, if it even is a show. Max Ren wants to buy it.
Now in many ways Videodrome is a rough and ragged movie, but by Cronenbergian terms this was his sleekest movie to date by quite a long way. Crimes of the Future sacrifices Stereo’s stark monochrome and Cronenberg obviously struggles to make colour film look cinematic with that movie, (thank God he’s remaking it). But Shivers and Rabid are much more focussed on the texture being scuzzy and lo-fi. Over the course of Cronenberg’s 70s work, whether it’s the street scenes in Rabid that evoke the previous year’s Taxi Driver or Cassavetes’ filmography, or the incredibly cinematic mind battles of Scanners, he was pushing and pushing himself in terms of polish and scale more and more as his career went on. Videodrome, is probably the bridge between this heady, experimental fare and the films he’d make next like The Dead Zone and The Fly. So when I tell you this film has extremely extreme content for a major picture movie, that should hit home to you quite how much of a risk this movie would have been for everyone involved. The videodrome footage itself is just a lot to deal with. A bare room where people are rather unambiguously tortured and you’re just shown it, without the camera looking away. As gruey as the film gets, it’s that realistic violence that, to this day, I find the most disturbing.
That being said, the film is ridiculously gruey. It’s probably the grueiest Cronenberg film and I include The Fly in that. When the television in your movie essentially gets motorboated and becomes a living pulsating thing, you know you’re making a weird movie. The key term here is ‘plastic reality’. Brain Yuzna who directed Society and a lot of other curio cult films is widely credited with coming up with that term to talk about A Nightmare on Elm Street as synecdoche for what a lot of horror filmmakers were doing at the time. In reference to the moment in A Nightmare on Elm Street where a landline phone becomes Freddy’s tongue. Yuzna’s point was this isn’t gore per se. Like the shunting stuff in Society isn’t gore. It uses the tools of gore and to some extent the language of gore, but it isn’t. It’s surrealist storytelling. This is at the heart of David Cronenberg’s whole career, it seems. Films like Videodrome and The Fly are not violent movies. They have body horror and viscera, but they’re about conveying ideas visually, and Cronenberg’s ideas happen to be about exteriorising the internal ideas of self. It’s logical that if you want to represent ideas of identify visually, part of that would be represented by a television shooting James Woods in the chest only for the TV screen to become a visual representation of the bullet holes. It makes sense that James Woods would have a gun surgically attached to his arm that shoots cancer. It just makes sense.
In this moment a sidebar needs to be taken to credit Rick Baker with his extraordinary work. The previous year Baker had had to step in on The Thing when the Rob Bottin had moments of being out of his depth at the time, and the effects here have a similar quality of not only being slimy and seemingly covered in the slick of a person’s insides but of being just brain meltingly good. Baker and Bottin are two of the best and most influential and innovative effects artists to ever do it and Baker provides a masterclass here with Videodrome.
The writing needs to be touched on now. The fact is, when you do this surreal, impressionist storytelling, you run the risk of it maybe not making sense. No, whereas films like Mulholland Drive work because they embrace that element, and a film like From Beyond works because it is very disciplined in doing that kind of storytelling but keeping the surreal insanity on narrative tracks, Videodrome exists in this weird in-between state. The film doesn’t feel quite safe because of how anarchic and tonally all over the shop it is. I mean this as a compliment. Like the film doesn’t feel safe in the way that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn’t feel safe. Probably to do with how both films were made. They confront quite deep truths in a deeply metaphorical way and they show you the inner void and ask you to stare into it and they are messy and stitched together films to match that deep fear of revelation. That, in a way, though does absolutely come out of how both films were put together. With regard to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that was a film that was made by a film professor taking a few of his students out to the middle of nowhere to make a horror movie together, no one having any idea how to do that. The meat on set was real rotting meat and it stunk up the place and everything was extremely amateur, and it’s that aspect of it that makes the film feel so downright fucking evil. In fact it’s a vaguely universally accepted truth that when Tobe Hooper had proper budgets and polish something was lost. With Cronenberg and Videodrome, I hold fast that Cronenberg only got better as a filmmaker the more experience he had, as much as I love all eras of his career. It is true though that as the film was being made, as has been said by people who were on set, the script was only partly written. Scanners, (Cronenberg’s previous movie), was a very troubled production. It was originally planned to be made as a buggy little widgety sci-fi movie that Cronenberg wanted to make for Roger Corman. Corman’s style of production was something Cronenberg used as a point of reference, incidentally, when trying to figure out how to make popular horror movies in the Canadian film market of the late 60s. Then, as Scanners was being re-written after that production fell through, it was rushed to production to capitalise on new tax credits in Canada in the early 80s. In the months of principle photography on Scanners, Cronenberg would take the mornings before shooting to be writing the next week’s scenes. Videodrome had similar problems but the difference is that this was for Universal. His career as a major filmmaker was very much on the line here, and the film was barely written. As a result it feels like the film barrels forward at 100 miles an hour through vaguely disconnected ideas to an ending that feels like an abrupt full stop, like you’ve just been told you only have a minute left for a speech you’re only half way through. It’s only on rewatches that this started to work for me and the ending made more and more sense on a spiritual level. Now, for me, its relentless pace leaves me breathless and the pace never letting up and the weirdness never ceasing is part of the reason this movie is the sledgehammer that it is.
