Decades before any of us watched Netflix in bed via a laptop perched on our stomachs, Videodrome opened with the image of a television set tuned to “Civic TV—the one you take to bed with you.” It goes on to detail a video so powerful that it induces hallucinations in which viewer and viewing technology become one. If Netflix soon offers streaming eye lenses, Videodrome will have warned us.
Written and directed by David Cronenberg, Videodrome was certainly prescient about the pervasive influence of technology, envisioning a coming world of authoritarian entertainment. Yet its main concern applies to the past, as well. At heart, Videodrome plays with the perennial question: how much does what we watch affect us?
James Woods, in maximum sleaze mode, plays Max Renn, an executive at a low-frequency network that specializes in sensationalistic programming. In search of something harder and edgier than what he’s been peddling, Renn comes across a mysterious video series called “Videodrome” that involves nudity, torture, and murder. He smells a hit, but can’t quite trace the source of the program. As he pursues his investigation and watches more of Videodrome, the hallucinations begin.
The power of Videodrome lies in the imagery of those visions, a Cronenbergian intermingling of body horror and surrealism. At one point, a VHS tape throbs like a beating heart. Later, while Renn is watching a video that features a mystery woman he’s become involved with (Debbie Harry), the TV set itself swells and pulsates as she whispers and moans. There’s more, but I’ll spare you the details of what happens when Renn begins scratching a mark that appears on his abdomen.
Stylish and nightmarish as it might be, does Videodrome have anything to say about a potential link between what we watch and how we act and think? In one way, the movie suggests a direct correlation: it’s the literal act of watching Videodrome that alters Renn’s behavior. Frustrated with his assistant at one point, he imagines striking her—and briefly pictures her as the Debbie Harry character, mixing anger and desire. But then again, if the videos act as a form of hypnosis, what choice does Renn have in the matter? Add to this the revelation that the forces behind the Videodrome tapes are producing them in order to attract the prurient-minded—to draw them out and then do away with them. (Consider this exchange between Renn and a Videodrome producer: “Why did you watch it?” “Business reasons.” “Yeah, right.”) Perhaps, then, Videodrome is a sick satire of puritanical fears over sex and violence as entertainment.
Of course, it could very well be that Videodrome doesn’t mean to offer an answer at all. There’s a good chance the movie just wants to mess with those of us asking such questions. After all, in the end, messing with us is what the movie does best.