Videodrome: sex, lies and videotape

Originally published for Liverpool Small Cinema

Cheap Thrills organiser Christopher Brown takes a look at David Cronenberg’s notorious ’80s sci-fi horror.

In 1983 the UK was in the midst of the Video Nasties scare. The concept that horror and exploitation films could corrupt the minds, linked to the unregulated appearance on VHS, gave notoriety to a rag-tag group of B-movies. When David Cronenberg’s Videodrome appeared in the same year the idea that videotape could make people go mad and commit violent acts wasn’t as satirical on these shores as the director had initially intended.

The Canadian sci-fi body horror tells the story of  a CEO of a small television station, played by James Woods,  who discovers a broadcast signal featuring extreme violence and torture. It becomes increasingly clear that there is a conspiracy unfolding as he uncovers the signal’s source and loses touch with reality in a series of bizarre and violent hallucinations.

At its heart Videodrome is about the concept that watching violence can somehow corrupt the mind, although even Cronenberg couldn’t bring himself to suggest it is the films themselves, preferring to point to science fiction radio-wave excuse.

The film itself came from the fear that this was possible. Cronenberg recalled how, when he was a child, he used to pick up television signals from Buffalo, New York, late at night after Canadian stations had gone off the air, and how he used to worry he might see something disturbing not meant for public consumption. This formed the basis for the plot of Videodrome. Alternate titles for Videodrome were “Network of Blood” and “Zonekiller”. Both these titles gave a hint at Cronenberg’s exploitation roots, with Shivers, Rabid and The Brood.

One of the elements that ties the film together is the tangle of sex and violence. BDSM was hardly a new concept in horror, Indeed it was tied to many of the exploitation films that fell in the trap of the video nasties. Also it’s a theme that pops up repeatedly in mainstream films, most notably in the 80s in Hellraiser. Here it is front and centre, although not as explicit as you would expect but the sight of Debbie Harry wanting to burn her breast with a cigarette is still striking.

It’s this, along with some gore, which gave it trouble with the censors. Many shots of the film were cut from the film’s theatrical release. For example, the shot of a sex toy.. “Censorship is always very personal,” replied Cronenberg, “and has very much to do with the sensibility of the one who is being censorious.

“It’s interesting to see what people read into images when they are being censorious,” added Cronenberg, “I was accused of having a scene where a man was being castrated. What was being done to him was bad enough, electrodes applied to the testicles. But it wasn’t a scene of castration, despite what the MPAA thought it was. They made me cut it, or most of it.”

Certainly then the concept that art could have an effect on people, even if that effect is simply shock, is true. But, like a lot of notorious horror, the reality is that this trippy little thrill ride, bizarre and fascinating, is not the corrupter of minds you have been led to believe.

It’s certainly worth the ride though.

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