Return of Project Horror, Day 19: VideoDrome


David Cronenberg's filmography is full of movies that I keep meaning to see.  Somebody will ask me, "Hey, did you ever see Eastern Promises?" and I'll be like, "No, but it's in my Netflix queue."  I've seen... 

Hold on, the DannyLine is buzzing.  Why, it's my friend Scott!  (You can tell it's him because, like my other friends, he always shows up in blue.)
I'm headed home from work, on the train, listening to Jane's Addiction, and I'm ready to tackle my first contribution to your now legendary blog!  Hope it doesn't suck...
Ooh!  Is it their new one?  "The Great Escape Artist"?  I just bought it yesterday, and listened to it tonight at the gym.  (Scott knows that Jane's Addiction is my most favorite band EVAH, so he gets some bonus DannyPoints for that.)

Scott is also being modest when he says he hopes what he wrote doesn't suck.  He knows a LOT about movies.  His personal collection of DVDs is over 2,000 discs!  Also, he's my inside source for a lot of things, because he works for Universal Studios.  If I do a third Project Horror next year, I may have to do a block of Universal Monsters and invite him to join me for that!
Let's look through the DannyArchives...  Yes, here it is - a picture of Scott's family and my family at Disneyland in February 2010.  That's me on the left, and the guy on the right who looks like Ron Swanson without a mustache is Scott.  (Also pictured: beautiful wives and darling children.  And Walt and Mickey.)
Well, Scott, what did you think?
You could say I have a love/hate relationship with David Cronenberg movies.  There are a few I love (The Fly, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises), a few I hate (Crash, Naked Lunch, eXistenZ) and a few that I've always been on the fence about, including Scanners, Dead Ringers and...VideoDrome.
Just before you got here, I was about to list my experience with Cronenberg.  I've seen Scanners, The Fly, and A History of Violence, but not any of his others.  (I'm planning to watch Dead Ringers during my Evil Twins & Children block, though.)  Although he's a director with a fair degree of mainstream success, I think it would still be fair to classify his movies as cult favorites, which makes him well-suited to my five days of cult and independent films.

As a sidenote, the way that I saw Scanners was pretty much the perfect way to experience Scanners.  Back in the day, when I was a bachelor in a crummy apartment, and my weekends and money were my own, I used to hit a local used record store pretty often.  They also sold used movies and video games, so it was like one-stop shopping for my geeky needs.  I found an old, beat up copy of Scanners on VHS, in a pile of tapes that were marked down to a dollar each.  Something about that movie, and its subversiveness, and its whole texture, just felt especially right when you found it in a place like that, at a price like that, in that format, and took it home to watch in a crummy apartment.

But you're right that it's only a so-so movie.  Now that I've seen VideoDrome, I'd say the same thing about it.

VideoDrome tells the tale of Max Renn, a small time cable producer (played by James Woods) looking for the next big ratings grabber.  He stumbles across a pirate satellite signal which seemingly depicts real life torture and murder.  Thinking this will be his ticket to the big time, he investigates the origins of the signal only to get consumed by it's sadomasichistic hallucinations and...some real weird shit happens.
There are several James Woods movies that I have really liked, but he's one of those actors who never makes me forget who I'm watching, and just watch the character instead.  I'm always aware that it's James Woods I'm staring at onscreen.

Your plot description is pretty much right on.  I would add that the weird shit includes a far-reaching conspiracy, and the opportunity to see Debbie Harry getting kinky.  After seeing Pontypool a few nights ago, with its linguistically-transmitted illness, it was interesting to see VideoDrome's televisually-transmitted illness.

Honestly, I've never really considered VideoDrome to be a "horror" movie.  It's more of a sci-fi thriller, like A Clockwork Orange (with a dash of Network and Taxi Driver for good measure). 
When I'm putting together my movie lists for these projects, I sometimes rely too much on how Netflix classifies things.  That's what screwed me during Project Valentine when I watched Something to Talk About, and during last year's Project Horror with Mondo Cane.  Still, I feel OK about classifying this one as horror.  Maybe not spooks and monsters and killers horror, but, like a lot of Cronenberg's work, it fits into the category of body horror.  It didn't leave me cringing or frightened like some of the things I've watched this month, but it definitely left me feeling unsettled.

That said, it's been at least 20 years since I last saw it and I remembered thinking back then that maybe I would appreciate more when I got older.  Now I'm older and do I appreciate it more?  Well, yes and no.  Nobody plays fast-talking, sleazy and charismatic as well as Woods (that description makes me want to see Casino again) and he was born to play this role (he would perfect this balance 2 years later in his Oscar nominated performance in Salvador).  Additionally, I've always enjoyed the incredible make-up and special effects by Rick Baker, who even in this early stage of his career had already won the first ever Best Make-Up Oscar for An American Werewolf In London.  Video cassettes and TVs come to pulsating, breathing life.  James Woods grows a grotesque, strangely sexual orifice in his chest, as well as a pseudo biomechanical firearm out of his, well, arm.  

