Body-Horror: (aka biological horror, organic horror or venereal horror) is horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body. Such works may deal with disease, decay, parasitism, mutilation, or mutation.
Body Horror’s tricky. There are a lot of films that get lumped into that classification, for a lot of different reasons, so navigating the waters of this particular stream can be challenging. While the 80s were a fertile breeding ground for all forms of bodily mutation and transformation, it was unarguably one director who was responsible for the subgenre’s strongest work: David Cronenberg, hometown boy and godfather of modern-day bio-organic terror.
Human biology and sexuality, and their innate need to rebel against us, have been focal themes of his work since his film school days. In the 1970s, his trifecta of films – RABID, SHIVERS and THE BROOD – all dealt with various forms of malignant physical and sexual mutation, brought on by our own medical meddling. But it was his 1982 mind-f**k masterpiece, VIDEODROME, that threw the net even wider and brought technology to the forefront, making it this outing’s catalyst of catastrophic change.
Max Renn (James Woods) is the president of CIVIC TV, a Toronto-based UHF TV station (and thinly-veiled jab at Moses Znaimer’s Toronto media empire, CITY TV ) that specializes in sensationalist programming that runs the gamut from soft-core pornography to violent exploitation cinema. Max is a sleaze merchant, a title he wears with zero shame and is always on the lookout for new content – shocking, daring, taboo – and he thinks he may have found the mother-lode: a pirate signal, known only as VIDEODROME. Anonymous victims being tortured and murdered for the enjoyment of…who knows? As Renn tries to uncover its origins, he finds himself drawn into a conspiracy, a war for control of the public’s minds and bodies. Because Videodrome infiltrates both psyche and physique and Max is feeling the effects: hallucinations, bodily mutations and a narcotic-like dependency on Videodrome itself. And it only gets stranger from there.
Now, I’m leaving the synopsis at that because, in all honesty, any attempts to sum it up will only spoil the experience. Besides, VIDEODROME is NOT an easy film to summarize in a few scant paragraphs, and nor should it be. It’s smart, visually beautiful and repellent at the same time, with great work by Woods and all forms of genetic nightmare fuel by Rick Baker. It’s also, as with pretty much all of Cronenberg’s work, WAY ahead of the curve, particularly in its view of mass media as a malignant influence on our species.
While Cronenberg’s focus is on the then-burgeoning Cable TV boom in the early 80s, the themes of Videodrome are even more applicable today, with the advent and continued growth of the internet and social media. The notion of “snuff TV” being made available through public access television comes across as hyperbolic and far-fetched for 1982. With access to real-world recorded violence and extreme sexual content available in the 21st Century with a stroke or two of the keyboard, though, we’ve made this fantasy a reality. The advent of the reality show, the addiction to online media and social networking and the nigh-unlimited options available for consuming our media drugs of choice? All the more relevant thirty years after the film’s release. And these are only the things one can find by typing a search into Google. This doesn’t even cover the deepest, darkest parts of the web where something like Videodrome is very much a frightening reality. Cronenberg saw mass media as something far from benign – a tool used to lull the masses into consumerist complacency by corporations who do NOT have the public’s best interests at heart. An argument most would be hard-pressed to disagree with, especially now.
For Max, the results of exposure to this most “viral” of videos are metaphor writ large – the mutation of his own body, the hallucinations it programs into his mind and his reluctant dependency on it. In reality, the results are less graphic, but equally disturbing: a lack of social etiquette, an increase in aggressive & hostile communication and our addictive need for “likes”, “retweets” and “shares” to validate our own existence.
VIDEODROME is not meant for casual viewing. You’ll either go along for the ride or you won’t. And either one’s okay. There were many who didn’t “get it” the first time out either. Roger Ebert said of the film on its release, “The characters are bitter and hateful, the images are nauseating, and the ending is bleak enough that when the screen fades to black, it’s a relief… Videodrome, whatever its qualities, has got to be one of the least entertaining films of all time.”
Which is kind of its point, isn’t it? It’s not MEANT to make us feel good afterwards. You know, like the truth sometimes does…
There’s a rather fitting passage from William Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH (not surprisingly adapted by Cronenberg in 1991) where he explains just what the title means: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” That, in a nutshell, is Videodrome: a look at what we are consuming, without compromise and without illusion.
Wow. That got a lot more academic than I anticipated. Thanks for the indulgence.
Next time… I don’t know, something with rubber monsters or something. See you then.
And Long Live The New Flesh!