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Now On Netflix - VIDEODROME

videodrome review
A ratings obsessed TV programmer discovers a sinister new source of content.

Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky, Leslie Carson

videodrome poster

Both a work of chilly intellectual distinction and a surrealist assault on the senses, Videodrome is David Cronenberg’s body horror masterpiece, combining the b-movie trappings of his earlier work with the clinical sophistication that embodies the more art-house fare of the director's later period.

Max Renn (James Woods) is a man looking to push boundaries as head of Civic TV, a sensationalist cable TV channel specialising in low end soft core pornography and horror. Bored with the relatively tame offerings coming to him from his usual suppliers, he is intrigued when hacker Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) has fixed on a channel called 'Videodrome' offering hardcore torture and sexual violence through what may be snuff footage. Intrigued and disturbed, Renn’s investigations into the source of the signal warp not only his mind but his very concept of reality, turning his body into a weapon and his mind into a recording device.

videodrome review

Less a thriller delving into snuff movies a la the noxious and weapons grade rubbish 8mm, more a blackly comic realisation of the effects that violent imagery has on the population if one was to take the viewpoint of the more censorious elements of the moral majority. Here the effects of violence are immediate and harmful to the body. Renn even develops a vaginal opening in his stomach, all the better to consume the product that Videodrome has to offer.

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The film is weirdly prescient in foreshadowing the dark web, Skype, the use of government control and surveillance, and the way in which society will willingly give up freedoms in order to download the latest app or social networking software, or as Cronenberg would phrase it, "patching into the world’s mixing board," although slightly less far thinking in the embracing of betamax as an industry standard format.

videodrome review

There are so many moments of invention in the relatively short running time it is hard to keep up, and by setting it in a world that is recognisably Cronenbergian, it has aged well in a way that makes more contemporary pictures such as Lawnmower Man and Disclosure seem positively archaic. This is a work of ideas and speculation, and if the director has always been one of the most interesting and stimulating horror directors, this is his first to boast great acting.

Woods has always been a wiry intense actor, never afraid to be weaselly and unlikeable, but in a way which always keeps the audience onside. Renn fits him like a glove; he feels like a man at home in the shadows doing his business in anonymous hotel rooms and surrounded by technology that enables him ostensibly to connect to people while keeping them one step removed.

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Deborah Harry is compelling as Nicki Brand, who like big bad Barry Convex, has a name that is somewhat on the nose. As a woman with adventurous sexual habits and a need to push the envelope, she is the female mirror image of Renn, or the corrupt manic pixie dream girl manifestation of an ideologically aware tumour. The film misses her when she abruptly leaves (a side effect of the difficult birth this film had with an unfinished script and no ending).

videodrome review

Heavily truncated on release, this now fully restores the work of Rick Baker and his special effects team, and one death reduced to gunfire and gurgling is now restored to its explosive majesty. This will please the gore-hounds but it's the woozy sense of paranoia and familiar other that is the true success of the film. It looks like our society and makes points about our society, but just skewed out of true. Like Woods' protagonist's viewpoint, it's just slightly out of step with reality.

The first of Cronenberg's three masterpieces, this is a work of speculative horror that demands to be seen, owned and cherished. Just be sure not to absorb it into any openings that may arise after viewing.

Videodrome is on Netflix UK now.