Lost in transmission

"Would you like me to press the red button?"

Release Date: 26 December 2011
1983 | 18 | 89 minutes * £17.99
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky, Les Carlson

Nearly three decades since its release, owning a copy of David Cronenberg’s transgressive magnum opus still feels faintly illicit, as if it should be kept in a plain brown wrapper and stored out of sight.

It’s a film that plays out the moral majority’s fear of the desensitising effects of screen violence. James Woods walks through it with the hollow, square-eyed glare of a man suffering from porn-related sleep-deprivation as Max Renn, head of a cable channel that’s carved a niche from extreme fare. When Max stumbles upon underground broadcasts of torture scenes, he thinks he’s found the next ratings banker. But Videodrome is snuff TV with a mind-control chaser, and Max is about to become its pawn: soon he’s slipping deeper and deeper into Videodrome-induced hallucinations.

Simultaneously sleazy and cerebral, it’s a film whose surrealist setpieces burn a brand on the brain: once you’ve seen Woods have a palpating, fleshy videotape thrust into a vaginal slit in his chest, or stroke a veiny TV to tumescent arousal, it can never be forgotten. Other scenes disturb on a more everyday level, such as when Max’s squeeze, the aptly-named Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), calmly stubs out a cigarette on her breast. Harry’s blank-generation delivery would usually rank as non-acting, but is appropriately enervated in this context.

It’s a movie with a sense of humour too (albeit one that’s often jet-black): can you think of another movie where the sinister conspiracy hides beneath the prosaic façade of a chain of opticians, or where the bad guy excuses himself from a scene on the grounds that he “can’t cope with freaky stuff”? As Marshall McLuhan-esque “TV prophet” Brian O’Blivion, Jack Creley spits out a stream of quotable epigrams (“The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye”), and Howard Shore’s funereal, organ-heavy score remains some of his finest work.

The Blu-ray format is an odd home for Videodrome: like Ring, it’s a movie that feels like it belongs on VHS. Technology’s moved on, of course. Nowadays, a Hollywood simulacra of torture-porn is mainstream entertainment, and snuff footage is only a google away. But with its Philip K-Dickian focus on the subjective nature of reality, typically Cronenbergian fascination with bodily mutation, and unflinching gaze into the murky depths of human desire, Videodrome remains as potent and thought-provoking as ever.

Extras: Ironically for such a kinky film, it’s a vanilla disc! That’s hugely disappointing, considering that the US Criterion Collection release has a host of goodies – including two commentaries.

Ian Berriman

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