You certainly can't accuse oddball Canadian auteur David Cronenberg of being conventional. As bizarre as his Videodrome may be, it's still an oddly prophetic film. Unfortunately it's also a very uneven movie that harms its own message with a heavy dollop of pretention and a needlessly convoluted finale.
Before we begin to examine the New Flesh in some detail, here's the film's appropriately "WTF?!?!"-style trailer:
During his investigation, he meets whack-a-doo radio advice therapist Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry). Instead of being repulsed by Max's proclivities, she actively seeks to "audition" for the repellent show. Soon Max discovers that the program, dubbed "Videodrome", is very real indeed and the mere act of watching it give threatens the viewer with physical changes and terrifying hallucinations. By the time the sinister origin of the transmission is revealed, Max has been reduced to the role of a "video assassin", programmed to eliminate anyone who seeks to expose the conspiracy.
As I said before, there's a lot to admire here. Max doesn't a give a shit about the negative impact that Videodrome might have on potential viewers. He doesn't care that the show's content will do nothing whatsoever to improve our world. He just knows people won't be able to resist watching it and he'll probably make a fast buck. This description of Max also goes for just about every single modern-day reality show producer.
The performances are universally solid. James Woods does his usual awesome job playing sweaty and frantic, but he's also quite proficient at tamping down his humanity when the Videodrome signal begins to dominate him. Debbie Harry is also a pleasant suprise as Nicki Brand and it's a shame that she relegated to such a small role in the film. Peter Dvorsky is also effectively shlubby and infuriating as Max's dodgy pal Harlan.
But perhaps the film's most intriguing character is Brian O'Blivion, played by Jack Creley. He's sort of a Marshall McLuhan-style media prophet who believes that a public existence on television is actually more "real" then private reality. His philosophies are surprisingly deep for what some viewers might expect from a "horror" film.
In a scene that either reveals Cronenberg's naive views towards television or his incredibly cheeky sense of humor, Max visits O'Blivion's "Cathode Ray Mission", a homeless shelter designed to rehabilitate transients via life-giving servings of video. When Max gamely asks O'Blivion's daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits) if she thinks T.V. can help these people she replies without a hint of irony that "Watching T.V. will help patch them back into the world's mixing board".
When Smits subsequently refers to Max's appearance as his "view" and her role as her father's "screen" in a starchy upper-Canadian accent, you quickly realize that her character could only exist in the confines of a David Cronenberg script. Or the local booby hatch.
Cronenberg keeps things grounded in reality by shooting his cluttered, lived-in environs and disheveled-looking actors under the harshest possible lighting conditions. Everyone seems to have a chronic smoking habit and a really dreadful complexion while Max's apartment looks as if it should have an exterminator on permanent stand-by. Even after things become decidedly Dali-esque, the director's "warts and all" approach helps to keep things looking authentic and feeling off-kilter.
Max's discovery of Videodrome and its slow reveal makes for some pretty creepy and compulsory viewing. Rick Baker's fantastic practical makeup effects help to further this considerably. The surreal manipulations inflicted on Max's body by the Videodrome images are as harrowing as they are convincing. The grand-guignol comes when Max shoots one of the conspirators with a biomechanical "cancer gun", causing tumors to explode from his victim from the inside out. Yarf.
I just wish that the laser-like focus of the film's first half could have been sustained throughout the entire picture. By the time a villainous manufacturer of eyeglasses named Barry Convex (!) shows up, Cronenberg throws all subtlety out the window and begins to drift into the realm of pretension. And then we get the final, cryptic denouement which is the equivalent of an alternative band including seven minutes worth of feedback on their major label debut just to convince fans that they're still "indie".
This is a real shame, because the film's main conspiracy and central themes are actually quite brilliant. At the heart of this is our weakness as human beings. Max knows that everything about Videodrome is wrong, but he's still too weak to resist it. When he breaks down and watches it, the signal gives him a brain tumor that starts triggering hallucinations.
He envisions himself indulging in hideous displays of violence. He has an extended make-out session with the boob tube (literally). He develops a vulva-like slit in his abdomen into which pulsating Betamax instructional tapes can be inserted. By the end of the movie, he's physically transformed into a delivery system for the very same destructive message that warped his mind, body and soul in the first place.
Every time someone tries to get me to watch an episode of Big Brother I can't help but feel as if they've got a lot common with Max Renn. Despite Videodrome's failings, its central message is still sound and relevent, which is more then I can say for most thirty year old films.