Director David Cronenberg’s first serious feature film has James Woods playing Max Renn, a sleazy small time TV channel owner, and Deborah Harry as the SM addicted woman he is attracted to. Renn is constantly looking for questionable content beyond the usual soft-core porn that will take his channel to a new viewership. He is shown a clip ostensibly coming from Malaysia, and captured by Harlan, the operator of a clandestine satellite dish. The clip is called Videodrome, lacks a narrative and seems to mostly be sadomasochistic pornography. Along the search for this content he encounters Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry) and also Harry O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a man known only through his video statements. Nikki sees the Videodrome clip, goes off to audition for the show, and disappears while Renn tries to track down the makers of Videodrome after learning that they are a dangerous outfit run by Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson) who make “snuff” films.
Set in 1983, at the time of ascendancy of TV as a medium, the film depicts a post-apocalyptic future where people are addicted to the cathode tube and its rays, where street hawkers wheel about sets and offer viewing time for money, and where TV programming holds the ultimate power, the ability to not just shape minds, but to physically alter the brain and create a miasma that will kill the viewer. This mind control is the extreme form of what even today is seen as the insidious power to TV programming. Barry Convex and his organization use Videodrome to create tumors in the brains of the viewers of such “dirty and noxious” content. Videodrome is their way of trying to rid North America of people who, in their opinion, are too depraved to live! Cronenberg leaves us in no doubt about who he thinks has the moral high ground – the people who kill to make snuff films that can cause brain tumors in viewers, or the people who watch such content. The end of Barry Convex as a festering mass is in stark contrast to the “heroic” end of Renn as he chants “Long Live the New Flesh”!
While it lacks the slickness and sophistication of the later Cronenberg films, this one makes a big impact as it ratchets up to a finish.