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Videodrome (1983)

by on 2011/07/18

“It has a philosophy, and that is what makes it dangerous.”

* * * *

In Herge’s final (completed) Tintin comic, Captain Haddock has a problem. His beloved whiskey, Loch Lomond, begins to taste disgusting, to the point he will eventually give it up. We learn what he doesn’t early on: a concerned friend is responsible.

I was reminded of that story as I sat through Videodrome, an experience which left me thinking long after its end. The title is also the name of its goal, threat, and central device, a way to seduce and poison the morally corrupt.

The possible tales of its impact might very well be legion, but we focus here on one particular victim: Max Renn (Vampires’ James Woods). He works at the minor-league upstart Civic-TV — clearly a reference to Toronto’s CITY-TV — where he pushes the envelope of taste in a bid to woo viewers.

Constantly on the prowl for increasingly edgy programming, he discovers his idea of perfection in Videodrome, a violent transmission he captures through piracy. With the help of love interest Nicki Brand (Blondie’s Debbie Harry) and recluse Professor O’Blivion (Jack Creley), he attempts to locate and unravel the mysterious show.

Complications arise when he starts to believe the transmission is making him ill. The question is (thankfully) left unresolved whether sickness is the cause or effect. This layer is just one of a few in the plot, sharing others with director David Cronenberg’s later eXistenZ. Both traverse the uncertainty of nested realities. If we didn’t already wonder whether Max’s visions were real, now we wonder when they begin and end.

Cronenberg doesn’t let such artistic ambiguity get in the way of entertainment. The uncertainty isn’t confusing, merely thought-provoking, even (or especially) without easy solutions. Besides, if levels of reality are not your drug of choice, then a solid techno-horror makes a reasonable fallback.

I was struck by various special effects which, though out of date now, still impress. The pre-CGI techniques worked surprisingly well, especially with inanimate objects. Effects involving people appeared more obvious and rubbery, but could be excused if interpreted as unreal, part of the great appeal I found in this film.

I didn’t think it was without flaws, but I found them rare and minor. By the end, I felt it had tipped too far into violence and the tactic of gore. I also heard some audio transitions, both distracting and hard to make out. Scenes where Max watches a video tape, meets Barry (Leslie Carlson), and a panhandler . . . each cut back and forth between clear sound and a muffled recording.

But all in all I was suitably amused, and given much food for thought. It may be “genre” enough to risk its audience missing the message for the shock. Just beyond those trappings, however, is a figure-it-out philosophy. Will technology destroy us . . . or our lack of morality? Should we be on guard against the ways the unscrupulous might seduce us? Videodrome is a vehicle for a sober message of caution. Fortunately it’s an entertaining one too.

* * * *

Not Rated, but contains adult and disturbing scenes, gore, language, nudity, violence

89 minutes

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