The risk that comes with a slapdash filmmaking and writing situation though is that it could end up thematically garbled. I’ll level with my dear readers, I cannot, with a clear conscience, say that I understand Videodrome. I cannot, with a clear conscience, say that Videodrome even maybe knows what it’s saying, but whatever it is, it is there. It is very clearly a film with clear themes even if its commentary is almost universally conveyed through abstract concepts and images. Videodrome came out of a culture in the 80s of mass media suppression. Me being a writer in the UK, it’s something I’m especially acutely aware of. We have a history in this country of cultural suppression, especially of violent movies. Mark Kermode, a famous British critic who came up with the big horror filmmakers of the 70s and 80s, has theorised that the point of Videodrome is that it asks the question of whether what people like Mary Whitehouse said about horror in the 80s was actually right, that it can morally corrupt just through the power of a single gory image. This doesn’t scratch the itch that this movie raises in me though. The fact is that, like most sci-fi, Videodrome asks questions of technology of the time, theorises on future innovations and shows the darker potentiality of it. It is a movie deeply aware of the then contemporary political debate around horror and spins that out to make comments and predictions about the power of media to politically corrupt and spread dangerous ideas that with the rise of FOX News and qAnon seem only too prescient. The way it seems that certain ways of interacting with media actually programs you, Videodrome literalises that idea that seems to strike harder today than it ever did. The thing that unlocks the movie though is realising the character who’s probably closest to an author insert is actually probably Harlan, played by Peter Dvorsky, named after a favourite writer of Cronenberg, Harlan Ellison, whose writing is a huge influence on the movie. A guy who is caught in the middle of the political battle but the largest vibe seems to be that he’s just trying to get along doing what he does, getting along with his work as a media person while much bigger people than him fight over what the correct way to be is. That’s something I think a lot of us can relate to at the moment.
Videodrome is an iconic movie for a reason. Although it vastly underperformed at the box office it was welcomed by the mainstream critic circles. During a wave of science fiction films released around the same time like Blade Runner and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, it is widely thought that Videodrome got lost in the shuffle with its more extreme edges and more broad films soaked up too much of the audience. Videodrome would find an audience on video in the growing cult film market but it took far too long to find an audience for it to be considered a traditional success. With The Dead Zone already being made it would be another 3 years until the previously prolific Cronenberg got to release another movie. That movie, The Fly, would set Cronenberg up for the rest of his career and he never looked back until a few years ago when in the current market after Maps to the Stars Cronenberg was finding it harder and harder to get his movies funded despite making consistently great fare, so he retired. He wrote a novel called ‘Consumed’ which is very good, and now he has properly looked back. With his next film, Crimes of the Future, he’s remaking one of his feature length student films and one of his worst films overall. Frankly, I can’t wait. On a persona level, Videodrome is a movie I’ve lived with for a long time. It was one of those movies that I watched during the period when I was just getting into film and just trying to watch everything. Videodrome was unlike anything I’d seen up until that point. I love this deeply strange and weirdly constructed movie. It’s a really lovely challenging gem and it set me down the path I went down as much as any other movie I watched. It means a lot to me and I’m blessed to get to write about movies like it. I can’t wait for whatever Cronenberg does next.