I praised Tom Savini's work in Maniac a few days ago, and Rick Baker is right up there beside him in the pantheon.  How many make-up artists get individual billing in the opening credits, right after the director?  CGI has done amazing things, and some of my favorite movies of the last few years couldn't have happened without it, but there's really something to be said for the greats like Savini and Baker, who produced real, tactile effects that can both fascinate and disturb.
But did I mention how weird this movie is?  That's where it sort of loses me.  It becomes so hard to separate reality from fantasy that it actually hinders my enjoyment of the film.  I will say that the "twist" behind the true motivations of the VideoDrome channel is a good one.
I feel like I'm just dittoing a lot of what you say, but I agree with this, too.  And I like weird movies.  But this... I dunno.  The best I can say is that now that I've seen it, I definitely get the dream sequence in A History of Violence much better.

VideoDrome was clearly ahead of its time when it was released in 1983.  Even back then, television was taking over our lives and the boundaries of "good taste" were being questioned.  Fast forward to 2011 and we are kinda living in a VideoDrome world.  Though you can't exactly tune into the "torture porn" channel (you have to go to the movies for that kind of stuff), reality TV is everywhere.  There are just more channels and more ways to digest content (not just via cable tv).  There has been serious talk of remaking VideoDrome but I don't think it would be as effective nowadays, if for no other reason that a living breathing DVD or flat screen plasma TV just doesn't sound as intimidating as a videotape or one of those huge flat top cabinet encased TV sets.  Long live the new flesh!

Wikipedia ("We're often correct!") tells me that it's your boys at Universal who bought the remake rights!

I give VideoDrome 3 fleshy TVs out of 5.
That's about right.

 TOMORROW: Re-Animator, with Scott again!


Steve Myles said...

"Videodrome" is probably my favorite Cronenberg film (of the ones I've seen). That being said, your friend Scott's plot synopsis is pretty apt.

Have you seen "The Brood" or "Rage?" Those are both pretty good. His upcoming film ("A Dangerous Method" about Freud and Jung) looks interesting as well.

Danny Holwerda said...

I haven't seen either of those. I'll give Cronenberg this - like his work or not, I'm never bored by it. "ADM" does look interesting. Wonder if it'll play in Lubbock.

Kyle Lawrence said...

It's always interesting to look at IMDB and check the director's filmography. I usually get a "I didn't know he did that movie" moment. For David Cronenberg it was M. Butterfly. Definitely a bit outside his typical fare, but still very good. In fact, overall I think I'm little more on board with Mr. Cronenberg than you and Scott, but it may be because I have't seen some of the ones you didn't like. Obviously, the Fly is awesome, I actually enjoyed Scanners quite a bit but that's because I think Michael Ironside is money in everything. EVERYTHING! The Dead Zone is a solid Stephen King adaptation. I just wish Martin Sheen could have another opportunity to play the role of President. Oh well, I guess nobody really buys him as the Commander in Chief. I saw Dead Ringers years ago because someone suggested it to the girl I was dating at the time saying "I think it's right up your alley." After watching the movie we were both wondering how anyone could possibly take that as anything other than an insult.

But Videodrome was one of these movies I'd heard about over and over again and never saw. So I was excited to have an excuse to stay up late and watch it. Like Danny, as soon as I saw Rick Baker's name in the credits I was immediately more interested. And he delivered the goods. Unfortunately, the story was just confounding. It seemed clear that the film was supposed to take place in the "not too distant future", but it's just so silly to see a future where satellite dishes are HUGE, everybody smokes inside, and they still use cassettes (not to mention cathode ray tubes!).

When I was in high school, I used to joke around with my friends that any movie that can work the title of the film into the dialogue was automatically better for it, and any movie that couldn't was automatically downgraded. For instance...

Sarah Fielding: You're not funny.
Max Walker: I'm never funny.

Now that's fine, but what about this?

Sarah Fielding: You're not funny.
Max Walker: I'm never funny. I'm Timecop.

That exchange would have made Timecop way better.

Anyway, Videodrome takes my theory to a whole new level. For some reason I actually got distracted by how incessantly the word "Videodrome" was used. It may have had something to do with the fact that the word seemed to have a bit of a fluid definition. As I understood it, Videodrome was a television show, a satellite signal, and also an mental ailment that either caused tumors which lead to hallucinations or hallucinations which lead to tumors. Que???

I think you guys are right on the money with three fleshy TVs.

Eric_wojcik said...

Videodrome is another Cronenberg where I'm not really always sure where the dude is heading with things or what he's meaning to say. But I guess that's true about all his movies. Brian O'Blivion is an awesome character. Not a year goes by where I fail to reference him.

And I love Crash, if as much for the idea, and the Ballard book, than for the movie.

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