It has become a cliche to say that much science fiction is not about the future, but about a disguised present. This should be obvious to even the casual viewer/reader. But in the case of a few crucial works, such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, many Philip K. Dick novels and the film Blade Runner, it is more pertinent than usual. David Cronenberg’s Videodrome belongs on that list and it doesn’t need the theoretical essays enclosed in the phenomenal Criterion DVD package to plead its case. (They are well written, and nice to have around, though.)
The film’s center (the word "hero" hardly applies) is Max Renn (James Woods), a late-night cable programmer who attempts to keep his small audience loyal by providing them with sex and violence, as raw as he can get it. In his words, he’s always looking for something "tough." When his friend, the video pirate Harlan, turns him on to "Videodrome," he knows he’s found what he’s been after all along. It’s a show depicting torture–nothing but men and women in a red clay room with water on the floor, being whipped, beaten and shocked by men in rubber aprons, gloves and masks. It’s the kind of thing one hears about going on in South America, but there it is, real and waiting for anyone who stumbles across it.
Max’s quest to find more Videodrome product takes him into a hallucinatory underworld where television is quite literally being turned into a weapon by forces whose motivations and background remain unclear. His body mutates, his hand fusing with a pistol and his stomach becoming a hungry mouth that eats videocassettes.
Videodrome sneaks up on the viewer, heading into its bizarre second half, one (internally) logical step at a time. It starts out a grimy, but not particularly paradigm-shifting sci-fi/horror movie. Woods is fascinatingly twitchy, and seems sheened with sweat and grease at all times, most of all when he’s negotiating with the sleazeballs from whom he purchases product. Deborah Harry, as a radio talk-show host Woods briefly dates, is startling when she reveals her own kinky appetites. A face as classically beautiful as hers shouldn’t be asking for the kind of rough sex she demands of Woods and, when he can’t deliver, of the Videodrome makers, whoever they may be. "I wonder how you get to be a contestant on that show," she muses. Woods replies that no one ever seems to come back next week, but the laugh catches in the viewer’s throat, exactly what Cronenberg wants.
By the time it reaches its confusing, yet inevitable-feeling conclusion, Videodrome has become much more than a mere horror film–it’s an indictment of everyone represented by its characters: those who exploit others’ pain (physical or psychological) for a living, those who see everything in light of its military/destructive potential, and, most of all, those who like to watch. Woods is both entrepreneur and enthusiast–if he wasn’t selling Videodrome, he’d doubtlessly still watch it. The point is brought home even more forcefully when Woods visits the Cathode Ray Mission, a battered church where bums get a sandwich and a TV set to watch, because, as the Mission’s manager explains, watching TV keeps them tied into society. Videodrome seems to say that those who don’t watch TV are outsiders, but those who do watch may be destroyed by what they see.
The imagery and ideas in Videodrome demonstrate Cronenberg’s internalization of J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs much more powerfully than anything in his later adaptations of Crash and Naked Lunch. In the early 1990s, the fashion in cultural studies was celebration of the "empowered consumer," jovially proving individuality through choices from the menu of mass-produced entertainments, clothes, cars–all the choices of a consumerist society. By contrast, Videodrome sees television not as a route to empowerment, but as a deadly, addictive poison. It encourages passivity and then, over time, fundamentally changes the viewer. Sure, lots of this is couched in metaphor, aided by gore-movie special effects (which were revolutionary at the time, and remain impressive). But the paranoid nihilism of Cronenberg’s message is powerful–so powerful, in fact, that it’s a wonder a major studio funded the film.