|left - Starburst no.40 and, on the right, Starburst no. 33. Pretty cool for 1981, eh?|
|UK poster, massively playing up the part Debbie Harry plays in the film|
Fresh from the (rather unexpected) box office success of “Scanners” in 1981, David Cronenberg’s growing reputation gave him access to studios, actors and resources he hadn’t experienced before - “Videodrome” had a $6m budget, double that of his previous film. As it turned out, Universal Pictures were perhaps expecting something more along the lines of the relatively straightforward sci-fi thrills of “Scanners” rather than the surreal, disturbing and harsh sensibilities of “Videodrome”.
Warning - there are spoilers ahead
|James Woods as Max Renn|
|Woods with Debbie Harry, as Nikki Brand|
Nikki: I was made for that show.
Renn: Nobody on earth was made for that show.
When Nikki doesn’t come back, Masha informs him Videodrome is the public face of a political ideology movement, with links to Professor Brian O’Blivion. Renn visits his office at The Cathode Ray Mission - where homeless people are given food and shelter and encouraged to watch television - which is run by O'Blivion's daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits), who is dedicated to helping bring about her father’s vision where television replaces every aspect of everyday life.
Professor Brian O’Blivion: There is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there?
Bianca O’Blivion: You are the video word made flesh. Death to Videodrome. Long live the new flesh.
At a Spectacular Optical trade show, Renn shoots Convex with his handgun then takes refuge on a derelict boat in an abandoned harbour. Nikki appears to him on a TV set, saying that he has weakened Videodrome, but in order to completely defeat it, he must “leave the old flesh.” The TV shows an image of Renn shooting himself in the head, causing the TV to explode in a spray of bloody human intestines. Renn puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger after saying his final words: “Long live the New Flesh”.
“Videodrome” began life as a rough draft screenplay called “Network Of Blood”, partly inspired by childhood memories of picking up unexpected broadcasts on television and also the content of CityTV, a Toronto cable television station which, in the 1970s, was notorious for showing soft-core pornography. Cronenberg’s first draft, which producer Claude Heroux told him “would get the film a triple X for sure”, was strong enough to draw in the major talents of James Woods, Debbie Harry and Rick Baker, though production began work on the second draft. As it was, Cronenberg was writing and re-writing up to the last day of principal photography.
Woods was chosen, according to Cronenberg, because he “really embodied that kind of intensity and articulate[ness]…that I had written”, adding he also had “a lovely comic flair”. Woods, by all accounts, loved the script, saying “I thought it was pretty terrific”.
Of Debbie Harry, Cronenberg said “Blondie was huge at the time, not just as a band, but as a kind of essential part of the cultural zeitgeist of New York City. And she knew William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg and was connected with…a kind of above-ground/underground movement. She was very responsive and very willing to learn and to understand that the kind of self-parody and satirical stuff that she did onstage simply did not work when she was trying to play a real character, a human being on screen.”
|David Cronenberg and James Woods|
The Videodrome parts, shot on Carol Spier’s stark set, were - according to Director Of Photography Mark Irwin - “more funny than sick. If you listen [to the original tapes], you can hear David shouting, ‘Okay, now put her up against the wall! Okay, now shake around—you’re being electrocuted! Okay, now hang him up on that hook there! Let’s see some more energy in that whipping!’” Cronenberg agreed, saying; “Most of the people we worked with enjoyed the experience, because it was cathartic. Of course, they weren't really being hurt and…we found - in one case - there was a woman who kept coming back. She would dress up and put on a lot of makeup and dress herself really well and just kind of hang around. She couldn't let go…and it was quite strange, but very much in keeping with the strangeness of the film as a whole.”
The production was based in a large building in Toronto. A former nursery and piano school, the exterior served as the Cathode Ray Mission whilst the interior was used to build sets, with the downstairs serving as both the Videodrome arena and the interior of the derelict ship. In the former auditorium, the Cathode Ray Mission cubicles were built and it was also the stage for the Spectacular Optical show where Barry Convex expires in a rash of tumours. On the second floor, during November and December of 1981, was the workshop for Rick Baker’s EFX team (and seen in the film as the O’Blivion archive) but since the building wasn’t soundproofed, the crew couldn’t work when a scene was being shot (and no toilets could be flushed either).
In my opinion (and this is said as a huge fan of Rick Baker), the special effects work of EFX are astonishing and stand up well today, even if a couple of the shots do betray their latex foundation.
For me, the two key special effects images are the handgun and the vaginal split. For the latter, two different prosthetic chest and belly pieces were built and for the shot of Woods standing up (for me, one of the few occasions where the effect is held too long to work), the actor was on set for twenty hours as they set it up. When Max is on the couch, watching TV, James Woods was sitting inside the sofa and it was built up around him - he apparently swore after this he’d never work with anything glued to him again.
|Special Effects genius Rick Baker sets up a shot with the Teleranger TV set|
“Videodrome” does not have a happy ending, but it has the perfect one for the film and I love that it ends with the bang. Although it’s now dated by the technology it shows, it’s actually ahead of its time in the portrayal of media ideas and concepts and stands strong because of that.
“Videodrome” was released on February 4th, 1983 in the US (November 25th in the UK), debuting at number 8 on the box office charts and to generally positive reviews. Although a commercial failure - it’s made $2.2m to date on a $5.9m budget - it is a cult favourite, described by Andy Warhol as “A Clockwork Orange of the 80s” and listed 89th “Most Essential Film In History” by the Toronto International Film Festival. In addition, it’s soundtrack - composed by Howard Shore - was ranked 10th in the Top Sample Sources list of 2004.
Despite its poor commercial perfomance, the film tied with “Bloodbath at the House of Death” for Best Science Fiction film at the 1984 Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film, where Mark Irwin received a CSC Award for Best Cinematography in a Theatrical Feature. The film was also nominated for eight Genie Awards with David Cronenberg and Bob Clark (for his “A Christmas Story”) tying for Best Achievement in Direction.
I loved the film in 1985 and I love it as much today, a gruesome, surreal and intelligent shocker that is almost a black comedy in the way it plays out perfectly. Any time is a good time to watch “Videodrome” but, on the occasion of its 31st birthday, why not give it another view?
Long live the New Flesh!