Last night I re-watched Videodrome as reference and inspiration for a current project. I'm eternally blown away by Cronenberg's work, few other creators balance intellect, craft and horror so successfully. The film is prescient, beautiful and still shocking; the images of the videodrome transmission still unsettle me, and as ridiculous as the images are, Max's hungry, vaginal orifice consuming orders on VHS tapes is shocking and audacious.
Thematically it's a broad movie - desire for something new, living in a plugged in and overstimulated society, higher forces wanting to rid society of "trash." These all lead more specifically to pornography and BDSM used as tools for people living in this over-connected, overstimulated world. This being 1983, the main focus is on television, which works to its favor in a pre-Matrix cinematic world; we hadn't been inundated quite so much with internet conspiracies and alternate reality horror. Cronenberg would rival The Matrix thematically with the under rated Existenz years later, but would never again be as ahead of the curve as he is here with Videodrome.
One of my favorite literary themes is the idea of wanting to experience more than you've been allowed, wanting to feel more than you maybe should and paying a price for it. There's a shared DNA here with Hellraiser, opening Pandora's box, willingly exposing yourself to Videodrome and never being the same. James Woods' Max wants viewers for his tiny TV channel, but he knows to attract people these days you need something shocking. He looks for something new in pornography but it's not enough. Enter Videodrome, a program supposedly broadcasting from Pittsburgh, its frequencies picked up by a pirate sattelite and presented to Max. Against an electrified clay wall (?) women are being beaten and humiliated, It seems real, but can't be. Max needs it. Later, on a talk show, he's interviewed alongside radio psychiatrist Nicki and television religious leader Dr. O'Blivion. He begins dating Nicki, who confesses to living life in a state of constant over stimulation, leading her to masochism in order to feel satisfied; extinguishing cigarettes on her chest and sexually piercing her skin. The pair watch Videodrome on a date (dream date) and Nicki is more than intrigued. She wants to be on Videodrome.
To sum up the plot, Nicki goes missing and the trail leads to O'Blivion, whose Cathode Ray Mission is plugging the homeless into television to reconnect them to society. Max begins having violent fantasies and delusions, he inserts a gun into a gaping wound in his stomach. Turns out Videodrome was a corporate/military invention designed to cause hallucinations and create zombies; the content had two functions - to attract those low enough in their eyes to want to watch Videodrome, and to use violence to open up neural pathways to make them susceptible to the mind control and hallucinations. The only moment where Videodrome doesn't work for me is when the creators of the frequency tell a brainwashed Max to kill his partners and give them Channel 83, it just feels like having the president murder his partners wouldn't necessarily shift control of the channel to these shady people.
So, what's driving these characters? It's maybe not the most character driven story in Cronenberg's oeuvre, but the story is pushed forward by the desires and decisions of Max and Nicki. Overtly, Max wants an audience for Channel 83, but why is he driven to do this through pornography and shock value? It's a view on humanity and society that this is what attracts people, but also, as Videodrome creator Barry calls him out, a mirror to his own cravings. The porn and BDSM aren't shocking, but the Videodrome frequency seems to awaken a subconscious desire to hurt people, mainly women. A dark feature of this film is that the main character is possibly driven by a subconscious desire to hurt women, manifesting in the attraction to Videodrome and the sadistic role in his relationship with Nicki. Nicki, however, has confronted her desires. She knows she wants pain to feel good and goes after it. It's almost inconsequential though when she does. As far as the audience knows, she's been snuffed out by Videodrome, or perhaps she never existed beyond the talk show, as she largely enters the story after Max begins hallucinating. One could read into her disappearance as cautionary, as she looks for an extreme experience and gets killed for it, but, for better or worse, her disappearance serves to push the plot forward, causing Max to look for her in Pittsburgh. Interestingly, he doesn't seem all that concerned with Nicki (nor does anyone, really) but is looking for answers about Videodrome and O'blivion.
Nicki returns in the end, having transcended the "old flesh," transmitting to Max through a television set full of human organs, where Max will join her in the "new flesh." Wether this is a permanent connection, a final result of our plugged in society or a rejection of it I can't say, but the words ring eternally: "Long live the new flesh."